Joe Queenan of Tarrytown (And why he hates this headline)

If a good book is a delicious conversation among the author, subject and reader, then Joe Queenan’s new “One for the Books” will have you chuckling at “Hello.”

Joe, of course, is the well-known humorist and Tarrytown resident who’s written features and columns for the likes of GQ and The Wall Street Journal as well as books with such titles as “Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan’s America,” “True Believers: The Tragic Inner Life of Sports Fans” and “If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble.”

Virtually nothing escapes his satiric gaze, not front-running, fair-weather Yankee fans from Barcelona or McMansion dwellers in neighboring, secessionist Sleepy Hollow or one-track scientists with no knowledge of the arts or one-track politicians with no knowledge of science. And certainly not reporters who identify their subject’s town of origin as if it were part of the person’s name. (Truth in advertising: Joe once chided me when I worked for a Gannett newspaper for identifying someone as So-and-So of Scarsdale as if he were John of Gaunt.)

I still can’t resist Joe’s spot-on barbs. Here’s his opening salvo in “One for the Books”:

“The average American reads four books a year, and the average American finds that more than sufficient. Men who run for high office deem such a vertiginous quota needlessly rigorous, which is why they are sometimes a bit hazy on what Darwin actually said about finch beaks and can never remember which was Troilus and which was Cressida.”

Upon further reflection at his home – a comfortable, book-lined affair with a sparkling view of the Hudson – Joe says that the four-books-a-year number is too generous, inflated by the female of the species. The average American man reads one book a year, he concludes. Reminded of Uruguayan novelist Carlos Maria Dominguez’s “The House of Paper” – in which a bibliomaniac tears apart the home he’s constructed of books to find the one requested by the woman he loves – Joe says that it could not take place in America.

“An average American man wouldn’t have enough books to build a rabbit hut.”

Required reading

Joe is not your average American man. Four a year? Try four a week. Well, maybe in some months. Joe averages a couple a week. Here’s a partial current (re)reading list – two Georges Simenon “Inspector Maigret” novels, a book on Leonardo da Vinci and Penelope Fitzgerald’s “Human Voices,” a novel set in World War II at the BBC where Winston Churchill inspired a troubled nation and Joe once worked. The BBC building “made you feel like you were part of something bigger than yourself.”

He also reads one profile a day in “The Scientific 100” – a tribute to the neuroscientist daughter working on her doctorate at Georgetown University. The most fascinating scientist he has come across? Isaac Newton, whom he describes as a crazy, grudge-carrying alchemist, albeit one who wasn’t in it for the money, even though he was a poor boy in a rich man’s game.

“He was attempting to see what humans were capable of.”

Joe’s also just finished rereading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” which he describes as a “truly great novel that’s hard to read.”

“I think the most important thing is that (the adulterous Hester Prynne) comes back in the end and becomes a figure of veneration. This taps into a central truth that people need to be in the place where the crucial events of their lives occurred.”

That’s why Joe lives in New York, to be near his native Philadelphia. He couldn’t be too far from Philly, unless he lived in Paris. Then to heck with Philly and New York.

But back to Hester’s return to the scene of her onetime shame. Doesn’t the end also suggest that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said there are no second acts in American lives?

“That’s one of the things people lose sight of. If society is working properly, society evolves.”

So when the papers are full of fiscal cliffs, Joe reflects instead on the re-election of an African-American president who was born in an era in which black men were still lynched.

Strangers on a plane

It may seem like a long way from Hester Prynne to Barack Obama, but that’s what great readers do: They connect the dots, sometimes in ways you wouldn’t imagine. So a conversation about Homer’s “The Iliad” and its antihero, Achilles (“the first cool guy in literature”), leads Joe to draw parallels between the godlike Achilles and Superman, and the all-too-human Hector and Batman.

A discussion of Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” – in which a contained personality trumps an expressive one – leads to a socioeconomic analysis of the novella. You soon realize that everything with Joe is socioeconomic. He had a hardscrabble childhood framed by a book-loving, alcoholic father and a mother whom he describes bluntly as “a ghost.”

“It took me three years to get over my father’s death and 20 minutes to get over my mother’s.”

Reading was an escape, not merely from something but to something – writing – for while great readers do not necessarily become great writers, there is no great writing without great reading.

From writers like Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Graham Greene, you can learn how to turn a phrase, structure a narrative, Joe says.

He’s already thinking about writing a book about conversations with strangers on planes, where the central dramas of their lives are often revealed in the first 20 minutes. Clearly, Joe is haunted by a conversation he had on a transatlantic flight with a lovely woman whose passive-aggressive husband once again forgot to book her connecting flight – this time for a silver anniversary trip to Paris. And so she, hurt and angry, was going home to London. Joe talked to her for the course of the six-hour flight.

“I thought it was a nice thing to do. Here was another creature in pain.”

Sounds like the beginnings of a good novel, although one that may find itself in e-book form. While Joe talks a good game about the survival of print (see related essay on the history of books), he thinks the print book will be eclipsed by the e-book with the exception of some special editions.

Yes, but didn’t radio survive the movies and movies learn to coexist with TV?

“But they were not directly competing technologies. The big screen was made for Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise. It was not made for (TV actors) Jon Hamm and David Duchovny.”

Whereas the print book and the e-book are the same thing, except that the latter is preferred. Print books are wedding cakes in a cupcake world, Joe concludes.

“And how do you fight the zeitgeist?”


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