Photo illustration by Deborah A. Lawrence. All rights reserved. Not for reuse
T he average American reads four books a year, and the average American finds this more than sufficient. Men who run for high office often 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. I am up to speed on both. Yet I find this no cause for celebration, much less preening. For though I read at least 100 books a year, and often twice that number, I always end up on New Year’s Eve feeling that I have accomplished nothing.
I read books – mostly fiction – for at least two hours a day. I read books in all the obvious places – in my house and my office, on trains and buses and planes, in public parks and private gardens – but I have also read them at plays and concerts and prizefights, and not only during the intermissions. I have read books while waiting for friends to get sprung from the drunk tank, while waiting to have my meniscus repaired, while waiting for people to emerge from comas, while waiting for the Iceman to cometh. On more than one occasion I have buried my face in a book to take my mind off the lowlifes at the other end of the subway car in which I was inexplicably traveling at midnight, alone. I always carry a book I can page through while in line at the supermarket or during jury selection or at wakes of people I barely know.
If it were possible, I would read books 8 to 10 hours a day, every day of the year. There is nothing I would rather do than read books. This is the way I have felt since I started borrowing books from a roving Quaker City bookmobile at the tender age of seven. And I know why I read so obsessively: I read because I want to be somewhere else. Yes, this is a reasonably satisfactory world that we are living in, this society in particular, but the world conjured up by books is a better one. No matter what they profess to believe, no matter what they may tell themselves, most book lovers do not read primarily to obtain information or to while away the time or to better themselves or even, in the words of C.S. Lewis, to know that they are not alone. They read to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world. I have read somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 books in my life. On average, I get through 150 books a year, not including titles I review for magazines and newspapers. I read less and less nonfiction these days, limiting myself to classics like The Guns of August and Darwin, Marx, Wagner and History of Western Philosophy and The Lives of the Twelve Caesars , none of which I am opening for the first time. I almost never read biographies or memoirs, except if they involve madcap African explorers, George Armstrong Custer, or Klaus Kinski. I avoid inspirational and self-actualization books; if I wanted to read a self-improvement manual, I would try the Bible.
Certain things are perfect the way they are and need no improvement. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation, and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., From
One for the Books by Joe Queenan. Copyright © 2012 by Joe Queenan. Read a longer excerpt by signing up for the digital edition of The Rotarian.