Cultural critic and writer Joe Queenan’s book, One for the Books, begins with a dispiriting fact: “The average American reads four books a year, and the average American finds this more than sufficient.”
Of course the actual number of books that Americans read is much lower than that. The law of averages (proper statisticians call this concept the mean) pushes up the figure.
Queenan, who reads up to 200 books a year, has the nastiest things to say about book clubs. And to make sure no one is in two minds about what he really thinks, he points his machine gun directly at those who belong to them.
“I have always had an aversion to people who belong to book clubs. I would rather have my eyelids gnawed on by famished gerbils than join a book club. Book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. What might that be? A book is a series of arguments between the author and the reader, none of which the reader can possibly win …”
Queenan seems to suggest that the phrase “book club” is something of an anomaly as “book discussions have nothing at all to do with reading. This may be why they so rarely choose good books. Participants are seeking unanimity, and good books do not [create] unanimity. They invite discord, mayhem, knife fights, blood feuds.”
Trade in rare books is big business; its corollary is the autograph hunter. About this phenomenon, Queenan writes: “I do not consider myself a collector. Collectors go to auctions, and I do not. Collectors feel emotionally transported if they can examine an original manuscript, and I do not. I do not care about autographed copies; I do not go scavenging for rarities, curiosities, out-of-print editions …
“I have never met an antiquarian bookseller who was not in some sense a priss or a fuddy-duddy or, in many instances, both. The most telling point is that I write in my books, which no collector would ever do.”
As long as people like Queenan (he is in his early 60s, so he could be around for a while longer) are alive, the book — the object — will never die.
“People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, and not merely an electronic version, are in some sense mystics. We believe that the objects themselves are sacred, not just the stories they tell. We believe that the objects possess the power to transubstantiate, to turn darkness into light …
“We do not want the experience of reading to be stripped of this transcendent component and become rote and mechanical. That would spoil everything. I do not expect other people to lead their lives this way. They are free to download on to to their e-readers …”
Many times I have bought tomes in secondhand bookstores in chance encounters that I don’t think e-book people ever experience. About these chance encounters, Queenan argues that “... by refusing to patronize bookstores and libraries, by refusing to expose themselves to the music of chance, they have purged all the authentic, nonelectronic magic and mystery from their lives. They have rolled over and surrendered to the machines. This may be convenient, but that’s all it is.
“All technology is corporate,” Queenan pronounces with magisterial finesse and finality.
On the reading habits of many, the critic points out that “most people read drivel. That is their prerogative. The case can be made that it is better to read drivel than to read nothing, on the theory that people will eventually tire of baggage and move on to something more meaty, like trash. I believe that this may sometimes occur with the young, but I doubt that it ever happens with adults. Adults do not suddenly tire of reading Nora Roberts and jump up and exclaim: ‘Screw this crap; by God, I’m going to give Marcus Aurelius a rip!’”
Hacks and Hollywood
On journalists writing books (pay close attention to this useful advice if you are going to read any of the scores of books my fellow scribes put out yearly), Queenan states that “most books written by journalists open with two reasonably good chapters, followed by loads of padding, then regather a bit of momentum for the big roundup. This is because editors encourage writers to frontload the merchandise, jamming the best material into the first two chapters, the only ones that will ever get read.”
There is a belief that good books make good movies. It should be so, as all the ingredients for a good movie are there, but somehow by the time the text is on the big screen, the book’s bloodied, mutilated carcass stinks to the high heavens.
About the book-to-big-screen meta-morphosis, Queenan writes: “By and large, a book will retain a certain grandeur and cachet so long as it has not been transmogrified into a bad film. After Hollywood gets its hands on it, the bad movie competes for attention with the good book.”
About chain bookstores, Queenan points out that “commercial book- stores are often staffed by transitory loners who are merely punching the clock, troubled youths and cast-off retirees who not have all that much interest in books.
Staff recommendations are pitifully generic — Fight Club, Outliers, Infinite Jest. It’s like soliciting dessert tips from four-year-olds.” One shop assistant in a chain store I once spoke to didn’t seem to know who Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens were.
The critic says he does “not like it when people try to force books into my hands. If I wanted to read Philip K Dick, I would have probably gotten around to it by now … I am certainly not suggesting that all gifted or lent books should be ridiculed, pulped, mothballed, or incinerated. My sisters have impeccable taste in crime fiction and know precisely which Ruth Rendell title to pass along next. But that’s about it. Acquaintances and neighbours, I do not trust.”
Perhaps it is because the fortunes of Arsenal, my favourite English team, have been in decline, but I find mention of Manchester United or Chelsea in a book off-putting.
About this Queenan writes: “My refusal to read books about the Yankees or their slimy fans also extends to books written by supporters of the team. Thus, when I learned that Salman Rushdie had taken a shine to the Yankees, it eliminated any chance that I would ever read The Satanic Verses, no matter how good it is … Rooting for the Yankees, as a friend who roots for the Cubs says, is like rooting for the air. It’s about as daring as rooting for a pack of ravenous pit bulls in a showdown with a blind, one-legged bunny rabbit. My revulsion does not end with the Yankees.
“I also refuse to read books whose characters or authors have an affiliation whatever with … the Los Angeles Lakers … or Manchester United, the Yankees’ vile, English, soccer playing twin.”
No, I am not going to suppress Queenan’s attack on critics and their panegyric blurbs (praise poetry, maybe). “Critics are mostly servile muttonheads, lacking the nerve to call out famous authors for their daft plots and slovenly prose,” he ploughs in. “Academics fear that an untoward word will hurt them somewhere down the line when their own, slovenly books come up for review. Blurbs in particular can no longer be trusted. Usually they are written by liars and sycophants to advance the careers of bozos and sluts …”
On the anonymous book reviewers spawned by the internet, Queenan writes: “… some reviewers can get a bit coarse and personal in the rough and tumble of internet facials, sending stunned top flight authors home to lick their information highway wounds. But for the most part these gifted amateurs inject a much needed breath of fresh air into the reviewing process. Most appealing is their absolute fearlessness when it comes to trashing high profile authors whom mainstream reviewers would hesitate to mix it up with.”
It’s good to get the youth reading, but it’s going to be difficult if high school reading lists feature books like Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights. About this, he argues: “For decades, well-meaning pedagogues have been sabotaging summer vacations by forcing high school kids to read novels like Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, The Red Badge of Courage and The Grapes of Wrath. These books may be the cornerstone of our civilization, but they are certainly no fun. 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 14.”
Last, but certainly not least, the Irish American puts Ian McEwan in his proper place. “I was halfway through Ian McEwan’s Saturday when I realised that every single character in the book revolted me. So did every single character in his previous novels, Amsterdam and Atonement. I trial ballooned this opinion and found that many of my friends felt the same way. The consensus was that McEwan was one of those writers who had steadily become less and less interesting as he became more and more famous.”
One for the Books is published by Viking