Archive for the ‘Rereading’ Category

heroineHow to Be a Heroine: Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much

Samantha Ellis

London: Chatto & Windus, 2014.

Was there ever a book so meant for me to read?  It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book and wanted to get right to the computer to write about it, but this book gave me that wonderful sense of urgency.  I must spread the word.  Others must know how wonderful this book is. 

I heard Samantha Ellis read from and discuss her book on The Guardian books podcast.  I ordered the book right away, but had to wait for its publication date in Canada.  It arrived this week.  I devoured it in a day.

Ellis begins the book on the Yorkshire moors, with her best friend Emma, and they are arguing about who they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw.  (Emma and I agree; Jane Eyre, of course.)  Ellis is adamant that Cathy Earnshaw is the heroine for her.  Emma has made her think, though, that she should revisit the question.

…. when we reached Top Withins, the skies cleared.  The clouds vanished and the sun shone, as if this was the backdrop for some moment of revelation.  Which it was.  I was wrong.

My whole life, I’d been trying to be Cathy, when I should have been trying to be Jane.

As we leaned against the warm stone, basking–actually basking–in the sun, drinking flasks of tea, I wondered why I’d written Jane off.  She is independent, and brave, and clever, and she really does stay true to herself.  And while Cathy ends up a wandering ghost, Jane ends up happily married.  The brilliant sunshine was very Jane weather, I thought; pleasant, clear and rational.  It would have rained for Cathy, there would have been thunder and lightning.  And (said a small, but firm Jane voice) we would have shivered and eaten soggy sandwiches hunched under the hoods of our waterproofs. …

I decided that when I got back to London, I would dig out my copies of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and read them again, with more scrutiny and less sentiment.  I would find out how I really felt about Cathy and Jane.  But maybe that wouldn’t be the end of it.  After all, if I’d been wrong about Cathy, had I been wrong about my other heroines too?

And so begins 18 months of re-reading and writing about all of her favourite books and heroines.   Ellis begins with fairy tales and works her way through children’s books, racy reads, “the classics” and classics of first and second wave feminism; from The Little Mermaid, to Anne of Green Gables, from Lizzy Bennet and Flora Poste, from Esther Greenwood to Lucy Honeychurch.  She revisits, among many others, Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Angela Carter.  Having read and relied on these books and their heroines to shape her growing self, who, she asks, is the heroine she needs today.

The title is a nod to Louis May Alcott’s “She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain,” and this idea of reading spoiling not just one’s eyes and brain, but marriage prospects too, comes up often in the book.  As an Iraqi Jew, whose parents fled to England as refugees, the marriage plot features heavily in Ellis’s own life.  Her parents want her to settle down with a nice Iraqi Jewish boy, but Ellis chafes against the marriage plot both in life and in literature.  She wants adventure, independence, a model for a writing life.  Ellis herself is a playwright, and a huge appeal of her book is that she traces the fates of women writing in fiction.

There is a perfect balance of autobiographical material and discussion of the books on hand.  Ellis is not just well read, she has a genuine desire to right by books and their authors.  She is a generous reader, but totally unafraid of calling herself out or her beloved writers out for failing their own heroines.  I loved her arguments with her younger self and with the authors who let their women writers sacrifice writing to marriage and children.

I loved every minute of reading this book.  It went too quickly.  I gobbled, as I often do, but this book sent me back for seconds, it sent me to my own bookshelves to pull down my own copies of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Cold Comfort Farm, The Bloody Chamber, To the Lighthouse, I Capture the Castle, and and and.  It also sent me looking for books I haven’t yet read: Lolly Willowes and South Riding.  It did, in other words, what all great books about books should do: it gave me the pleasure of revisiting old favourites and the joy of anticipating new reads.

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Like a Clearing in the Forest

A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign.  Since you, the reader, are that hero of modern literature, the existential loner, the smallest denominator of moral force, it behooves you to take counsel, sustenance, and solace from the writers who have been writing about you these hundred or five hundred years, to sequester yourself with their books and read and reread them to get a fix on yourself and a purchase on the world that will, with luck, like the house in the clearing, last you for life. (129-130)

Poet L.E. Sissman, quoted in Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

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reading for girls

I loved this article by Samantha Ellis in The Observer about how her female role models from her favourite books may have led her astray.  A piece to file alongside The Heroine’s Bookshelf and Reading Women.  Coming Soon:  An Uncommon Heroine: Scarlett, Edna, Sula and More Than 20 Other of the Most Remarkable Women in Literature by Jamie Cox Robertson.

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Rowan (5) asked me today if we could re-read The Hobbit.  We have already re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this year at his request.  Of course, I am well used to reading picture books over and over and over again, but I am so excited to be reading chapter books aloud to him, and there are so, so many great ones out there, that I’m a little reluctant to spend precious reading time on territory we have already explored.  I want to forge ahead.  Explore new territory.  And yes, I confess, tick boxes.  The only thing I like better than a lovely list is a list with checkmarks.

Then again, there is the enormous importance of depth as well as breadth.  I have nothing in mind except my sons’ enjoyment when we read together.  I am not aiming to make them better readers, faster readers, earlier readers, writers of their own books, or future famous authors who will support me in my dotage with their vast income from writing fiction.  There’s hockey for that.

No.  No ulterior motives.  I have a passion, and I want to share it.   And how better to love a book than to be repeatedly immersed in its world, its words, its rhythms? 

Two other bloggers I follow have written about these joys this week.  Kerry Clare quoted a marvelous passage from Pete Sanger:

Every night, after tea, his mother took him on her lap and read to him. It was the moment in his day above all others which was understandable to him, one where he lived in coherent companionship and liberty. There, horses, ducks, rabbits, foxes and other animals talked, had adventures, and were friends. His mother read well. She read slowly and clearly. She let him see the book as she read and since she re-read the same books many times, he came to memorize the story on each page, cued by the illustration on it or on the facing page. And knowing the story before the story was told was security, power, delight and beauty.

Pete Sanger, “Leaping Time” in The New Quarterly 118

And Sarah Henstra writes beautifully about her son’s attachment to known books here.  I love her point (made in the context of a discussion about characters from The Hobbit reappearing in The Fellowship of the Ring), about the joy of return:

Dr. Tolkien knows these joys of repetition.  He knows the boy-reader’s desire not just to chart new territory but to visit old haunts.  … Hearing from old friends offers respite from the relentless quest. 

I have promised Rowan The Fellowship of the Ring for our summer reading, when there are longer stretches of time.  In the mean time, we will revisit Bilbo, circle back on and pack down our path through the books that I hope will sustain him for a lifetime.

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‘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.

Cover of 84, Charing Cross Road

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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A reading week organized by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons.

Unknown Masterpieces: Writers Rediscover Literature’s Hidden Classics

Edited by Edwin Frank

New York: New York Review of Books, 2003.

A review and a giveaway.


In this collection of essays about books that are less well known than they should be–commissioned essays written by well-known authors and that serve as introductions to books in the NYRB Classics series–I found unknown talent in writers I admire, for which I am forever grateful. 

Toni Morrison’s Introduction to The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye took my breath away, and I can only say now, “What a fool am I not to have discovered her critical writing sooner.”  She achieves what is to me the magic balance of enthusiasm and erudition, and her extensive knowledge of African literature never overwhelms the subtlety and focus of her discussion of Laye’s book.

In Western novels published up to and throughout the 1950s, Africa, while offering the occasion for knowledge, seemed to keep its own unknowableness intact. … In that racially charged context, … coming upon Camara Laye’s Le Regard du roi in the English translation known as The Radiance of the King was shocking.  This extraordinary novel accomplished something brand new.  The clichéd journey into African darkness either to bring light or to find it is reimagined here.  In fresh metaphorical and symbolical language, storybook Africa, as site of therapeutic exploits or of sentimental initiations leading towards life’s diploma, is reinvented.  Employing the idiom of the conqueror, using exactly and precisely the terminology of the dominant discourse on Africa, this extraordinary Guinean author plucked at the Western eye to prepare it to meet the “regard,” the “look,” the “gaze” of an African king. (55-57) 

With graceful strokes, Morrison situates Laye’s book in African literary history, makes a case for its being called a classic, and then engages in detail with its themes of sight and discovery.  Apt themes for an unknown classic.

This collection is an ideal introduction to the NYRB Classics series itself, providing, as it does, introductions to thirteen of the more than 100 titles in the series.  The collection takes its title from Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, one of the books in the series, and Edwin Frank has this to say about it:

one of the implications of Balzac’s teasing fable is that our attachment to art–all those things we claim not to know much about but know we like–depends as much on our being able to find something to say in response to it as it does on the supposedly simple evidence of our senses.  No one disputes the fine points of natural beauty–waterfall, wildflower–but books of any sort are sustained less through universal acclamation than through the excited, often contradictory, exchanges of their readers. (xii)

The ability to wax enthusiastic about a beloved text and then go on to frame a discussion in a wider context is precisely what the best of these essays achieves: they find something to say about that ineffable thing called book love.

I don’t think I have ever read a true crime book, being guilty of what Luc Sante calls putting the genre in the literary slums, but reading his introduction to Classic Crimes, 12 stories of the trials of notorious criminals by William Roughead, makes me want to read this one.  Sante calls Roughead the Henry James of true crime.  Just look at how he sings his praises:

His prose represents the full range of the English language, circa 1880, as played on a cathedral organ with the largest possible number of manuals, pedals, and stops.  He traffics in rare words, disused expressions, abstruse variants, and strictly local idioms, deploying them for reasons that are sometimes historical, sometimes psychological, often shamelessly musical. (105).

The TBR list, my own personal list of greats and greats-to-be-discovered, being what it is, I am likely never to read Roughead, but I am grateful to have heard his praises sung so well. 

That is the joy of a collection such as this: you can add to your TBR list, but you can also simply enjoy the enthusiasm of writers who share so eloquently their passion for books.

I have an extra copy of Unknown Masterpieces.  If you would like it, leave me a note in comments and I will do a draw on Friday and mail it off.

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The New York Review of Books reading week, hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons, begins next week.  If you have a NYRB book on your TBR pile, here is the chance to get it read.  There are prizes if that entices.

I will be reviewing Unknown Masterpieces: Writers Rediscover Literature’s Hidden Classics.

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There is a wonderful essay by Richard Ford on rereading, “A Different Hunger,” from Eighteen Bridges, a new literary magazine published by Lynn Coady and Curtis Gillespie out of Edmonton. 

Mostly we don’t have the time to reread books, of course. I know I don’t. … The point here (unsurprisingly) is that rereading a treasured and well-used book is a very different enterprise from reading a book the first time. It’s not that you don’t enter the same river twice. You actually do. It’s just not the same you who does the entering. By the time you get to the second go-round, you probably know—and know more about—what you don’t know, and are possibly more comfortable with that, at least in theory. And you come to a book the second or third time with a different hunger, … and what you do and don’t have time for, and what you might reasonably hope to gain from a later look.

The first issue of Eighteen Bridges is available on-line, and it’s full of riches, including a story by Lisa Moore. 

Read an interview with Lynn Coady about her new venture here.

The whole of Ford’s essay is here.

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Susan Hill

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home

London: Profile Books, 2009.

The first thing I want to say about this book is that I really wish I had had the idea first.  Susan Hill went hunting through her farmhouse in the North Cotswolds for Howards End and found, instead, dozens of books that she had not yet read, had forgotten having read and wanted to re-read, so she swore off buying any new books for a year, and read from home.  In a wonderfully varied and digressive series of short essays she takes a voyage through her own library, and it is a rich and entertaining chronicle. 

This is an apt introduction to books about books because she includes so many aspects of the category: libraries, rare books, book collecting, marginalia, fonts, publishing, her individual history of reading, discussions of individual writers, the making and breaking of literary reputations, the English educational system of which she was a product, and much more. 

The book was also written in the year that marked the fiftieth anniversary of her having been a professional writer, with thirty-seven books to her name, and though she is never explicit about the anniversary, the book and all of the love of reading that it records seem a wonderful way to celebrate that milestone. 

If this isn’t a great blog idea, I don’t know what is, but of course, she’s got years on me, and I don’t have anything like the library she does.  Really, I just need to practice self-control when it comes to book buying.  A colleague of my husband’s came to our house about five years ago and said, “I thought there would be more books.”  Her comment was a license to buy, pure and simple, but I have used it too liberally, and I am now catching up with all the books that have gathered in drifts and piles around the house.  (I used to worry that my bedside table was lethal to the kids because of its sharp corners.  Now I fear they could be crushed under an avalanche if one of the tottering piles of books by my bed gets nudged.) 

Impossible as this may sound, I, too, have now sworn off buying books for myself for a year.  As of today, January 15, I am in a record-setting position: it has been a month since I have bought a book.[1][2][3][4][5]  I will try to experience the thrill of buying books vicariously as I read about others’ libraries.

“Library” is not quite the right word for Susan Hill’s books, because it connotes a restricted place as well as a collection, and her books are scattered throughout her house with an organizing principle known only to her. 

I have an abiding love of floor plans.  I love to look at the floor plans in the newspaper ads for new condos and McMansions.  I fall headlong into them and imagine all the possibilities for the clean bare rooms.  Unlike the staged houses in decorating magazines, there really is nothing to quarrel with in a floor plan, nothing to interfere with my superimposing my fantasy onto the clean, bare grid.  Oh! To live without clutter!  

Susan Hill’s house seems to be full of book clutter, but somehow making my way through the chapters of this book gave me a similar kind of satisfaction.  Like floor plans, her book fed my imagination.  The rooms in her sixteenth-century cottage came gradually into shape in my mind’s eye as she described the books that dwell within them.  Hill has books in every room of her house, and each room emerges, first and foremost, as a place where books live and are lovingly read.  Though I could not live with the higgledy piggledy arrangement and scattering of books, I was captured by the description of the entire house as a home for books: the “small, dark den,” the various landings, the shelves over the doors, her bedside table, the lair of the SP, the Shakespeare Professor Stanley Wells, to whom she is married. 

In her introduction , she writes, “I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes.”  The cartographic verb is apt; she gives the reader a layered map of the house, its books, its owner and the many forces that shaped her: “let us cross the den and open the small door which, like the one in the back of the wardrobe that led into Narnia, now gives out not into our hall, as it really should, but into the book stacks of the London Library.”

There are chapters on various genres—poetry, comedy, drama, children’s books, pop-up books, diaries—and chapters on individual writers—Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Ian Flemming, Iris Murdock, Roald Dahl—and into these she weaves personal, historical and social contexts. 

Most interesting to me were the chapters on the book as object, as a physical presence.  Here is what she has to say about her favourite font, designed by Ralph Beyer for the new Coventry Cathedral, consecrated in 1962: “It is strange to have a font, of all things, bound up with your life, but this one speaks to me of places and people and time, all precious to me; if you cut me open, I daresay that whatever is carved upon my heart will be in Ralph Beyer lettering.”  This is what I mean when I talk about the physicality of the book: not just its own physical properties, but its physical effects, real or imagined, on us as readers.  There is a chapter on electronic books and how they would eliminate the tactile pleasure of books, of the things that fall out of books, of marginalia, and of the smell of libraries and borrowed books, which each have a chapter to themselves. 

She is wonderful on the description of writing in books and which books invite or forbid the reader’s inscriptions.  She is adamant that those who keep their immaculate Folio books arranged in alphabetical order are probably not proper readers in any case, and she looks down her nose at those who have rigid systems of classification: “I know people who own thousands of books and can tell you the exact spot where every single one of them is shelved.  They colour coordinate them, or arrange them by alphabet or author or subject.  Well, that is what collectors enjoy doing, with books arranged like stamps in albums.  Good luck to them.  My father’s sock drawer was just the same.” 

In one of the shortest chapters in the book, she makes a daring confession: “I am bored by Jane Austen.  There now, I’ve said it.”  While she examines her books by Austen, she says, “I remember what an English teacher at school told me long ago when I confessed to her—a passionate and knowledgeable Janeite—that I could not get along with the novels.  ‘Nor could I at your age.  Don’t worry.  She will seem very different when you grow up.’  So I put the Oxford complete novels back on the shelf, to wait until then.”  I love that.  I love that sense of there still being many reading years ahead and hope for change.  I often feel that I will never have read enough, done enough, that there is never enough time.  If, at nearly seventy, she can calmly reshelve books and wait for the right time to read them, then so can I.

One serious quarrel I have with the book, apart from her indifference to Jane Austen, is Hill’s disdain for the colonies.  It really is such an English snobbery, but she has no time for Canadian or Australian literature.  The stories of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are, she declares, all alike.  Did she confer with Victoria Glendenning, I wonder.  You can take it as a mark of the book’s merits that I like the rest of the book in spite of this terrible transgression of good taste. 

She has a rather endearing way of referring often to her schooling and her academic achievements, her A and O levels, her university texts and striped college scarf.  However, there is rather too much mention of what works of poetry or passages of prose she has by heart; the phrase “have it by heart” pops up a few times too many, and I felt a strong editorial hand was required there so as to tame the preening school-girl persona.

One effect of reading this book is that Hill makes me feel that education is wasted on the young.  I want to go back to my own books, fill in gaps and pull down the books that got lost in the wake of Ph.D. specialization. 

She has given me a few items to add to my wishlist, but more important than a list of more books to read and re-read, she has shown me how I might house mine differently.  A friend of mine was recently trapped on her landing: having gotten one child down for a nap, she dared not walk past the bedroom of her sister, a light sleeper who was also napping.  She sat on the landing between bedrooms and read. 

The stairs in our house squeak loudly enough to wake the dead, so I know her fear, but I would have been trapped on my kids’ landing with nothing to read. I keep all my favourite books close to me, by my bed, in the bookshelves in my bedroom, surrounding me at my desk.  They are almost all collected on the top floor of the house, where I have my bedroom and study.  I shall stop hoarding them now, spread them out a bit, let them speak to others who might wander through the as yet bookless rooms in my house.

[1]Well, except for the Scholastic books that I ordered for Griffin and Rowan today.  I did buy the boys four books today.

[2] I also bought a book earlier this week for Ted for Valentine’s Day.  (Hi, honey.)

[3] I guess in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I also bought two travel guides to Scotland today.  I had lunch with Ted in the food court under his building, and he picked up travel brochures, and we decided on Scotland for our 10-year anniversary trip, and he went back to work, and I went into the bookstore and picked up two travel guides, and then I put them back on the shelf and phoned him and said I simply could not break my record-breaking one-month stint of not buying books and that he would have to come back down and buy them, and he said it wouldn’t’ really count if I bought them for him and saved him the trip, so I did.

[4] And when we went to see High Fidelity at the Hart House Theatre tonight, I not so much hinted as told Ted that he should pick up a copy of Nick Hornby’s novel on which the play was based.

[5] I’m doomed, aren’t I?

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