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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Joe Queenan has written nine books. He's written about everything from "Closing Time," a memoir about his own difficult childhood in a Philadelphia housing project to "Imperial Caddy: The Rise of Dan Quayle in America and The Decline and Fall of Practically Everything Else." Throw in columns for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and GQ, umpteen newspaper articles, appearances on "The Daily Show." It is a prolific career and surprisingly so. Surprising because Joe Queenan reads so much you've got to wonder when he has time to write anything. His new book is about reading. It's called "One For The Books."
And Joe Queenan joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program once again.
JOE QUEENAN: Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: You start by calculating how many books you read and how many you've read. What's the current rate and what's the count up to?
QUEENAN: I think I've read between 6,000 and 7,000 books. I read about 100 books a year on a slow year, 120, 130 most years, and then some years I've just gone completely nuts. A couple of years ago, I read about 250. I was trying to read a book every single day of the year, but I kind of ran out of gas.
SIEGEL: Yes. And this huge part of your waking life, it's escapism, it's passion, it's addiction, it's a personality disorder? How do you describe what it is?
QUEENAN: I think people who read an enormous number of books are basically dissatisfied with the way things are going on this planet. And I think, in a way, people read for the same reason that kids play video games is, they like that world better. It works better, it's more exciting, and it usually has a more satisfactory ending.
But it is an obsession. If you're just kind of touched in the head, the way that I am, where you're constantly reading 60, 70 books simultaneously, constantly organizing my weeks, my days, my months around how I'm going to read books, the order that I'm going to read them in, I guess the ordinary person doesn't do that. But I think there are quite a few people out there who are somewhat similar to me.
SIEGEL: I think we can stipulate about the ordinary person, not.
QUEENAN: They read about one book a year and it's by Tom Clancy or James Patterson. They read books - the average person reads books by people who didn't write the books that they're reading. They got someone to write them for them.
SIEGEL: Now, you don't discriminate here between high literary efforts and, let's say, well-executed pulp fiction. There's a place for that as well in your reading.
QUEENAN: Yeah, especially when you're young, because when you're young, you're not going to start reading Jane Austen or Dostoyevsky, you start out reading people like, in my case, Agatha Christie. I read all of the Agatha Christie novels when I was young, and I really enjoyed them. And when you go back to read them later, they don't hold up as well because she's not really a great writer. But you move on and they open the door for you.
I've always liked reading mysteries. I love reading Simenon's books, which are just fantastic books. I love the Arthur Conan Doyle books. But lately, I'm less likely to read sort of beach reading or trash. If I'm going to read something bad, I want to read something that's really, really, really bad.
SIEGEL: For example.
QUEENAN: All of these books that are about what if Helen of Troy actually didn't go to Troy, or it was her double, or she only went to Troy because she wanted to get this mysterious scepter. Those books are so dumb, and I call them Loins of Telemachus books and I love them because they're so spectacularly dumb. Self-published books are great. Self-published books are so, so addled.
And they just go off into the most insane - they always have ghosts. Like the ghost of a deer goes into a composer's head and becomes a serial killer, and there's no editor to say, you really want to tone this down. They're just - I get them all the time. People send them to me and they're just insanely bad books. Those are a hoot.
SIEGEL: But you read them. You go ahead and you read them.
QUEENAN: I read them, but I read them real fast.
SIEGEL: OK. As a lover of books, we might expect you to be fond of, or at least have strong opinions about bookstores, book clubs, libraries. Which ones get thumbs up from you?
QUEENAN: Libraries kind of depress me and part of it is because you know that you can't read all of the books that they have, but a lot of it is because libraries used to have some kind of way of putting the kind of Graham Greene and Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte stuff in one category, and then they'd have like Daphne Du Maurier and people, but they wouldn't have the actual trash mixed in. And now it's just all one big mall and it's kind of depressing because most of the books you see in the library shelves are terrible books.
QUEENAN: You know, I look like a cop. You know, I'm Irish and I'm a big guy, gray hair, you know, and as soon as I walk into a bookstore, the people - the irony boys who work in bookstores, they just always figure, what's he doing here? He's looking for a book about Roger Maris breaking the homerun record or something. And they just don't like me. They just don't.
When I was in Paris and I was 21, I used to go to Shakespeare and Company. And you always hear these great stories about what a wonderful place that was. They were horrible to me. I mean, they didn't even - they could tell - most of the people who would go in there they were poorly shod, they looked like they hadn't eaten in a long time. They looked like they were at death's doorsteps so you knew that they'd gone to Phillips Exeter. You knew that they'd gone to Andover.
Whereas I was just - I was just this, you know, Irish Catholic kid from Philadelphia and I just didn't look like I was ever going to grow up to be Richard Brautigan or Paul Auster or any of those people, so my experiences in bookstores have been varied.
SIEGEL: Book clubs?
QUEENAN: They're just stupid. They're just ridiculous. I mean, my problem with book clubs, part of it is one week they discuss something like "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace" and the next week they discuss the stupidest book imaginable. They just discover whatever book, you know, Anita Shreve just happened to write or something like that. It was like - there's no theme to your pudding here.
The other thing is that when I read books, particularly when you read, like, you read Oscar Wilde or you read Moliere or particularly Shakespeare, I would consider it an invasion of their privacy for me to express any opinion about their work. The market has spoken. There's nothing that we can add to this conversation. And somebody once said about Emily Dickinson, the correct way to approach Emily Dickinson is on your knees.
SIEGEL: Can you just very briefly - can you just explain the joy not just of reading, but of rereading, which is something that some people can do and some people just can't abide.
QUEENAN: If you can listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or his Ninth Symphony over and over and over again, and still get this amazing rush from it, you can do exactly the same thing with a book. So books that I love, like I love "The Stranger." I love "The Sun Also Rises." I love "Pride and Prejudice." I love a bunch of books by Thomas McGuane, just really love them, "Bushwhacked Piano," just go back and read those books over and over and over again.
And it's a pleasure that just keeps repeating. And part of it is because we forget things. I just re-read "Madame Bovary" and there were all sorts of things I had forgotten. And one of the things I had forgotten was how funny it is. And I've probably read "Madame Bovary" five or six times.
SIEGEL: Well, Joe Queenan, thanks a lot for talking with us. It's been great fun.
QUEENAN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Joe Queenan's new book is called "One For The Books." You can find a list of Joe Queenan's best books ever, read or written, at our website, NPR.org.
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