IN 2009, JOE QUEENAN PUBLISHED his tenth book, Closing Time: A Memoir. His previous volumes, sometimes stitched together from the magazine and newspaper articles he has prolifically produced for 30 years, dealt with a variety of subjects: the vagaries of the movie business, England, sports fandom, lowbrow popular culture in America, and Dan Quayle.
Queenan had always approached these subjects in the style he perfected writing for magazines like Spy and Movieline: sardonic, smartalecky, and, to use a word now thoroughly forgotten except in the dustiest filing cabinets of Tina Brown's mind, snarky. It was a style thoroughly in the tradition of Twain, Mencken, the 1920s / 1930s New Yorker of Wolcott Gibbs and James Thurber, and the 1970s National Lampoon. (Queenan is old enough to have written for the latter magazine, but he spent that decade working instead on various low-budget, nondescript publications owned by the late Ralph Ginzburg, who had been responsible for Eros and Fact magazines in the more colorful part of his career.) Closing Time, however, was different.
Fifteen years before, Queenan reviewed the bestselling Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, though not very favorably. But his dislike of that saga of growing up poor and Irish didn't deter him from writing such a story himself — in his case, growing up Hibernian-American in the working-class precincts of West Philadelphia, son of a junior high dropout who preferred holding a book or a bottle to holding a job.
Closing Time reached the mid-twenties in The New York Times bestseller list, a considerable achievement for a writer whose previous titles had not sold that well in hardcover (with the exception of 1998's Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, the book about lowbrow culture). Undoubtedly, Queenan's publisher, Viking, hoped that he would follow up Closing Time with a book sure to reach the #1 spot, perhaps along the lines of other blockbusters. Undoubtedly someone in Viking’s sales department was wondering: He grew up with priests, that’s clear from the last book … didn't he have his own Father Joe?
Instead, Queenan has followed up his memoir with … a book about books. This is a category sure to strike terror in a publisher’s heart nowadays. In recent years, books about the business of reading, or collecting books when not reading, have rarely justified a second printing, unless the author was Nancy Pearl, the librarian with her own action figure, or Nicholas Basbanes. Decades ago, when editors and even publishers were keen on their business and often built up big libraries at home, there was always a place on their lists for a few titles focusing on the joys of reading and collecting, chockablock with references to all sorts of out-of-the-way authors. But that was in the days before most New York trade publishers became divisions of conglomerates.
Nonetheless, Queenan, in his new volume One For The Books, has forged ahead with an account of how he came to be a reader, one so dedicated that he seems to have chosen a career as a freelance writer primarily to gain time to read.
Here, it is worth mentioning that writers, even though their business is to assemble, shall we say, “reading material,” often have divergent attitudes about actually sitting down with a book. In his autobiography Call It Experienc...read more