The death of Joan Rivers leaves the world with one less comedian, acerbic fashion commentator and cable TV gadfly, but Rivers’ passing also marks the exit of one of the world’s most avid readers.
Rivers, a tireless talker and stand-up comic, was most closely associated with the spoken word, although she was also a popular author – the talent behind last year’s “I Hate Everyone ... Starting With Me” and “Diary of a Mad Diva,” published earlier this summer.
But Rivers was not only a bestselling author, but a bibliophile of long standing.
Rivers’ bookish side probably didn’t mesh very well with her public image as a pop culture commentator, which is perhaps why she didn’t discuss it very much.
But in a 2012 interview with The New York Times, Rivers talked in surprising detail about her reading life, an avocation that had led her to some pretty cerebral volumes.
She was a fan of a four-volume history of English kings by Thomas B. Costain. “I read this one every 10 years,” Rivers told the Times. “It sounds insane, but it’s a real page-turner.”
Rivers was, oddly enough, a big history fan. “My favorite literary genre, seriously, is European history, but only up to Napoleon,” she said. “The minute Shorty comes on the scene, I’m not interested.”
Rivers recommended “Mary Poppins,” “The Secret Garden” and “The Middle Moffat” as ideal children’s books. “There is also a series of books called ‘Tales of the Wild West,’ by Rick Steiber,” Rivers added. “They’re almost pamphlets, and they contain true eyewitness accounts of all kinds of lives lived on the frontier.”
Rivers told the Times that reading was a big tradition in her family. “Every Saturday night for years my husband and I would end up at the old Doubleday store on Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets,” she recalled. “We would take (daughter) Melissa, and the deal was, you could buy any book you wanted (don’t look at the price) as long as you promised to read it.... We went home loaded with shopping bags filled with books.”
Rivers also confessed to reading strictly for enjoyment. “I use books totally for my pleasure,” she said. “If I don’t enjoy them, I don’t finish them. They’re not assignments. They’re my happiness.”
There you have it – the ideal of books as sources of happiness. Not a bad way to remember a lady who brought so much happiness to her fans.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”