[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Wish List: No More Books!

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Wed Jan 4 23:13:22 UTC 2006

Wish List: No More Books!


    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

    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

    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's most recent book is "Queenan Country: A Reluctant
    Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country."

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