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One For The Books

posted on 29 Jul 2017

One For The Books by Joe Queenan

I remember reading and thoroughly enjoying Joe Queenan's newspaper columns back when big Sunday broadsheet newspapers seemed the height of sophistication. If I recall correctly he did a superbly funny knockabout film review that I would always seek out to get some of that wise-cracking, sharper-than-sharp, critical, hard-boiled American straight talk. No prisoners and no truck with Hollywood iconography.

But in recent times I've lost touch with his work until I stumbled over a couple of pithy quotes about books and readers that the author of the article I was reading had lifted from Joe's One For The Books. It prompted me to get a copy and I have just read it on a plane flight to Chicago - and an amiable companion it turned out to be.

Queenan is capable of being wildly funny and mildly irritating by turns. What makes him irresistible - his contrariness, his sweeping dismissal of anything he doesn't rate, the way he constantly contradicts himself, his outrageous comparisons - can also get up your nose if you read him over an extended period. His whole writing persona seems designed to be at its peak over the average length of a news article and book chapters can sometimes stretch your willingness to go along with his 'tell it like it is' schtick.

But in this book, Queenan is on the side of the angels. Here he's not only giving us a guided tour of the Queenan anthology of good writers and bad writers, good book sellers and bad book sellers or good book related events and bad book related events, he's also making a full and serious case for the significance of physical books and their cultural importance - not just to him but potentially for us all.

As you might expect with Queenan, he leaves plenty of bodies beaten up along the way - reputations are impugned, fads derided, easy reads abominated. He's very much of the school of thinking that asks why read at all if you don't read the very best. Of course, it's Joe who knows what the best is.

How much of the hard-nosed cynic he really is, I'm not sure. He's certain he's not a book collector but then again he might be. He deplores the sentimental trashy novel but keeps books he'll never read for their sentimental attachments. The bundles of contradictions just keep coming - but so too do the jokes and the downright hilarious put-downs.

He ends the book is a different mood however, speculating on why books are so important to us. We read books to help us be both more human but also to escape the bounds and limitations of being human - to enable us to believe another story is possible, to forget our mortality for a while and to try and construct an alternative happy ending for ourselves.

Terry Potter

July 2017