Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Joe Queenan's "One for the Books": Book Review

Following his acclaimed memoir about finding solace in reading while growing up in a 1960s Philadelphia housing project, Joe Queenan returns with a (very loosely) collected jumble of related recollections, paeans to an impressively eclectic array of authors, satires of book clubs and Amazon raters, and a recurring worry disguised as a vow that Middlemarch will prove to be the last book he ever finishes.

Mr. Queenan's records of obsessive reading confront us as Amalie Nathomb and Moacyr Scliar jostle Poe, O.J., and Stieg Larsson for name recognition. Devotees of Rimbaud, prepare for Tom Tryon. The range challenges any reader of equally catholic addiction. His humorous take on bibliomaniacs plays erudition off of enthusiasm appealingly, coming from a fellow who "looks like a cop" instead of the refined critic he proves, underneath his Irish Catholic, blue-collar--if now very suburban and silver-haired in Tarrytown on the Hudson--bluster.

Closing Time in its exploration of reading as youthful release serves as a prequel to One for the Books; both casually clichéd titles hint at deeper resignation and mortality. Both books relate familiar themes--abusive and alcoholic families there, escape through books here--but enliven them with wit, verve, and idiosyncratic prose. Still, this newer account swerves, cobbled from shorter scraps instead of structured from the ground up. As with many books he takes down a peg, his own results from his manic pursuit tend towards satisfying, rather than “astonishing”.  Narrating them, he plays with a garrulous but measured narration (mingled with poignancy) assumed by certain Irish or their American cousins, counting those not only published writers: raconteurs, autodidacts, fanatics, or otherwise employed. 

Engaging as the bemused Mr. Queenan certainly remains, he as with many such tellers features wry episodes that survive on the page better in aphoristic bursts or testy exchanges with half-wits. Mr. Queenan’s barbed, cynical style may prickle by its carefully snide or (self-)mocking tone; those outside his “clan” may shrink from what we raised inside it wink at or sneer towards as “malarkey”—depending on our relation to the self-aware, deceptively casual, tale-teller.

Mr. Queenan uses his passion for reading above all other pleasures (except perhaps his hometown Philly teams) to examine the power books deliver, not in e-book but printed form, with all their memories associated with spines, marginalia, covers, and fonts. "They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system."

The first chapter looks at amassing books, the next at libraries. There the likes of James Patterson have to share shelf space next to Proust; this confusion of proximity vs. merit also plagues misled buyers in bookstores and clueless denizens of book clubs. They cannot agree to choose but  potboilers, self-help twaddle, survivor narratives, earnest life lessons, or sagas with endlessly ethnic and/or annoyingly plucky protagonists. Habitues of such circles fail to savor the serendipity found sidling from one title to another in a space where books are handled, not downloaded in a click. 

Mr. Queenan dismisses the sub-literate abilities of the dilettante or those swayed into fulsome blather by covers, titles, trends, and marketing: "a book is a series of arguments between the author and the reader, none of which the reader can possibly win. This is especially true of James Joyce."  Mr. Queenan aspires for seriousness and silliness, and he shows from his thousands of purchases abundant examples of both natures happily fulfilled. This takes, naturally, a dogged devotion for him, and the third chapter invites us along to watch him reading more than one title at a time. A "Platonic book list" in endless revision occupies the mind of every true book lover calculating another thirty-five years at the task, but by his seventh decade, Joe Queenan must narrow down his stacks.

That action will close this volume, but its impact resonates back into previous sections. Bookstores in chapter four beckon, in Tarrytown, small-town Ontario, at the late Borders, and in Manhattan. He writes where he bought each title, and he cherishes the associations the artifact inscribed evokes. Out of years of accrued reminders of those among whom he enjoyed or endured his books, life deepens.

"Prepare to Be Astonished" promises excitement. Joe Queenan's quips on blurbs and their flaws and possibility--he delves deep into Latin American literature based solely on who praises what on one cover, so on and so on--wander wonderfully, if very erratically. "Life, which in my youth had been unstintingly entertaining, now felt more and more like a Smith & Wesson cocked to my head, so if I had plans to read The Decameron and Finnegans Wake before I checked out for good, I would have to start being a bit more choosy." Yet, his affection for "bad books" (many he admits foisted on him rather than chosen) reveals his less lofty ambitions, to find between the covers a lifelong affection. 

In another, even more rambling, if suitably so, section ostensibly on writers' homes, his French visits join with more mundane jaunts to Hartford and Scranton. He detours into how he stayed way ahead, initially with typically relentless concentration, to dive into Swedish crime mysteries far in advance of the current Scandinavian Whodunit Boom; he relegates The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the pile of "voyeuristic porn". Somehow, this chapter winds up back in Paris, despite itself.

An acknowledgment nods to seven publications where parts of this collection first "appeared in different form": this book resembles a spirited cut-and-paste job. The energy of the assembler makes up in part for the rough edges of the collage. But the overall pattern, for all its varied, off-beat, and enticingly broad perspectives, does not always align as a book would if conceived as a single whole.

Yet the last two chapters combine the personal with the critical well. Mr. Queenan asks his family and friends for their reading habits and preferences, and from that questionnaire, he ponders how his own predilections do or do not reflect those with whom he lives. This topic feels much fresher--this reviewer has never found it in a similarly if never as impressively scattered life hunched over books. Joe Queenan, as a relevant aside (one of dozens, which rescue the ramshackle bits, and may repair them), recommends no more than two-hundred pages for any mystery, tops. Advice well-worth peddling. 

Preparing to move from his house when McMansions invade Tarrytown, he packs up his enormous accumulation of books. Finally, he has to figure out which to keep. Operation Winnow's intricate rationalizations for what one holds on to and what one lets go of will make sense only to those of us as meticulous as Mr. Queenan as to what books represent before, during, and after they are opened.

To nobody's surprise, the endeavor flounders. An impression of towers of books and boxes of more surrounding a beefy, feisty, but outnumbered author, who must drag himself away from reading to write to earn enough to spend on more to read (unless those volumes he gets, bad and good, for free as a reviewer, to be noted by this unremunerated reviewer with mingled envy and sympathy), lingers for the reader--and surely a fellow traveler along spine-filled canyons of high shelves--who closes these reflections.

"Reading is the way mankind delays the inevitable," he concludes. "Reading is the way we shake our fist at the sky." Closing time arrives again, with the author still at closure, sorting through his shelves. Joe Queenan meets his match, and in these pages, we glimpse the thousands of beloved or fondly despised books which, distilled into allusions, memories, and anecdotes, enrich his life and our own.
(New York Journal of Books 10-25-12)

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