Books: A Love Story

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 Experience, Erskine Caldwell remarked that after he buckled down to the serious business of being a novelist, he read only about six or eight books a year. (During part of his twenties, as a reviewer for an Atlanta daily newspaper, he had customarily read five or six books a week.). As most of his biographers have noted, Hemingway read around the clock, when not writing or hunting, fishing or drinking.

But then again, Hemingway had 6,000 or so books in his library to keep him going. Queenan mentions in One For The Books that as he nears his 62nd birthday, he now has a collection of 1,374 volumes. That is a far larger library than most Americans have, but by the standards of hardcore bibliophiles it is not especially prodigious. I have at least four times more books than Queenan, and a neighbor (true, a former books editor of one of our more eminent newspapers) has five or six times more.

But Queenan has a reason for not going over the 1,500 mark. He emphatically states he almost never buys secondhand books — partly because he grew up poor with secondhand possessions of every kind and doesn’t care for the sight of them, and partly because, as he notes, the writer earns no money if a book is resold. In the early 1970s, when living in Paris after college, he went to Shakespeare & Company, that quasi-venerable shop on the Left Bank, and there spoke to the late George Whitman, its proprietor. Whitman brushed him off. Queenan seems to have hardly entered a secondhand store since.

But he patronizes his local public library (in Tarrytown, New York) a lot. It turns out that this library — a least during the 1980s and 1990s — had a remarkable selection of what publishers call “literary fiction,” and fiction not originally published in English at that.

Queenan’s familiarity with European and Latin American fiction, and his willingness to devote considerable space to discussing it, is a fairly remarkable aspect of One For The Books — one which probably sent Viking’s sales department into paroxysms of despair. He studied French literature to some degree in college and was steeped in it when living in Paris. Since the French always have been quite cosmopolitan and wide-ranging in their literary tastes, it is unsurprising that on the Left Bank, Queenan acquired a taste for Spanish, Latin American, Scandinavian, and German literature, albeit in translation. Time and again, he mentions foreign authors and novels that could be, and were, published by major New York houses 20 or 30 years ago, but who would now scarcely ring a bell even at university presses — names like Moacyr Scliar, Mario Bellatin, Carlos Maria Dominguez.

Queenan also refers to a fair number of French writers only partly translated into English — Henry de Montherlant, Jean Giradoux, Jean Anouilh among them. Indeed, he devotes several pages to an account of watching French television cover de Montherlant’s death at length, in the company of his landlady, who, he informs us, had little regard for foreigners, but was highly impressed by his having read the work of her countryman. It’s a well written passage, though not exactly what you’d expect to find in the stacks in the middle of Costco; one has the feeling Queenan is delighted that he’s come far enough saleswise to risk putting that passage between covers.

But most of One For The Books focuses on British (or British Commonwealth) and American writers of greater or lesser note, and it is here that Queenan makes a lot of remarkable observations and airs some notable quirks.

He says — and this is hardly surprising coming from a Philadelphian — that he will not read anything by a writer who is, in his reasoning, unjustifiably a devotee of the New York Yankees — that is to say, someone who does not hail from the Bronx or Yonkers. This provides him with an excuse for not reading Salman Rushdie, somewhat along the lines of the old Index librorum prohibitorum giving Evelyn Waugh a convenient reason not to read Sartre. (Queenan expresses an admiration for some of Hemingway’s work, so it’s just as well that he seems unaware that the native of suburban Chicago was a huge Yankees fan.)

Queenan also has an interesting aversion about finishing — or starting — some books. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is referred to throughout One For The Books as something that Queenan feels obligated to read, but seems reluctant to even begin, apparently because he thinks that to do so would be a sign that his reading life, and by extension his life, period, is about to end. (He suggests that he feels the same way about Finnegans Wake and Ulysses. He is not of that mind about Elias Canetti’s Auto Da Fe, which he tossed aside after a few pages, nor does he have the same attitude about most of Henry James and Trollope, apparently because his wife avidly reads them. (He further informs us that she is “the only person I’ve ever met who has read not one but two William Gaddis novels,” and it’s worth adding that she’s from England, a land hardly known for its devotion to The Recognitions and J R.)

He recounts a conversation with a friend of one of his children who is reading Middlemarch for school and who complains that she has to write summaries of each chapter to prove she’s read it, a task made especially onerous because the book has 86 chapters. “I know. You don’t need to tell me,” answers our author. One pictures Queenan thumbing through the dreaded volume, gazing upon the first words of each chapter, and then wincing at the thought of that day when, to atone for all the trashy thrillers and celebrity biographies he chuckled through in middle age, he must make his way through Eliot’s stern Victorian prose. It would give him the perfect excuse not to read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books (the subject of one of his more entertaining asides), but he still isn’t looking forward to the prospect.

And then there are the books Queenan has already started and almost read. He informs the reader that he has made his way through all but the last 100 pages of Robert Musil’s unfinished multivolume novel The Man Without Qualities. Now, it’s understandable why he stalls on completing Gibbon’s Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, for when the last pages are reached and the Ottomans stand triumphant in Constantinople, that really is it. But Musil’s work just tapers off at a point far short of what its author hoped to reach. However, Queenan doesn’t offer an explanation of why he doesn’t get two hours’ worth of reading out of the way and be done with it — any more than he lets us know why he would read Joseph Heller’s Good As Gold and Something Happened, but just skip Catch-22. Or, for that matter, why he read Dubliners but has left Ulysses untouched. In that case, it may be just an Irish thing.

Queenan finishes One For The Books with a somewhat clichéd rhapsody about how reading puts one in a different world for a few hours or days — a passage apparently meant to provide just the right note to persuade his publisher that the idiosyncratic 250 pages preceding it can be forgiven. (This is the kind of book where, when Jane Austen is mentioned, the occasion is not to discuss Pride And Prejudice or Emma or even Sanditon, but instead to refer to a work about the royal Saxe-Coburg family that she mentioned planning to write in her letters, but never did.)

Where books-about-books are concerned, One For The Books is much closer, in terms of interest to the non-bibliophile reader, to Charles P. Everitt’s fascinating Adventures Of A Treasure Hunter than to Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador’s soporific Book Row. It’s often quite entertaining, although like many of Queenan’s books, a bit rambling here and there. Bibliophile or not, readers will find it a worthwhile adventure into the world of reading, writing, and everything in between … even for those disgruntled Yankees fans out there.