The Rotarian: Book Smarts by Joe Queenan

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If you want to get serious about reading, time is not your friend. Here are some suggestions for making each book count.

Story by Joe Queenan Illustrations by Joey Guidone

Book smarts

If you want to get serious about reading, time is not your friend. Here are some suggestions for making each book count.

I have read more than 7,000 books, but not all of them were a good use of my time. I had to learn the hard way that certain habits are wasteful or even destructive. As a young person, I frittered away too much time reading trash, dross, and drivel. Now that I am in the autumn of my years, I almost never read a book that might not in some way elevate me. Life is a zero-sum game: Every bad book you read takes the place of a good book. And no matter what your age, the meter is running.

Sooner or later, most of us reach a point in life where we realize that we are not going to make all of our dreams come true. We are never going to learn French, never going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, never going to buy a stock like Amazon when it’s trading at four bucks a share. We will never have a 29-inch waist, never look good in leather pants, never learn to play the piano. These are the hard facts of life and we simply have to accept them.

But there are certain things we can control. And for those of us to whom reading books is like eating or breathing, there comes a time when we need to run the numbers. I read X number of books a year. I expect to live Y more years. Maybe Z, if I can get that cholesterol under control. So the question is: Do I have enough time to read all the books I want to read (X times Y) before the Big Sayonara? And if not, what adjustments should I make?

Here are a few thoughts on the subject:

Beware of recommended books. Books tell us an awful lot about the person recommending them, and sometimes we would be better off not having this information. If you are a thoughtful, well-read person, you will regard a suggestion that you try out Clive Cussler or V.C. Andrews or anything with Special Ops in the title as an insult. If you have read masterpieces such as The Guns of August and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, you will regard the suggestion that you sample something along the lines of The Day They Shot McKinley or The Plot to Kill Tippecanoe — and Tyler Too! as an affront to your intellect.

Get rid of unwanted gifts quickly. Gimmicky books that fit the template of A Short History of Wheat or Hook, Line, and Sinker: Ways of the Wily Halibut or Why Rutherford B. Hayes Still Matters may have started out as harmless Christmas gifts, but the longer they sit on the shelf, the more they start to resemble taunts, dares, perhaps even smacks in the face. For this reason, you should never be afraid to ditch a book you have no intention of reading. Donate it to the library or a nursing home or leave it on a park bench. Using an unwanted book as insulation in a drafty crawl space is not an unacceptable suggestion.

But do not regift it: If the book is so dull, cute, or slight that you have no intention of reading it, it’s not fair to place that burden on another person’s shoulders. People can tell when a book has been regifted; it has the smell of death about it. And it often has the words The Untold Story in the title.

Don’t climb all the mountains at once. When we start college, finally emancipated from those dreary, politically correct high school reading lists, many of us devour the classics in quick succession. War and Peace. Pride and Prejudice. Crime and Punishment. We are like children who have broken into the larder — and at first glance the larder seems inexhaustible.

The larder is not inexhaustible. Yes, there are plenty of mountains in the world, but there are a finite number of Everests. If you polish off Homer and Jane Austen too early in life, you will wish that you had kept a few titles in reserve for your autumnal years. Hadji Murat isn’t in the same class as Anna Karenina. This Side of Paradise is no Great Gatsby. Troilus and Cressida is a joke compared with Romeo and Juliet. If you use up Middlemarch too quickly, you’re going to be stuck with Daniel Deronda. And Adam Bede. Close, but no cigar.

Avoid inspiring books by the professionally inspirational. A friend of mine once said that he read Tolstoy because he seemed like the kind of guy who could help you solve some of life’s problems. You could say the same thing about Plato, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jane Austen. You cannot say the same thing about most guys named Guy. If you are looking for inspiration, try Great Expectations. Or the Bible. And if you absolutely must read these sorts of faux-chummy books, try to hold the carnage down. Just as no one really needs more than one Gipsy Kings or Chieftains record, no one really needs to read more than one book by Jimmy Carter or Deepak Chopra. You get the idea pretty quick.

Learn to speed-read. This is an effective technique for quickly disposing of books you have to read for work, books your loved ones gave you, or amateurish, self-published memoirs by close friends. Remember: Mysteries and thrillers do not need to be read word by word. Nor do books about Ironman triathlons.

If you’re going to read trash, read higher-class trash. These days, when I read mysteries, they have to be really good ones, usually set in Scandinavia or Laos or Japan, where the exotic settings alone add value to the reading experience. Mysteries about trailer trash out in the sticks won’t cut it anymore.

Read the article, not the book. An awful lot of nonfiction books start out as mildly interesting newspaper or magazine articles before morphing into something totally out of scale to their actual importance. Search Google for the essay that inspired the book and read that. This is particularly true of books written about “mentoring” or “building team loyalty.” It’s all padding. And it’s all ghostwritten.

Reading is a deeply personal affair. Meaning that no matter how much you may love The Little Prince or Fight Club or Dune, you cannot make other people like it.

Read the first two chapters and skip the rest. Writing is a form of marketing: Authors show off their top-quality merchandise first. In most nonfiction books, everything of interest is jammed into the first two chapters; the rest is filler.

Avoid books written by politicians. For starters, the pols didn’t write them; some industrious hack ghosted them. And on the rare occasions when they did actually write them, you’ll end up wishing some enterprising hack had ghosted them. These books are all the same: America needs to get back to its roots; why, when I was a boy, you didn’t need to lock your doors; yup, that feisty girl I met walking across campus back in 1973 is now my wife; hey, whatever happened to class? The obvious exceptions to this rule are books written by Winston Churchill, Marcus Aurelius, Niccolò Machiavelli, or any of the Founding Fathers. One other thing: Never read a book by someone who lost his last election. Read the book by the person who beat him.

Avoid rock star autobiographies. The template never varies: I was born dirt-poor; I could never measure up to my father’s expectations; I triumphed over seemingly insurmountable adversity; drugs brought me to death’s door; I was saved by the love of a good woman. The lone exception to this rule about avoiding rock star autobiographies is Keith Richards’ Life. Then again, Keith was always the exception.

Avoid anthologies. They always contain Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” and they always make us think we are back in high school.

Recognize that not all reading pleasures can be shared. I have friends who will swear up and down that Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes is the greatest sports book ever written. This, for the record, is like being the tallest office building in Duluth. Which in and of itself doesn’t make the building special.

No, reading is a deeply personal affair. Meaning that no matter how much you may love The Little Prince or Fight Club or Dune, you cannot make other people like it. My son assures me that spending my entire life without reading any science fiction or fantasy is to deliberately deny myself some of life’s greatest pleasures. For 68 years, I have been more than willing to take that risk. As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t read The Chronicles of Narnia.

Seek out tiny classics. If you’re never going to get to The Portrait of a Lady, make do with Washington Square. If you’re never going to get to the daunting, six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, settle for the abridged version. If you can’t get to Dostoyevsky, settle for Chekhov.

Read three how-to books in your entire life, then call it quits. For my money, you still can’t beat trusty old classics like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Charles Goren’s Point Count Bidding in Contract Bridge, and, of course, Caesar’s The Gallic War.

When purchasing used books, check to make sure that no one wrote in them. Nothing wrecks Macbeth more than coming across marginalia like: “Boy, talk about sexist behavior!” or “She is such a head case!” People who write in books are having conversations with themselves. These are conversations you do not want to join.

Avoid self-help books with a number in the title. As in: Seven Steps to Serenity, The First Nine People You Meet in Purgatory, Twelve — No, Make That Thirteen — Steps to a Slimmer You. Books like this are a form of PowerPoint; the authors make lists because they can make lists. These books are built around the premise that success or happiness requires doing more than one thing. Wrong. Success is built around doing one thing. Stop eating Twinkies. Stop smoking. Stop being lazy. Stop being mean to your kids. Stop reading dumb self-help books.

Be careful what you reread. People often say that if you have a wonderful meal at a restaurant, you shouldn’t go back because the second visit will be a disappointment. The same is often true of books. Some books — Kidnapped, Emma, The Sun Also Rises — hold up no matter how many times we read them. Some books are brutal disappointments when we return to them. Siddhartha and The Prophet probably seemed wise and knowing when you were 18. Try them at your peril when you’re 58.

Occasionally, very occasionally, read a bad book. Reading bad books helps you articulate what you like or dislike about a particular author. Moreover, the occasional Lee Child thriller is a good form of inexpensive psychotherapy. Feeling vulnerable, distracted, overmatched, ineffective? Spend a few hours with Jack Reacher or James Bond. They’ll show you how to cut through the red tape.

Read books in an age-appropriate fashion. Death of a Salesman will make no sense to a pimply 16-year-old. It will make sense only to an adult who has carried the burden of a job for a few decades. Catch-22 and The Catcher in the Rye are great books to read when you are a snarling, impudent youngster; if you don’t read them until you are middle-aged, they will seem flippant and immature. For the record, Wuthering Heights will probably make no sense to you or anyone else no matter how old you are when you finally get around to reading it.

One final thought: Waiting until later in life to read a classic is not necessarily a bad idea. I didn’t get to Don Quixote until I was 51. I was 53 before I finally cracked open Jane Eyre. In each case, the experience was enthralling: I turned off the phone, refused to answer the doorbell, immersed myself in the incontestably sublime. Proving that a pleasure delayed is not a pleasure denied.

Joe Queenan is a freelance writer based in Tarrytown, New York. He wrote about the joy of procrastination in the February issue.
• This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

Editor’s Note: I want to publicly thank the late Smyrna Mayor Bob Spivey for inviting me to join the Smyrna Rotary Club in 2001. I was previously a member of the La Vergne Rotary club and many thanks to Tony Hicks with Heritage South Credit Union for inviting me to join at the young age of 33.

The late Smyrna Mayor Bob Spivey

The late Mayor, who I considered a mentor believed in Rotary and especially the Four-Way Test, sadly, not all Rotarians practice it. One day after we said the Four-Way Test, Bob said, “the world would be a much better place if everyone lived by the four way test.”

The Four-Way Test is a nonpartisan and nonsectarian ethical guide for Rotarians to use for their personal and professional relationships. The test has been translated into more than 100 languages, and Rotarians recite it at club meetings.