“When you are young, you think that if you read enough Penguin Classics, you can learn everything. You cannot. You will also forget much of what you have learned and never get to some of the books you always wanted to get to. And you will discover, as Samuel Johnson observed, that not all wisdom is to be found in books. But an awful lot is.”
Joe Queenan is engaged in a life-long love affair with books that began as a means of escape from his unhappy childhood in the Philadelphia projects, which he chronicled in Closing Time (2009). In One for the Books, Queenan examines how that early means of escapism has reverberated through his life, sharing his peculiar reading habits and trends, such as the year he spent reading only short books, or the time that he followed the blurb trail from one dusk jacket to another, reading authors who recommended one another’s work. He regularly and deliberately checks out library books he has no intention of rereading in order to save them from being weeded from the collection, but also asserts that “libraries exist in large part to divert and service cheapskates.”
Every bibliophile is different, but Queenan hands down his opinions about all matters bookish with a decisiveness that does not admit of argument or difference. In fact, he openly mistrusts the opinions of others; when someone raves about a book and offers to lend it to him, he is suspicious, arguing that “lending books to other people is merely a shrewd form of house cleaning.” Although he loves books, he hates to discuss them, both because he is mistrustful of the tastes of others, and because “book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation.” He especially avoids discussing books with friends, for fear that their terrible taste will ruin his opinion of them. His love affair with books is intense, but he builds no community around it.
One for the Books is also very much a cri de coeur for the codex, disparaging audio books for the unwelcome interpolation of the narrator, and e-books for being corporate and convenient but ultimately soulless, lacking the magic and authenticity of a physical book. E-books, according to Queenan, “are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books.” The constant refrain of protest against the hegemony of the Kindle appears again and again: “I do not think you can have this sort of experience with a Kindle,” he writes, and then later, “This story does not work on a Kindle.” So far as Queenan is concerned, books “are perfect the way they are and need no improvement.”
However curmudgeonly Queenan may seem to a younger or more flexible reader, it is fascinating, if sometimes infuriating, to get a glimpse into the ruminations of a long-term bibliophile. The second half of the book is a bit mellower than the first, as Queenan delves into his idiosyncratic reading habits. However, it is not, as the synopsis claims, really a reflection on reading in our culture at large, so much as the role of reading in Queenan’s own life, and his lament that the reading lives of others do not come up to his ideal. Although not enchanted with librarians or libraries in general, Queenan seems somewhat fond of Edith, the librarian at a branch of his hometown Philadelphia library: “Edith herself isn’t too taken with my work. Too cynical, she says. Too snarky.” For the most part, I’m inclined to agree with Edith.