"I am of Irish descent and to the Irish, books are as natural and inevitable a feature of the landscape as sand is to Tuaregs or sand traps are to frat boys in Myrtle Beach."
Joe Queenan's love affair with books began at a Quaker City bookmobile when he was seven years old. "What started out as a harmless juvenile pastime turned into a lifelong personality disorder," states Joe in his Wall Street Journal essay "My 6,128 Favorite Books". He liked the way that books enabled him to escape into another world. The three books that "saved his life" were: Kidnapped, The Three Musketeers and The Iliad for Precocious Tykes. Joe was hooked; there was no turning back.
Joe would read books wherever he went: on trains, planes and busses. He also read in unlikely venues like plays, concerts and prize fights. He consumed Tortilla Flat from cover to cover during a Jerry Garcia concert. Joe read books to kill time, like when waiting for a friend to be "sprung from the dunk tank, emerge from a coma, or the Iceman to cometh." He read books while on lunch break from packing trucks on the graveyard shift in Philadelphia; he made sure not to read anything too fancy as his Teamster co-workers peeked over his shoulder.
Books fill every room of Joe's house. "I am of Irish descent and to the Irish, books are as natural and inevitable a feature of the landscape as sand is to Tuaregs or sand traps are to frat boys in Myrtle Beach." Joe describes how the Irish, invaded and pillaged by the English in the 17th Century, had everything taken away from them except their books. Along with music and drink, that was how they escaped reality, how they survived.
Joe doesn't believe in speed reading. Books are to be savoured, like a good Porterhouse steak. Books also are to be chosen, not to be foisted on another person. "Saddling another person with a book he did not ask for has always seemed to be like a huge psychological imposition, like forcing someone to eat a chicken biryani without so much as inquiring whether they like cilantro." Joe explains that you don't necessarily like a book because of the author or the subject matter. You don't necessarily like an Irish author just because you are Irish. For instance, Joe's Mexican-American friend's favourite book is The Dubliners by James Joyce, We choose books because they "speak to us".
Joe does not see e-readers in his future. He prefers good old fashioned books, the ones with hard covers and frayed pages; the ones that evoke memories. He owns one book that contains a Metro ticket which harkens back to the Rue St-Jacques in 1972. Another book contains a note evoking Granada's sun soaked beaches circa 1973. And another book contains a phone message from the Chateau Marmont in 1995, reminding him of a friend who passed away too soon.
While Joe has read 6,128 books, he says it is far from a record. Winston Churchill used to read a book a day. What he likes most about books is the way they make us believe, even for a short time, that we will live "happily ever after".
Note: This essay was adapted from Joe Queenan's book One for the Books. To read it in its entirety visit http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390444868204578064483923017090.