Sunday, December 25, 2005

Joe Queenan ~ Wish List: No More Books

from via 3QuarksDaily

A few months ago, a friend whose iconoclastic, unpredictable behavior I usually hold in high esteem handed me a book entitled "A Navajo Legacy: The Life and Teachings of John Holiday." Apparently, he expected me to read it, despite the fact that I am not really a Navajo medicine man autobiography kind of guy. Flummoxed but gracious, I took the gift home and put it on a shelf alongside all the other books that friends have lent or given me over the years. This collection includes: "Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association"; "Hoosier Home Remedies"; "A Walk Through Wales"; "The Frontier World of Doc Holliday"; "Elwood's Blues: Interviews with the Blues Legends & Stars," by Dan Aykroyd and Ben Manilla; both "Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality" and Allen's somewhat less Jesuitical "Hi-Ho, Steverino!"; and, of course, "Bloodline of the Holy Grail: The Hidden Lineage of Jesus Revealed." If I live to be 1,000 years old, I am not going to read any of these books. Especially the one about the American Basketball Association.

Several years ago, I calculated how many books I could read if I lived to my actuarially expected age. The answer was 2,138. In theory, those 2,138 books would include everything from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to "Le Colonel Chabert," with titles by authors as celebrated as Marcel Proust and as obscure as Marcel Aymé. In principle, there would be enough time to read 500 masterpieces, 500 minor classics, 500 overlooked works of genius, 500 oddities and 138 examples of high-class trash. Nowhere in this utopian future would there be time for "Hi-Ho, Steverino!"

True, I used to be one of those people who could never start a book without finishing it or introduce a volume to his library without eventually reading it. Familiarity with this glaring character flaw may have encouraged others to use me as a cultural guinea pig, heartlessly foisting books like "Damien the Leper" (written by Mia Farrow's father) or the letters of Flannery O'Connor upon me just to see if they were worth reading. (He wasn't; she was.)

These forced reconnaissance missions ended the day an otherwise likable friend sent me "Accordion Man," a biography of Dick Contino by Bob Bove and Lou Angellotti. Though I revere Mr. Contino for his matchless rendition of "Arrivederci Roma," it disturbed me greatly that my friend would have mistaken affection for Mr. Contino's music for intense interest in his personal history. CD's are fine: you can read "Death in Venice" or Pascal's "Pensées" while "Roll Out the Barrel" is bouncing along in the background. But if you spend too much time reading about how Dick Contino finally came to record "Lady of Spain," you will never get to Junichiro Tanizaki's "Some Prefer Nettles." And "Some Prefer Nettles" is No. 1,759 on my dream reading list.

I do not avoid books like "Accordion Man" or "Elwood's Blues" merely because I believe that life is too short. Even if life were not too short, it would still be too short to read anything by Dan Aykroyd. And I am sure I am not alone when I state that cavalierly foisting unsolicited reading material upon book lovers is like buying underwear for people you hardly know. Bibliophiles are ceaselessly engaged in the mental reconfiguration of a Platonic reading list that will occupy them for the next 35 years: First, I'll get to "Buddenbrooks," then "The Man Without Qualities," then "The Decline of the West," and finally "Finnegans Wake." But I'll never get to "Finnegans Wake" if I keep stopping to read books like "The Frontier World of Doc Holliday."

Time management is not the only issue here. There is often something sinister about the motives of those who press books onto others. The urge to give "Elwood's Blues" to someone who already owns unread biographies of Franz Schubert and Miles Davis smacks of sadism; the books serve as a taunt, a gibe, a threat, an insult. It is as if the lender himself wants to see how far another person can be pushed before he resorts to the rough stuff. Hint: If you're going to really press your luck and give someone one of this year's models that you fear they might eventually smack you with, steer clear of Pantagruelian blabfests like "The Historian." Otherwise, you could find yourself with a few loose teeth.

I am certainly not suggesting that all given or lent books should be rejected, pulped, incinerated or mothballed. My sisters have impeccable taste in crime fiction and know precisely which Ruth Rendell to pass along next. A neighbor I met through my wife's garden club has given me several hard-to-get Georges Simenon mysteries, all of which proved to be delightful. But for everyone lending me "Maigret and the Insouciant Parrot," there are a dozen others handing me "Va Va Voom!: Bombshells, Pin-ups, Sexpots and Glamour Girls." Or "A Navajo Legacy."

In many instances, people pass along books as a probing technique to see, "Is he really one of us?" That is, you're not serious about your ethnic heritage unless you've read "Angela's Ashes." You don't care about the poor Mayans unless you've read "1491" and its inevitable sequel, "1243." You don't really give a damn about the pernicious influence of the Knights Templar unless you've read "The Da Vinci Code." And you're not really interested in the future of our imperiled republic unless you've read "The No Spin Zone," "The No Spin Zone for Children," "101 Things Stupid Liberals Hate About the No Spin Zone," and "Ann Coulter on Spinoza."

Some people may wonder, "Well, why don't you simply lie when people ask you about the books they've lent you?" There are two problems with such duplicity. One, lying is a sin. Two, experienced biblio-fobs will invariably subject their targets to the third degree: Were you surprised at Damien the Leper's blasé reaction when his fingers fell into the porridge? What did you think of that cute little ermine affair Parsifal was wearing when he finally grasped the Holy Grail? Were you taken aback by all those weird recipes for Sachertorte in "The Tipping Point"? After reading "The Frontier World of Doc Holliday," do you have more or less respect for Ike Clanton as a money manager? Pity the callow lendee who falls for the trick question and is unmasked as a fraud.

Because I live in a small town where I cross paths with promiscuous book lenders all the time, I have lately taken to hiding in subterranean caverns, wearing clever disguises while concealed in tenebrous alcoves and feigning rare tropical illnesses to avoid being saddled with any new reading material. Were I a younger man, I would be more than happy to take a gander at "Holy Faces, Secret Places: An Amazing Quest for the Face of Jesus," or Phil Lesh's Grateful Dead memoir. But time is running out, and if I don't get cracking soon I'm never going to get to "Gunpowder and Firearms in the Mamluk Kingdom," much less "The Golden Bough." Of course, the single greatest problem in accepting unsolicited books from friends is that it may encourage them to lend you others. Once you've told them how much you enjoyed "How the Irish Saved Civilization," they'll be at your front doorstep with "How the Scots Invented the Modern World," "The Gifts of the Jews," and perhaps one day "How the Norwegians Invented Hip-Hop." If you tell them that you liked "Why Sinatra Matters" or "Why Orwell Matters," you're giving them carte blanche to turn up with "Why Vic Damone Matters" or "Why G. K. Chesterton Still Rocks!" When I foolishly let it be known how much I enjoyed "X-Ray," the "unauthorized" autobiography of the Kinks' lead singer, Ray Davies, a good friend then upped the ante with a copy of Dave Davies's "Kink: The Outrageous Story of My Wild Years as the Founder and Lead Guitarist of the Kinks." Surely, "The Mick Avory Story: My Life As the Kinks' Drummer" and "Pete Quaife: Hey, What Am I, the Kinks' Bassist or a Potted Plant?" cannot be far behind.

This is why I recently told yet another friend that I hated a police procedural he'd dropped off. The novel dealt with a fictitious organization called the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, and was actually quite good. But when I found out that there were 15 other books in the series, and realized that my friend might own all of them, I feared that I would never, ever get to Miguel de Unamuno's "Tragic Sense of Life" at this rate. And at No. 2,127 on my list, Unamuno may only just get in under the wire anyway.

Joe Queenan

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