The joy of books-about-books

I’m a sucker for booktalk. I can waste hours on blogs and the Twitterverse, hours which I know, I know, I could be spending reading. Books about books fulfil a useful function, therefore, and I love them. My favourites, in no particular order:

– The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, and Stuff I’ve Been Reading, by Nick Hornby. These are two collections of Nick Hornby’s bookish articles for Believer magazine, spanning the last 8 years or so. I love his writing style – conversational and unpretentious and completely non-judgmental – but more importantly, these books have led me to other books which I otherwise would never have read. The most memorable example was his rave review of ‘How to Live’ by Sarah Bakewell. I am not the kind of person who would typically wander into Waterstones and pick up a biography of Montaigne (in fact I had barely even heard of Montaigne), but I bought it on his sayso and I’m so glad I did.

– Howard’s End is on the Landing, by Susan Hill. I read this before I read any of Susan Hill’s fiction (the Simon Serrailler books are my favourites) and I still like to curl up with it on cold winter nights. This explores a year of ‘reading from home’, ie a year Hill spent not buying any new books, but instead exploring her (beautiful, from the sound of it) home and all of the lost souls already on her bookshelves. I re-read this about once a year, and it’s one of the few books I actually own both in paperback and on Kindle, just in case.

– Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman. If you ever need a stocking filler for a booklover, this is the one. A series of short articles on a number of aspects of bibliomania; a bit like having a conversation with an old friend.

– My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff/The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. New entries, both of which I’ve only read in the past couple of months. They are different to the four above – they’re bibliomemoirs, both focusing on a single book or author, and I’m not sure I will re-read either of them as often as I revisit the others. That said, I enjoyed them both as stories of how engagement with literature can change people. I read My Salinger Year in an evening, and it raced along, like a coming-of-age novel. The Road to Middlemarch was more ‘grown-up’ (whatever that means), engaging more deeply with a single novel – Middlemarch, unsurprisingly – and teaching me a lot of things I didn’t know about George Eliot. Less autobiography, more biography, but as much engagement with Dorothea Brooke as with either author. Rakoff and Mead also both made me want to read or re-read the originals (Salinger and Middlemarch), which can only be a good thing.

– Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson. This is similar in theme to My Salinger Year and The Road to Middlemarch, but belongs in its own sub-bullet (a) because of how different its subject matter is – three millennia away from the other two, and (b) because it was one of my few five-star reads of 2014, and easily the most surprising.

I have a couple more, waiting in my TBR pile. There’s The Most Dangerous Book, which I’m hoping will finally give me a push to finish Ulysses. There’s Among the Janeites, about Jane Austen fandom. Not to mention a chunky TBR pile of literary biographies, including The Imperfect Life of TS Eliot and pretty much everything that Claire Tomalin has ever written. (Actually most of Claire Tomalin is on my Amazon wishlist, but let’s be honest – it probably won’t be long.) All in all, it’s shaping up to be a pretty bookish year…


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