‘Tis the season for lists.
Here is my list of favourite books about books, with brief raves and links to my posts. The only one without a link is Anne Fadiman, whose Ex Libris was my first book about books. I love it so much I can’t write about it, but I buy copies often to give as gifts. If you have not read it yet, please do.
Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is a collection of perfectly polished essays about loving and living with books. Each essay is a gem. You cannot do better than this collection for a book about books. It should be on every bibliophile’s bookshelf.
Helene Hanff’s Q’s Legacy and 84, Charing Cross Road
When I first started collecting books about books, I would run across mentions of 84, Charing Cross Road frequently. None of them did justice to its charms. None of them prepared me for my infatuation with the book. This is a collection of the letters exchanged between a woman in New York and the staff of a London bookstore who provide her with the books she cannot find at home. It reads like an epistolary novel, complete with careful pacing of the plot and pitch-perfect characterization. I love the spark that comes from the clash of English reserve and American forthrightness. Helene’s persona as a letter writer is endearingly brash. It made me laugh; it made me cry. It is another indispensable book for bibliophiles.
In Q’s Legacy, Hanff tells the story of what fostered her love of English literature, and it is a memoir whose voice and charms have stayed with me. She is just so damned sure of herself. This is one to read after 84, Charing Cross because in addition to giving the back story to her exchange of letters with Frank Doel, she takes up the story of the afterlife of that book. (It was made into a play and a movie.)
Nick Hornby’s first and other collections of book reviews also play with the culture gap between England and America. He is unapologetically English with his prose style, but he explains things for his readers in America, with great comedic effect. These are the collected “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns from The Believer, but they work really well collected in book form. Inside jokes mature from one month to the next, and it is always fun to see if/when the books that appear in his “Books Bought” column will turn up in his “Books Read” column. There is often no overlap between the two, which is comforting, really. I am a crazy woman in a bookstore, and it’s nice to know that I am not alone. (My friend Marcelle gave me a button that reads “I’m not to be trusted in a bookstore with a credit card.”)
Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing gave me the idea of trying to put a stop to my book buying at the beginning of this year. That’s what she did: she spent a year with the books she already owned, and this is a memoir of her student and writing life through the rereading of the books on her shelves. Again, it is her wonderfully assured voice that stays with me. This is a woman with firm opinions, and it is so refreshing to read opinions that come from a writer’s character and not out of a need to shock or make tweet traffic.
Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop must go on to a top ten list, to represent a book about bookstores. Part cultural history, part memoir, this is a lovely book to curl up with. He has such a sensible outlook on the whole business of book selling, and it was relaxing to read a book that took the long view and was not all doom and gloom about the current state of books and print.
Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book is one of the most well-written books I read all year. I loved every minute of reading this book, and I simply marveled at Miller’s prose. This is a book about her changing relationship to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, but it is also a biography of Lewis and literary criticism about the books themselves. Miller moves deftly between these narrative modes, and her autobiography is shot through with the clean, crisp prose of research. I recommend it highly for any book lover.
Fellow New-Yorker David Denby’s Great Books was also one of my favourite reads of the year. I picked up his book for my stint of reading books about the great books, and I found so much more than I expected. Again, it was how he incorporated autobiography into his discussion of the great books programme at Columbia University that made the book exceptional. His chapter on King Lear blew my socks off with its poignant reading of Shakespeare through his mother’s demanding personality.
One of my great joys as a mother is reading to my kids, and I have discovered a wonderful world of books about children’s books in my quest to find the next great book to read with them. Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children ranks among my favourites because, like Laura Miller, you sense that the words on the page represent just a fraction of the encyclopedic knowledge that the authors possess about their subjects. Silvey caters to the keener in me, and she provides all kinds of wonderful anecdotes about the authors’ lives and publishing careers along with brief synopses of the books. Her vast store of knowledge is now also available in daily instalments online.
Ahhh. That felt great! Bibliophilia, autobiography, memoir, anglophilia, women with strong opinions. What’s not to love? I hope some of them have piqued your interest.
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