A cantankerous, half tongue-in-cheek provocation of bibliophilic obsession, Joe Queenan’s eight essays, gathered from previously published newspaper and magazine columns, ruminate on the author’s book reading habits (he’s polished off over six thousand fiction tomes, and, averaging out his actuarial lifespan probability, expects to read 2,132 more), library experiences and thoughts (“[p]utting James Patterson next to Proust is like displaying Babe Ruth’s uniform alongside Three Finger Brown’s” – [must be a small library]), bookstores (“[s]pindly boys with thick Clark Kent glasses wearing ill-advised polo shirts and unpersuasive facial hair routinely come up to me and say, ‘Can I help you with anything?’ as if I were a disoriented extraterrestrial or the last man to straggle home from Gettysburg”), personal reading resolutions (always different – one year it’s a deliriously happy and exclusive concentration on novellas, reading almost one a day; the next it’s books picked out blindly from the library shelves, not such a great idea), and book-related experiences on his travels (a “gaunt, humorless widow”, as landlord in Paris when Queenan was twenty-one, let him off the hook for unbecoming living habits after she discovered he was a rabid fan of Henry de Motherlant), among other thoughtful anecdotes, uproarious buffoonery, and shiv-like satire.
I’ll let Queenan do the rest of the talking:
“In the case of The House of the Seven Gables, I know perfectly well why I have never read it – I hate people from Massachusetts, and I know the book is going to give me a headache”.
“I read [Bear, by Marian Engel] as soon as I got back to the States and loved [it], though I was somewhat surprised that this straightlaced Canadian would recommend a book about a lonely female historian who treats herself to a short, ergonomically implausible love affair with a bear. The bear was a bit surprised, too.”
“For decades well-meaning pedagogues have been sabotaging summer vacations ... One reason the average American reads no more than four books a year may be the emotional trauma suffered while trying to hack his way through Wuthering Heights at age fourteen.”
“It’s possible that minor books can lure readers to major ones, functioning as a cultural Venus flytrap, but crummy books only lead to more crummy books.”
“Reading books may make you smarter than other people. It does not make you better. I know things about the Vietnam War because I read them in books. My friend Richie, a nonreader, knows things about the Vietnam War because he went to Vietnam.”
“A few years ago, several people in my town asked if I would like to join a book discussion club ... I left town for about six weeks, disconnected the phone, stopped answering e-mails, and told people that I had a weird retinal pigmentation disease that made it impossible for me to read books. Especially books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.”
“I have come to believe that people who get dressed up in period costume, with three-cornered hats and high-buckle shoes, and who speak in archaic English, suffer from Reenactor’s Autism, a malady that renders victims incapable of detecting otherwise unmistakable visual cues indicating that most of the people in the room would like to see them disemboweled.”
“[My father’s] books allowed him to cling to dreams that would never materialize. Books had not enabled him to succeed. But they had mitigated the pain of failure.”