Beware of the man of one book.

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.

John Cage

I’ve written before about the disease that has afflicted me since at least 7th grade: biblioholism. It’s a despicable condition: I cannot walk by a bookstore without going inside and smelling the paper and leather, the book dust, and the airy aroma of sheer wonder. It started with my mother, who taught me how to read when I was three by using comic books. I quickly became addicted to stories, and it eventually blossomed into a complete and absolute addiction to the written word.

Since the idea of The Enigma Club, my novel that has ballooned into a trilogy, came to me in 1996, I’ve been going to library sales and a lot of used bookstores, gathering up as many period books about the golden age of adventure and exploration that I could find — the weirder the better. (One of my favorite titles: I Married Adventure. The binding simulates the stripes of a zebra’s coat. Love it!) Of course, I didn’t limit myself to that topic — I’d pick up whatever struck my fancy at the moment.

One of those titles was I Love Books: A Guide Through Bookland.

Somehow, when I moved to Richmond, the book got separated from my Enigma Club collection, so I found it by accident today in our library as I was looking for books I no longer wanted, that I could sell to the best used bookstore in Richmond, Black Swan Books.

I’ve changed my mind. I’m keeping it. It’s a beautiful period book: written in 1946 by John D. Snider, a fellow Virginian. This edition was the 17th, published in 1958. The marbling is exquisite, the book is in almost perfect condition — it looks as tough it’s never been read — and the endpapers and illustrations are classic examples of the period’s bland style of drawing. It’s the Campbell’s Soup style of illustration: tasteless and inoffensive. (Thanks to Stephen King for the paraphrase.)

Even more importantly, I Love Books: A Guide Through Bookland, which I picked up thinking that I would find something in it of commiserative value, has pissed me off royally. I’m still keeping it; it’s beautiful. But the writer was a pompous ass.

Some time in the mid-’80s, I was at a mall bookstore looking through the paperback fiction section. Two other guys were nearby, and one turned to the other in exasperation and said, “Why do you want to read this stuff?” The second guy shrugged and said, “What? What should I read?” And the first guy said, “Like, have you ever read the Bible?”

Like, it’s that kind of limited and unimaginative attitude that pisses me off — so much so that 25 years later I haven’t forgotten that conversation. And, like, it’s that attitude that, unfortunately, permeates every page of I Love Books.

The author comes from the era and the tradition that the author is not just an expert, but THE expert on the topic, and that the writing style must be old-fashioned and authoritarian:

The story of Benjamin Franklin’s life is familiar to every schoolboy.

We have seen that a book is a creation of a living man, and should be regarded and judged somewhat as a man himself is estimated.

It is not the number of books that counts, but the kind. We are made or marred by the company we keep.

The term “fiction” has, in the thinking of many, come to connote the perverted, harmful form of imaginative writing often designed to exalt sin and sordidness, instead of portraying and glorifying truth and wholesomeness. First, we should exclude all books that tend to weaken our faith in God…

Sorry, but the custodian of the church library has no freakin’ idea what he’s talking about.

I’ve learned wonderful things from books this dead dude would have scorned: that men and women can be heroes and accomplish amazing things; that there are pink dolphins in the Amazon; that vampires are symbolic, not representative; that high school drama/trauma is universal; that bullies must be taught a lesson; that people prefer good stories over bad, no matter how well the book is written; and that, no matter what literature teachers say, there is no such thing as the perfect novel — not Catcher in the Rye, not The Great Gatsby, not A Moveable Feast, and not Attack from the Glorpnorg Nebula: Star Trek #197.

And I especially detest the holier than thou attitude that has existed since the novel first took shape in the 17th and 18th centuries: that fiction is worthless unless it glorifies God (that is, the Christian religion); and even if it does, it’s still fiction, isn’t it? It’s not real, it’s make believe, and therefore it is totally irredeemable.

This kind of attitude still exists even today. You see it in a burning hatred from the indignant, Bible-thumping masses, who despise restaurants that serve alcohol, public schools, guys with long hair (still!), tattoos, Hooters, comic books, Stephen King novels, the songs of Jimmy Buffett, and that ol’ devil rock and roll.

Coincidentally, as I was formulating my ideas for this blogpost, I visited the blog of a friend, who writes on the topic of books, both good and bad. I certainly agree with his sentiment that we should read good books, not bad. The real problems are: Who is to decide for us what is a good book but each individual reader? and Can we learn nothing from a book that critics perceive as bad?

As a reader and a writer, I’ve learned what makes a book good by reading bad books, as well as good.

And I’m a wine snob. I prefer the better wines rather the the thin, weak wines. Likewise, I prefer good writing rather than bad.

But the choosing of wines should teach us a lesson about books. No matter whether you think should have red wines with meat and white with fish, the important thing with wine is: Drink what you like. If you don’t enjoy it, why drink it?

It’s as simple as that. It should be the same with books. Read what you like, no matter who tells you what’s good and what’s bad. In time and with practice, your tastes will become discriminating, and you will learn what is good and what is bad . . . and how both can be valuable. Like Jimmy Buffett once said, “I’ve read dozens of books about heroes and crooks, and learned much from both of their styles.”

Beware of the man of one book.

Thomas Aquinas

One thought on “Beware of the man of one book.

  1. Excellent post.
    Read Triple G latest. You are on the same wave link.
    You should have worked in a library as I did and retrieved books that were going to be burned because they were ordered and then not approved for public use.
    And the stacks held a special smell of wisdom.


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