A shelf full of books about books

December 28, 2012

“The average American reads four books a year, and the average American finds this more than sufficient,” Joe Queenan declares in “One for the Books,” his at once reverent and irreverent linked essays about a lifelong addiction to reading.

The thing is, while the average American may suffer (however unknowingly) from literary deprivation, the country is still teeming with passionate readers. Beyond the sheer magnitude of the multibillion-dollar book industry, one indication of this abiding fervor is the latest tidal wave of publications about book love.

Why this outpouring? While people have fretted about the death of the novel for years, the recent closures of independent bookstores and the rise of electronic reading devices have many worrying about the demise of physical books as we know them. This has led to a defensive counterattack, the gist of which is: How can books die when they’re such a perfect delivery system and we love them so much?

Among this year’s bumper crop of metabooks, one standout rises to the status of actual literature: Will Schwalbe’s “The End of Your Life Book Club.” This beautiful, affecting work is both a paean to the physical and emotional aspects of books and a memoir of his remarkable mother — the first female head of Harvard and Radcliffe admissions and a lifelong humanitarian activist who helped found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. When Mary Anne Schwalbe was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastasized pancreatic cancer in 2007 at age 73, her son Will, then editor in chief of Hyperion Books, began accompanying her to chemotherapy sessions and oncology appointments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. To help pass the hours and give a focal point to their conversations, the two constant readers formed a book group of two, which they joked was “the world’s only foodless book club.”

Over the course of two years, they shared and discussed dozens of books “to help Mom on her journey toward death and me on mine to life without her,” never knowing how much time they had left. Their reading list included Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety,” Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn,” Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” Geraldine Brooks’s “The People of the Book” and Mary Wilder Tileston’s 1884 prayer book, “Daily Strengths for Daily Needs,” all of which “gave us a way to discuss some of the things she was facing and some of the things I was facing.”


"One for the Books" by Joe Queenan (Viking)

Seamlessly and without pretension, Schwalbe integrates literary discussions with global issues and personal memories — a feat that highlights not just how relevant but how integral literature can be to life. Readers will take away a terrific list of suggested titles, as well as precious nuggets of wisdom from this woman who, even before her fatal diagnosis, always read the ends of books first; felt it was important to read about cruelty and dark themes because “they helped her understand the world as it is, not as we wish it would be”; told her son that mixed feelings are natural because “the world is complicated. You don’t have to have one emotion at a time”; and fervently believed that “reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”

Book clubs — along with Yankees fans, people from Massachusetts, “execrable women’s fiction,” bad books and critics who “are just too darned nice” — are among Queenan’s beefs in his deliberately belligerent, often funny, occasionally repetitive but never dull account of his lifelong obsession. Perhaps he’ll feel otherwise after reading Schwalbe’s book. But maybe not. Queenan, who escaped into literature as a way to rise above his impoverished Pennsylvania childhood, spends at least two hours a day reading, which so far has added up to some 7,000 books in his 62 years.

Always on a mission of some sort — which one year involved a besotted one-man campaign to borrow library books threatened with being culled for lack of circulation — he feels reading is intensely personal and hates recommendations. What he loves are serendipitous finds from browsing in bookstores and libraries. He extols physical books as “talismans and memento mori, yes, but they are also toys” that he loves to play with.

Unlike Schwalbe’s and Queenan’s books, many metabooks are better for browsing than actually reading. The best thing about Lauren Leto’s “Judging a Book by Its Lover” is its title. I’d much rather read real literature than spend significant time with this not-funny-enough compendium of cheat sheets for helping you fake having read books you’ve never cracked.

One notable trend in publishing involves the blog-to-book continuum, as if a book were a promoted or enshrined blog. Jen Adams’s “The Books They Gave Me” began as an eponymous blog that featured true stories meant to highlight the importance of books in relationships. In fact, these anonymous tales, which are like StoryCorps lite, without identifying details or the guiding hand of Dave Isay, tend to be less about connecting through books than about toxic gifts that last long after the relationships in question — the remains of the day.

Comments such as this on “Anna Karenina” do not strike me as edifying: “In context, it seemed to me like a big long story about how staying married to an [expletive] makes you do dumb things. I filed for divorce three years later.” My favorite entry is one in which the author was given Nabokov’s “Lolita” by an older admirer whom she later apparently considered predatory: “I was nineteen. / He was thirty. / I’m not sure he thought / this gift through.”

“Lolita” also figures prominently in “My Ideal Bookshelf,” the most visually enchanting of these metabooks. Editor Thessaly La Force asked more than 100 prominent writers, designers, artists, scholars and chefs to list and discuss the books that matter most to them. Her collaborator, Jane Mount, then painted these creme de la creme collections as they might stand on bookshelves, spines out. La Force and Mount note that e-books do not have spines, and they acknowledge that “perhaps we’re guilty of sentimentalizing the book as an object” in these beguiling, colorful and surprisingly effective paintings — the literary equivalent of food porn.

Junot Diaz’s shelf is filled with somewhat haphazardly arranged contemporary-classic paperbacks (Maxine Hong Kingston, Arundhati Roy) with three volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien perched on top. Musician Stephin Merritt’s 15 chosen books, on the other hand, are rigidly lined up in descending size, beginning with Volume XX of the Oxford English Dictionary and ending with an A-Z mini London guide. Comparing “My Ideal Bookshelf” with last year’s similar “Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books,” edited by Leah Price, which featured photographs of 13 writers’ libraries, underscores the charm of Mount’s artwork.

While it’s fascinating to explore the ecstasies of influence and which books and authors appear most often — “Lolita,” “Moby-Dick,” “Ulysses,” Chekhov, Lydia Davis and Flannery O’Connor, along with a surprising prevalence of short stories — “My Ideal Bookshelf” is most valuable in spurring you to think about your own “favorite favorites.” It’s a more challenging exercise than you might suppose.

Finally, for a more serious, studied, academic approach to “the relationship between books and screens,” there is Andrew Piper’s “Book Was There,” which takes its title from Gertrude Stein, never exactly a model of transparency. Piper’s rather dry treatise, filled with illustrations and broad historical references, evokes popular philosopher Alain de Botton’s books on work, travel and practical philosophy, but without de Botton’s quirky humor. Piper highlights books’ “graspability, in a material as well as a spiritual sense,” and issues of roaming, zooming, streaming, turning the page, note-taking and sharing.

But most important, he assures us that the issues that concern us now, such as distracted readers, are not new — illuminated 16th-century documents were as cluttered as many Web pages — and that “books will always be there.”

Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org and The Washington Post.

THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB

By Will Schwalbe

Knopf. 336 pp. $25

ONE FOR THE BOOKS

By Joe Queenan

Viking. 244 pp. $24.95

JUDGING A BOOK BY ITS LOVER

A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere

By Lauren Leto

Harper Perennial. 269 pp. Paperback, $14.99

THE BOOKS THEY GAVE ME

True Stories of Life, Love, and Lit

By Jen Adams

Free Press. 235 pp. $19.99

MY IDEAL BOOKSHELF

Art by Jane Mount, edited by Thessaly La Force

Little Brown. 225 pp. $24.99

BOOK WAS THERE

Reading in Electronic Times

By Andrew Piper

Univ. of Chicago. 192 pp. $22.50

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