Monday, March 4, 2013

One for the Books

Blogging has slowed to a crawl as the semester begins. Thankfully, reading never stops. To me reading is a metabolic function like breathing or eating. I don’t feel I am living if I am not reading. I get very punchy and agitated as my family can attest. Although I read mostly history, I also pick up books relating to literature and fiction, health, hobbies, politics, sports, etc. I especially enjoy books about books and reading. After hearing Joe Queenan on NPR a couple of months ago, I knew I needed to read his latest work, One for the Books. It is a great and remarkably quick read and one of the few books that will really make you snicker, if not laugh out loud. Having grown up a very rough section of Philadelphia, Queenan believes we read to escape, and for that reason books will always serve humanity. At first I questioned this because so much of my reading is informational and professional in nature. After reflection, however, I came to see Queenan has a point. My grandfather can suffice for exhibit A. Born in Galway, Ireland in 1903 he immigrated to the United States in 1928. He held mostly odd jobs and was an elevator operator throughout the 1930s. After a stint in the army in North Africa he worked in defense industries before getting married and landing a blue collar job at Con Edison, New York City’s power company. He stayed there until his retirement in 1968. He had an 8th grade education, but he loved to read. Spread out in his recliner in a haze of smoke with pipe clamped between his teeth he spent a good chunk of his day reading. After my grandmother died, he read whatever was available. His niece bought him supermarket bags full of novels. He read them one right after the other in his octogenarian years. I never paid much attention to what he was reading until I stumbled over a bag of books in the garage while looking for some sports equipment and noticed they were all trashy romance novels, the sort of thing with Fabio on the cover, which hardly seemed to be the reading material I expected would captivate my man’s man grandfather. For years I thought he read them because they were free and available (and light weight, which is essential for older people), but I realize now that he was escaping. He had outlived his wife, almost all his friends, almost all his siblings (his youngest sister is still alive and will be 101 in May), and needed someplace to go. And, anyplace would do.

On another point Queenan reawakened me to libraries. I used to go the library very often. In fact, for a very long period I did not buy any books at all because I borrowed bagfuls from the local library. But, then we bought a pug who chewed up some books. After spending $100 on repairing library books over several months, I shied away from borrowing books and opted to purchase them instead. At this point you might ask, why didn’t the genius put the books where the little dog could not get them? Well I did, but often one book was moved, or dropped, or fell from the shelf and ended up in range of the pug. After reading One for the Books I realized how much I missed roaming the stacks of the library looking for books to pull off the shelf, sample, and either return or check out. It is a very simple form of exploration and one I had forgotten how much I enjoyed.

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