What’s better than reading a book?
How about reading a book about books?
Woo hoo! I love books about books about books. There’s something about being accepted as a pathological bibliomaniac that warms the foxed pages of my heart.
In the interest of full disclosure, this list is neither long nor comprehensive because I feel squeamish about including books that I haven’t read. So, all those listed here are tried and true, by yours truly. Here are a few of my favorite books about books:
When Books Went to War – Molly Guptill Manning
The true story about America’s effort to bring books to soldiers during WWII. Encouraged to fight the censorship and book-burning of the Nazis, our country wanted to bring stories to our troops to help ease the strife of convalescing in hospitals, offer a distraction to those on the front lines, and ease the boredom that often overtook many soldiers’ days. There were successful book drives, and eventually the War Department took over the massive undertaking of printing paperbacks and getting them to our men and women overseas.
I learned about ASEs (Armed Services Editions) of popular best-sellers, and well as the existence of the oft-sought-after Forever Amber, which was apparently quite a scandalous read at the time. I highly recommend this book; more than just the interesting explanations of how the book printing and distribution operated, Manning also includes personal stories of soldiers’ reactions to books they might have never otherwise encountered. Most importantly, this book shows us how comforting and necessary the written word can be.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
This is the most meta of all books about books. First translated from the Italian in 1981, I am in awe that this book was in existence for almost my entire life, waiting, silently, for me.
The frame story is of a reader who goes to a bookstore to buy a book called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, but the copy he buys is incomplete due to some kind of publishing mistake. When he attempts to buy a new copy, that one is also incorrect, and his third attempt is the wrong book all together, and so on, but he keeps on reading the copies. He ends up reading ten beginnings of ten different books, all of which tie up at the end. And the ending is delightful!
You, as the reader, are also included in the story with second person POV. So, along with the story of this reader buying and reading the beginning of the books, you’re also presented with ten opening book chapters, which are mostly like short stories and are fascinating unto themselves.
Calvino weaves in philosophical discussion about books, about loving the beginnings of books in particular. The beginnings of books are full of potential, and that expectant adventure is what Calvino hones in on. There were so many epiphanies in this book, so many times I wanted to shout “Eureka! He’s done it!” or, in more keeping with my personality, “Dude. Just wow.” It’s original, captivating, definitive, joyful.
To paraphrase Clifford Geertz and Bertrand Russell, it’s just novels all the way down.
History of the Rain – Niall Williams
One of my Favorite Books of All Time (and that’s a very exclusive distinction). I want to clasp Williams’s hands in mine and thank him for capturing the words that knock about in my bookish soul.
Ruth Swain lives in the attic loft of what is essentially a ramshackle castle, surrounded by 3,000 of her deceased father’s books. While she’s convalescing/dying of some unnamed cancerous illness, she decides to get to know her father better by reading his library. The language beautifully captures the human condition, especially as it relates to the love of literature. I couldn’t stop highlighting passages, such as “ . . . went down among the shelves and felt company, not only the company of the writers, but the readers, too, because they had lifted and opened and read these books.”
Highly recommended for romantic bibliophiles.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
I passed over this epistolary novel numerous times because of the title. It gave me an “old lady lit” impression that I am chagrined to admit. It sounded like ice cream socials, and gosh-darn-its, and “something so funny happened at church on Sunday when a bee flew into the sanctuary.” I could not have been more wrong.
Set in 1946, the story revolves around Juliet, a London writer who begins corresponding with a group of people who claim to be a literary society in Guernsey. This society was formed as a ruse to fool the German occupiers. There is a much deeper story than Juliet first encounters, and she becomes absorbed with this group of friends and their tales of the occupation.
Please don’t succumb to my initial prejudice. This is the kind of book that when you pass a copy in the used book store you have to reach out and run your finger on the spine and smile.
Howard’s End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home – Susan Hill
Aaaand, here I am feeling squeamish, because I haven’t read this book. I just discovered its existence and read some reviews online, and it seems like my cuppa.
The author had a realization that she owned too many books (I don’t understand this “too many” she’s talking about) and decided to devote a year of her reading life to only reading what is in her home library. I’m not sure if this might fall into the self-indulgent side of many of these types of year-long experiments, but I still hold out hope for introspection without overflowing self-absorption. Many reviewers have admonished the author for name-dropping and limiting herself to British authors, but I’m still interested. If anyone has any experience with this one, please let me know in the comments.
And, just in case you think I’m done here, no sir! More to come. There are many books about books that are worth reading, so PART TWO will be on its way soon. What are your favorite books about books? Recommendations welcome!