Leah Price / San Francisco Chronicle
“One for the Books” by Joe Queenan (Viking, $24.95)
As attention spans dwindle to 140 characters, one section of publishers’ catalogs bulges fatter than ever. Walk into any bookstore — or let your fingers do the walking on whatever device you bought on Black Friday — and you’ll find yourself surrounded by books about books. Memoirs of bookstore owners, coffee-table books about bookmarks, and photo essays on bookshelves compete with book-themed blogs: “A Year of Reading,” “Babes With Books,” “365 Books to Read Before You Die.”
Joe Queenan’s “One for the Books” may look like another such bookish book, a series of loosely linked essays that chronicle the author’s encounters with books, bookstores and libraries. Books were his getaway car from a childhood in a Philadelphia slum to a house in Tarrytown, N.Y., paid for by writing and reading. In that sense, “One for the Books” crosses stand-up comedy with the genre that Seth Lerer has dubbed “autobibliography” and Mikita Brottman “bibliofessional”: a first-person narrative of an adult self-shaped by solitary childhood reading.
Queenan’s goal isn’t just to declare his love for books and to list particular books that he loves, but to suss out the customs of book lovers: to analyze what books mean to his friends and acquaintances (not to mention a few enemies), and how books forge or destroy friendships.
As a child, Queenan read “because it made me feel superior to my working-class father — a ninth-grade dropout — and everyone like him.”
As an adult, he made friends with other book lovers, and that’s where his troubles began. Giving people books, Queenan remarks, is like plying them with chicken biryani without first checking whether they hate cilantro.
Much of “One for the Books” is devoted to the ethics and etiquette of turning down such offers. Like some picky toddler making rules about what colors of food are not allowed onto his plate, Queenan invents whole categories of books he refuses to read: books by Yankees fans, books that reviewers have called “astonishing,” books recommended to him by “indecisive men whose shirt collars are a dramatically different color from the main portion of the garment.”
The paradox is that book reviewers like Queenan make a living (if they’re lucky) by recommending titles to others — and a good many of these pages do just that. Amazon’s list of most-annotated passages from Queenan is heavy on authors’ names and titles mentioned; I seem not to be the only reader whom “One for the Books” sent in search of “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.”
When he doesn’t name names, though, Queenan’s lists of literary finds can feel like a particularly fiendish crossword puzzle. I tried and failed to track down his favorite books about “a Finnish woodcutter who stays behind when the Nazis close in on his village in 1941” and “the plight of rambunctious Thai cross-dressers during religious- festival season.” Rambling and repetitive these catalogs may be, but as Queenan remarks in defense of libraries, “if you want organization and logic and efficiency, visit the cemetery.”
Queenan compares his campaign to prevent his local library from deaccessioning little-used titles to “rescuing antisocial orphans from a fire: You didn’t have to like the moody little tykes to want to save them.” If “One for the Books” were an orphan, it would be a smart-ass — cheeky, but with a heart of gold.