Joe Queenan is a columnist/journalist/writer/reviewer. He describes his regular work as "ridiculing nincompoops and scoundrels." To some extent, One for the Books is a collection of funny, book-related stories that do exactly that. He ridicules the inept security guards who detained his bag in a library, the luncheons he has attended to honor writers because "they are still breathing," and the book store employees who treat him like dirt because he isn't searching for their favored titles. More significantly, One for the Books offers an amusing glimpse at the life of a dedicated reader. The last few paragraphs in particular are a wonderful tribute to reading.
Although reading has collateral benefits, Queenan is convinced that most book lovers read books "to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world," a proposition with which I completely agree. Queenan reads every day and would read more if he could. He reads enduring literature and he reads trash (although less of the latter as he ages). He sometimes reads "the types of books that thirtyish women devour at private swim clubs, often to the dismay of their drowning children," but only years after they have lost their trendy bestseller status. He forms relationships with his books and often prefers their company to the bozos he knows.
Queenan is equally fervent about the books he has read and those he refuses to read, ever. He names names. Yet, for all the titles that Queenan drops (typically several on every page), this isn't a work of literary criticism. He may or may not mention what the book is about or his impression of it, but when he does, he rarely employs more than a few words. One for the Books is about Queenan's experiences as a reader and feelings about reading more than it is about the books he has read.
Queenan is something of a book snob and he makes no effort to disguise his snobbery. Rather, he revels in it. He expresses his opinions forcefully, in the manner of a curmudgeon. Books about businessmen and politicians "are interchangeably awful." Detective novels are "piffle." He would rather have his "eyelids gnawed on by famished gerbils than join a book club." He ridicules the questions prepared for book clubs that can be found in the backs of books and on websites, and contributes (mockingly) a few of his own. He does not want friends to loan him books and cannot understand "how one human being could ask another human being to read Look Homeward, Angel and then expect to remain on speaking terms." He doesn't like to discuss books with people who don't love serious literature because they always set the conversational agenda, which tends to focus on current bestsellers, but he enjoys pulling a book from his shelves and reading "striking passages to baffled dimwits who have turned up at my house." Although he frequents a variety of bookstores and finds some of them alluring, he is acerbic in his description of their employees (particularly the "Irony Boys"). He complains about readers "upon whom the gift of literacy may have been wasted." He thinks book critics are "mostly servile muttonheads" while blurb writers are "liars and sycophants." He refuses to read books about the Yankees and their "slimy fans" or books written by Yankees fans (Salman Rushdie included). He will not read books with ugly covers. He does not read digital editions because they make reading "rote and mechanical," stripped of its "transcendent component." He is no friend of the Kindle.
Although we're often on the same page (so to speak), about equally often I disagree with Queenan's opinions. This is, after all, a guy who cavalierly dismisses two of my favorite novels, The Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22. His decisions about books he will not read are often capricious. That's fine. Agreement with Queenan is irrelevant because he writes with such passion and conviction and humor that it is impossible not to be entertained, and occasionally moved, by his words. Besides, as Queenan points out, people who care about books are willing to get into knife fights to defend their beliefs. I appreciate that he cares so much, even if I might sometimes be inclined to tangle with him using sharp blades.
Other than a long list of books ranging from The Iliad to the obscure, is there anything Queenan actually likes? Shockingly enough, he claims to admire Amazon book reviews, at least the snide ones written by courageous reviewers who hide behind the bushes, fire their muskets and run away. He even offers (mockingly) a few Amazon reviews of his own. They are hilarious.
Queenan would hate this review because I have nothing nasty to say about his book. My only complaints about One for the Books are (1) its haphazard organization and corresponding (albeit occasional) tendency toward redundancy, and (2) a chapter that is largely devoted to the visits he has made to towns and homes and graves of dead writers bogs down in stream-of-consciousness triviality. Otherwise, I have to say sorry, Joe, but I really enjoyed your book. Fortunately, someone else will come along and trash it, providing him with the kind of review he admires.
on October 30, 2012
Joe Queenan is a writer by trade but a reader by inclination. He will read anywhere: on buses, trains, at concerts, at work, even, in his own words "while waiting for people to emerge from comas, while waiting for the Iceman to Cometh". Or Godot, whoever cometh first - no matter, if there's a place, there's a book to be read there.
According to him, readers are people whose reality, for whatever reason, is lacking. In his case, he grew up poor in a Philadelphia housing project with a violent and alcoholic father. Not only did books provide an escape but they allowed him to feel superior to his dad. Interestingly, his dad, despite being a ninth grade drop-out, was also a compulsive reader, something Queenan doesn't explore until near the end of the book.
Beside Queenan's life-long love affair with books is a whole host of things he hates. He hates "Cats', the play not the animals (although he might hate the furry little beasts as well) which, of course, leads to a hatred for Andrew Lloyd Webber; he also hates Ayn Rand and the band, Rush, McMansions, alcoholics, and the New York Yankees. Then there are the book-related things. With a few exceptions, he hates small independent bookstores which are run mainly by smug prigs with bad taste and short memories. He also hates book clubs and mediocre books about popular diseases - according to him, these books should be avoided like, well, said popular diseases. Oddly, he has a fondness for really bad books by people like Pamela Anderson and OJ Simpson which, he claims with only a little irony, are great fun to read. He is also a self-professed Luddite who wouldn't allow a Kindle anywhere near his person and he believes there is a special place in Hell for professional book critics.
At times, he comes off as a bit of a book-snob even though he doesn't seem to like them very much either. As I was reading, I kept getting an urge to hide my copy of Lord of the Rings and shout belligerently, "yeah, well I finished Middlemarch...twice...and I liked it...a lot, so there, cochon!" He also reads Beaudelaire en Francais, the big showoff! However, in all fairness, I like to think my taste in literature is eclectic but I suspect a better adjective would be 'poor' or perhaps, 'no' so maybe this isn't a fair criticism and, anyway, I don't want to go to hell.
You might think after reading this that I hated the book but I didn't - I loved every snide, snarky, humorous word of it. I have never laughed so hard reading a book about books or blushed so hard to recognize some of my own book-related foibles. Too often readers are seen as nerds, people who can't handle reality or drugs. In One for the Books, Mr Queenan makes us look cool. Take that, jocks and hipsters!
If you are a passionate book lover you will adore Joe Queenan's 'One for the Books', his quirky journey through his life's passion - reading. Each book lover has his personal quirks and Queenan has quite a few. He won't read books written by Yankee fans, or books that have ugly covers. He wittily expounds upon his favorite bookstores and has a disastrous but hilarious experience at the New York Public Library attempting to retrieve his bag. He undertakes unusual reading projects like spending a year reading nothing but short books and reads many books at one time, a practice I abhor. Personally I feel I must always be loyal to the one I'm with. I won't even hold it against him that that he thinks two of my favorite writers - Zola and Mann - are bores. I loved every minute spent with this book. It makes a great gift for that special booklover in your life.
Though his name was familiar to me, I can't say I really know Mr. Queenan's work. However, I always enjoy books about books so I decided to give this one a try.
Apparently, Mr. Queenan persona (or personality--who can tell? I don't know him, despite living only a dozen or so miles away.) is that of a curmudgeon. His tone of barely controlled exasperation throughout most of this book can get a bit tiresome, but what fun is a book of opinions if the writer isn't opinionated?
Like most books of this type, I agree with some things Mr. Queenan has to say and disagree with others. I'm not a fan of libraries as Mr. Queenan is but I agree with some of what he has to say about electronic books. I love the way he discusses reading for hours every day, never being without reading material, and reading at inappropriate times and places. I have the same problem (as my wife constantly reminds me). On the other hand, unlike Mr. Queenan, I am generally not the type to fill my books with marginalia, not even to write my name inside.
Also, like most books filled with blustery opinions, he contradicts himself occasionally. He doesn't like people to recommend books to him or give him books and yet many of the books he can't seem to part with are gifts from someone. He seems to relish his hardscrabble upbringing while touting his expertise in French language and literature. He doesn't like to visit author's homes but these visits produce some of his best stories.
The fact of the matter is, there's much to like about this book. I enjoyed many of the recurring themes: his ability to set various reading goals for himself (and then abandon them), and the hold that Eliot's Middlemarch has over him. Despite my own penchant for writing reviews on this site, his mockery of the amateur review is fun. Most of all, there is the enjoyment of comparing notes about books: he likes much of Dickens, as do I; he likes mysteries, whereas I generally do not. To top it off, where our tastes coincide, I have come away from this book with suggestions for books I need to read which is always a pleasure for me. We have both read many, many books, but our paths have diverged in many ways and I am always looking for a good suggestion.
In the end, I'm tempted to call this book "astonishing" but I'm not sure that's quite the right word. Still, I don't want to let the author down: read this book and be astonished by the plethora of opinions, whether you agree with them or not.
on October 30, 2012
let me start out by saying that joe queenan is my favorite living writer...the only writer i can compare him to is s.j. perelman, not because he is laugh out loud funny, as he often is, or elegantly and deliciously venomous, as he always is, but because queenan, like perelman, is a master of the english language, and wields it with " astonishing " precision...the right word, in the right place, with just the right rhythm...i own - and have read - all of his books, and i would have bought this one immediately regardless of what it was about, but when i learned that it was about books, and reading, i especially looked forward to it, because i am, like queenan, a book lover...when it arrived a couple of days ago, i somehow managed to put it aside, saving it for my first day off from work, looking forward to spending the entire day with it...
as it turned out, that first free day off was yesterday, monday, the day when hurricane sandy stopped by to say hello..i had barely started reading the book when the lights went out, which was annoying, but hardly enough to stop me...i just grabbed a flashlight, and picked up where i left off...and soon, the storm was picking up as well...the trees just outside my apartment windows were fighting to stay upright...and as a matter of fact, 50 yards or so from where i sit, two trees were ripped out by the roots...
now, whenever i read a book this good, i read it very quickly, knowing that i am going to read it again, to savor it at my leisure...but in this instance, i read with a special urgency, wondering if at any moment a tree would come crashing through my window before i could finish...so what i have to share at the moment are fleeting impressions that i haven't had much time to think about - which might be a good thing...
george orwell, writing about henry miller, (whose work queenan mentions having outgrown) wrote "...read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being UNDERSTOOD. "...any book lover, and certainly someone who cares enough to write unpaid reviews about them, will recognize themselves in these pages...the constant need to have books handy, the pleasure in organizing them, in making lists of them, the deliberate setting aside of some for later and the rationales for doing so, the pleasure that a well produced book gives, libraries, bookstores - i can't think of any aspect of the book experience that queenan doesn't mention...book lovers, queenan understands...
you are going to want to have a pen and paper at your side when you read this book, so you can jot down some of the titles queenan mentions...he doesn't go into great detail about them, but a few words of praise, or the mere mention of a title without ridicule, coming from a man who has described himself as a " hatchet man critic " count for more than a 10 page spread in the new york times book review...but don't worry, queenan fans - he also comes to bury, and not to praise...
i have just opened the book at random: "...the uninterrupted stream of inert balderdash that flows from jimmy carter's pen provides even fewer laughs than his presidency did "...i would give my left nut to be able to write like that!...or, preferably, yours...i suspect that many have called carter's writing " balderdash "..." inert " is the quintessentially queenan touch...and i could cast a line into this book at any place and pull out something like that...
as i mentioned, i read this book by flashlight, while a storm raged outside...a couple of times i dozed off, which is no reflection on the book, but the result of laying in bed trying to read while holding a book in one hand, and a flashlight in the other, with an occasional worried glance out the window...at one point, i opened my eyes and found that i had fallen asleep with the flashlight in the open book, and that the plastic casing around the bulb had left an indentation on the page, a line with a slight curve...i tried to smooth it over but soon gave up...as luck would have it, the next section of the book i read dealt with queenan's examination of books as magical objects in and of themselves, something more than just the words they contain, talismans which have the power to transport us back to where we were when we found them, the circumstances under which we read them, the people who introduced us to them...it sort of breaks my heart that whoever reads this book after me - when i'm long gone, since i'll never part with it - will not know the meaning of that indentation, the night i found shelter from a hurricane in a book...
on January 3, 2013
Well written, fun to read, and funny. Queenan's all-too-brief "One for the Books" is the best survey course in literature I never took. Gave me lots of ideas for future books to read, besides more of Queenan's. If you love books, bookstores, libraries, or literature, or just love to laugh out loud, you'll love this book.
on November 5, 2012
I love irony, particularly when I'm in the middle of it. I found myself in such a situation while reading Joe Queenan's latest book. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, the man is an essayist, an acerbic humorist who can slice and dice and quarter any particular target in his sights with the use of a combination of carefully chosen words. In ONE FOR THE BOOKS, Queenan examines not just his love of reading but, more significantly, his love of books. The irony is that I read the book (in one enjoyable sitting, by the way) on an eReader, while he reminded me in print that there are things that can happen with a book that cannot happen with an eReader.
Queenan is right. I can remember where I bought my copy of AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS, edited by Harlan Ellison (Upstairs Books, in 1972 on Spicer Street in Akron, Ohio, from Mark Clayman), who I was dating at the time (the lady has a wonderful reputation that I refuse to ruin my mentioning her name here), and what I had for lunch immediately after (a Big Mac and a chocolate shake at the McDonald's down the street from the bookstore). I don't remember where I was when I downloaded ONE FOR THE BOOKS to my Kindle, or even when I did it. This is more than a function of age. There are practical advantages to owning and using an eReader, but books mean something. And Queenan tells you what, how and where repeatedly and, for the most part, hilariously.
He devotes chapters to such topics as reading in places and situations strange and otherwise (Great Expectations); bookstores (Shelf Life); books that, for one reason or another, change one's life (The Stockholm Syndrome); and reading several books simultaneously (Opening Books). I use the term "devotes" loosely. Queenan begins with a subject but often wanders off-topic; he discusses book covers and bookstore personnel, and how impossible it is to dispose of books gifted from friends one will never see again.
If you come to this book expecting only Queenan's rough hilarity, you will be surprised, because there is a bittersweet element to it as well, one that is akin to visiting a dear friend who, as a function of age, illness or injury, has an obvious but unspoken dwindling number of days left. Humor does abound here --- I could have finished it even more quickly if I hadn't kept stopping to read passages to my wife or over the phone to friends --- but there are bittersweet moments as well, particularly when Queenan describes the manner in which books and reading were an escape from his childhood. And it closes with one of the saddest stories I've read in a while.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS has an added bonus for the avid reader. Queenan peppers the narrative with enough book titles to keep even the most well-read reader busy for the next 30 years. Is Queenan a book snob? Yes. Is he showing off? Probably. It isn't bragging, though, if it's true; therefore, he is not bragging, but sharing. Strongly recommended, particularly if you love books.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
on November 4, 2012
Writing about books is not easy. Writing about your reading experience is very difficult. Why? Because you are letting people know something very intimate about yourself. Reading choices, the way a person is around books, the way a person touches books, smells them even and the quirks of a reader are close to being sacred. The very fact that an author or a reader wishes to share this with others only means that the person wants people to read more and let them know about the beauty of books and the written word. "One for the Books" (as the title suggests) is that kind of book written by Joe Queenan.
I had not heard of Joe Queenan till this book was in my hands. I was taken in by the book, being the book collector that I am and wanted to know the author's perspectives on borrowing reading, buying, lending and just being with pages bound with glue.
Joe Queenan has written the book the way such a book is supposed to be written: With all honesty. He speaks of his reading habits and that of the others and at some point he is being judgmental but with reason. The book is categorized into eight chapters - talking about chance meetings on entering a book store, the bonding over books, the way he manages to read thirty books at one time, the rereads and the recommendations that he cringes from. At the same time, throughout the book, Joe speaks of his dislike of the Kindle and E-Readers and states reasons that I could not refute or counter-argue with.
There were times as a reader that I just had to stop and make notes about my perspective on what Joe was talking about. The connection was instant as it was about books. That to me says a lot about the book and its reach.
Joe's uncanny passion or rather obsession over books is fantastic. He takes you in a minute from a bookstore in Paris to his experience of a North American town where he just moved and the bookstore that meant so much to him for over twelve years or so. I loved the way the book was written and structured. Of how he compares reading to visiting the Louvre where every piece of art is tempting, where everything needs to be devoured, as in reading, everything that catches the eye needs to be read.
Queenan also speaks of books that he will never be able to finish - Middlemarch being one of them, as much as he would like to get through it. What I found most interesting was also that he spoke of the American School Reading List recommendation and how his children would get irritated on reading something that they did not enjoy.
He speaks of how one year he decided to read a book every single day and almost managed till he fell ill. I loved this reading project (for the lack of a better word) as it gave him choices to grapple with, books to go back to and new books to discover.
I could go on and on about "One for the Books" and how much I enjoyed the read. It made me weep in most places for the love of the written word - the imagination that it conjures, the poetry, and the hunger to finish one novel and move on to the next. "One for the Books" is truly a love song, a poem, a recollection of reading, and most importantly a reader's tribute to books and reading.
Here is one of my favourite quotes from the book:
"People we adore pass on; voices we love to hear are stilled forever. Books hold out hope that things may end otherwise. Jane will marry Rochester. Eliza will foil Simon. Valjean will outlast Javert. Pip will wed Estella. The wicked will be overthrown, and the righteous shall prosper. As long as there are beautiful books waiting for us out there, there is still a chance that we can turn the ship around and find a safe harbor. There is still hope, in the words of Faulkner that we shall not only survive; we shall prevail. There is still hope that we shall all live happily ever after".
on November 26, 2012
I have read all of Queenan's books. I enjoyed each of them, but this is his finest work. Subtly, he weaves the essential stories of his life around the books that he loved, those that he merely consumed, and those that he avidly avoids. The book ends up being as much about his irascible snarkiness, his deep affections, his ties to places as different as Tarrytown, New York and Paris, France, as it is about his obsessive reading. In the recounting of his trails through his acquiring beloved and eschewing disparaged books (Middlemarch!), the deeper story is about the people he encounters. Queenan is always wickedly funny, but here he is also more reflective, more honestly self-deprecating. And for those of us who love books, the chance to compare lists is welcome. Warning: only those with the courage of their convictions should dare to sample Queenan here; his opinions are bold and brash. But that's consistent: this book is a conversation between adults, one of whom is wildly and sometimes perversely opinionated, but always amusing.
on April 2, 2013
Joe Queenan is a curmudgeon. That's not a criticism, it's a fact. He's a "get off my lawn!" type of guy, or in this case, "get off my books!" And that's a reason to love him. He actually cares about books and has an opinion about them. Thank God! I thought people were only allowed to be passionate about comic books and vinyl albums these days, but books -- how retro! And how wonderful.
I don't always agree with Queenan's prohibitions -- I love nonfiction, especially biographies and memoirs (I know, I know) -- but I find myself feeling like a kindred spirit when he talks about people coming into his home and saying, "Hey, you have a lot of books here. Did you really read them ALL?" Yeah, I've heard that one, too, many, many times. And, finally, someone who agrees that the cover of "The Great Gatsby" is hideous! Those creepy eyes, those garish colors -- ick. Not a cover worthy of a great classic. Keep venting, Joe; I'm with you all the way.