Wednesday, August 14, 2013

`An Endless Series of Expeditions'

I knew Joe Queenan from several columns I read years ago in the Wall Street Journal. I remember them as smart and funny, though I can’t recall the subject matter, and superior to anything written by Dave Barry, a columnist he superficially resembles. A reader recently suggested I try Queenan’s latest title, One for the Books (Viking, 2012), a memoir of sorts, devoted to a lifetime of obsessive reading. On page 4, Queenan tells us: “I have read somewhere between six thousand and seven thousand books in my life.” Is this bragging? Perhaps, but Queenan was born in 1950, two years before me, and that sounds like a reasonable estimate for someone of our age devoted to the printed word and not an alumnus of Evelyn Wood. On the subject of speed-reading he writes: 

“I do not speed-read books; it seems to defeat the purpose of the exercise, which is for the experience to be leisurely and pleasant.” 

That’s a good sign – reading as an activity driven by pleasure (granted, a highly elastic quality), not obligation or exhibitionism. He writes and I concur: “I hate having books rammed down my throat. This may explain why I never liked school: I still cannot understand how one human being could ask another human being to read Look Homeward, Angel and then expect to remain on speaking terms.”  That veers close to Dave Barry country but possesses the virtue of being independent-minded and true. This sounds almost like a universal reader’s apologia: 

“And I know why I read so obsessively: I read because I want to be somewhere else. Yes, this is a reasonably satisfactory world we are living in, this society in particular, but the world conjured up by books is a better one. This is especially true if you are poor or missing vital appendages.” 

Queenan, there, is almost subverting his gift. The final sentence, especially the final phrase, almost undoes what he has just written. His most irritating tic is a weakness for the easy joke accompanied by a knowing wink, a Dave Barry-like reflex intended to let the reader know he, the writer, knows it’s a weak gag but, hyuk hyuk, ain’t it funny that he knows it and writes it anyway? Well, no, it’s not, but Queenan, to his credit, occasionally foregoes the wise crack and wanders into sublimity: 

“Certain things are perfect the way they are and need no improvement. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation, and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublime, but books are also visceral. They are physically appealing, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system. Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who like to read on the subway, or who do not want other people to see how they are amusing themselves, or who have storage and clutter issues, but they are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on.” 

This turns into a defense of codex over Kindle, but I also admire his vision of perfection as imperfectly perceived by a human being. Queenan is no reactionary but a pragmatist of reading. He knows what works for him and feels only impatience with fashions, whether in literary genres or “delivery systems.” Here, again, he speaks for many of us: 

“The confraternity of serious readers is united by a conviction that literature is an endless series of expeditions, some planned, some unplanned, all elating. None of us is doing this just to show off. Books do not always take us where we want to go, but they always take us places someone would want to go. Avid book readers are people who are at some level dissatisfied with reality.”

No comments: