The dear old Guardian the other day published what the kids call a “listicle” – basically a themed list of items air-pumped into roughly the dimensions of an actual column – on a subject near to my heart: good books about books and reading, and I was right away reminded of a good three dozen such books I’ve loved over the course of my short and sexy life. The Guardian‘s listicle was written by Rebecca Mead, who is herself the author of one of the sub-categories of book – the “bibliomemoir” – she takes as her topic: she wrote My Life in Middlemarch, a book (warmly reviewed by my Open Letters colleague Rohan Maitzen, one of the world’s leading experts on Middlemarch and all things Eliot) about her involvement with George Eliot’s masterpiece. And for her listicle, she includes books like Michael Gorra’s extremely good Portrait of a Novel, about Portrait of a Lady, Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose, and Laura Miller’s book The Magician’s Book, about the world of Narnia.
So, in the belated spirit of the thing, here’s a listicle of my own on the subject! Six books I enjoyed about books and reading, to go in your ‘recommended’ file:
So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid – This slim, pocket-sized volume features Zaid’s most polished and dolorous viewpoints about the world of books, written right at the moment when that world was on the edge of transforming itself yet again, this time to accommodate e-readers that Zaid can only dimly imagine (in his list of the superiority of reading books over reading on a computer, he says, for instance, that “books are cheap,” that “books are portable,” that “books can be read without an appointment,” etc. – all objections annihilated by hand-sized e-readers that can be read in the dark and through which an eager reader can purchase a copy of virtually anything at any time of the day or night). Zaid makes a great many literary allusions in a small amount of pages, but the main attraction here, perversely, is watching our author worry about one bookish impossibility after another:
A reader who reads carefully, reflects, engages in lively conversation with other readers, remembers, and rereads can become acquainted with a thousand books in a lifetime. A prodigious or professional reader, who handles and consults books with specific intent, can read perhaps several times as many, rarely more. But there are million of books for sale, dozens of millions in libraries, and uncounted millions of unpublished manuscripts. There are more books to contemplate than stars in a night on the high seas. In this immensity, how is a reader to find his personal constellation, those books that will put his life in communication with the universe? And how is a single book among the millions to find its readers?
(Needless to say, the first time I read that “thousand books in a lifetime” bit, I nearly fainted dead away)
On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – I was drawn instantly to this excellent 2011 book, for an obvious reason: I dearly love re-reading (in fact, the only dark cloud over my current reading landscape is that the enormously-increased number of new books I now read has greatly reduced my re-reading time and given it the allure of a guilty pleasure). Spacks analyzes the phenomenon of re-reading with a very pleasingly sharp intelligence, getting eventually to the heart of the matter:
Willingness to yield oneself to the text in a way impossible the first time through is, I think, the crucial element in rereading. As denunciations of television customarily points out, reading, unlike tv-watching, is an active process. The reader engages in constant judgment and interpretation, involved in a sequence of challenge and response. The rereader customarily feels less pressure.
End Papers by A. Edward Newton – this 1933 volume of “Literary Recreations” by fussy, fastidious book-collector Newton comes the closest in my listicle to the particular kind of book-about-book whose current master is Nicholas Basbanes: the mania of book-collecting, of rare editions and incunabula and the like. This is the part of the book-world that interests me the least (whenever the Boston Book Fair rolls around, for instance, I give it a wide berth), but it often makes for lively books, and Newton wrote some lively books. In this one, he moves between straightforward appreciations of authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and specific reviews that preserve his garrulous tone, as when he opens a review of Henry Clinton Hutchins’s Robinson Crusoe and Its Printing with, “When a book by an American scholar is favorably reviewed in the London Times Supplement one may conclude that the work has merit; so much merit, in fact that the reviewer has been unable to ‘dust the varlet’s jacket’ as he, no doubt, intended to do at the outset.” I suppose it’s possible that Newton’s books themselves are now collectible – he’d have appreciated that (and expected nothing less).
Reading in Bed edited by Steven Gilbar – This delightful 1995 volume typifies another kind of book-about-book, perhaps the most popular kind: the anthology of book-writing. Gilbar collects some of the best such writing here, from Herman Hesse’s “The Magic of the Book” to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Books Which Have Influenced Me” to Hazlitt’s “On Reading Old Books” to, of course, Montaigne’s “The Commerce of Reading.” Books like this – and this is a dandy example – work so well because they bristle with gems you’d otherwise have to hunt through your library to find, like this wonderful bit by Joseph Epstein on the weird ways books fit (and shape) the people who read them:
The one clear advantage of the bookish life over the life of action is that, unlike the latter, the pleasures of the former do not decrease with age. As for the utility of drawing up a list of books, such a list seems almost as useless, and as impossible to follow, as a plan for life. The mystery and the wonder of it is that, somehow or other, the books one needs are the books one finds. But only a very accurate fortune teller could list them for you now and by title.
Lost in a Book by Victor Nell – This great, meaty 1988 study of “The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure” is surprisingly almost free from academic jargon, despite having Appendices and a Bibliography as long as your arm. It’s true, the noxious word “ludic” crops up quite often, but the author’s writing style is so winning you can almost ignore it while you’re enjoying his wide-ranging examination of this activity you’re engaging in right now. Just listen to how powerfully good Nell is on this subject:
Reading for pleasure is an extraordinary activity. The black squiggles on the white page are still as the grave, colorless as the moonlit desert; but they give the skilled reader a pleasure as acute as the touch of a loved body, as rousing, colorful, and transfiguring as anything out there in the real world. And yet, the more stirring the book the quieter the reader; pleasure reading breeds a concentration so effortless that the absorbed reader of fiction (transported by the book to some other place, and shielded by it from distraction), who is so often reviled as an escapist and denounced as the victim of a vice as pernicious as tippling in the morning should instead be the envy of every student and every teacher.
I love this book (despite that bit about ‘transportation’ only happening to readers of boring old fiction) and, needless to say, I love re-reading it.
Passions of the Mind by A. S. Byatt – One kind of “book about books” is of course that most rarefied of publishing boondoggles, the collection of old book reviews. The idea of this boondoggle is ancient, and I’ve never really understood how it could possibly have a wide enough appeal to justify a printing press run. And yet somehow the math continues to make these things possible, and one of favorite is this 1991 volume by the great English author of Possession and The Children’s Hour. Here she reflects at length on a wide variety of writers, from Barbara Pym to Iris Murdoch to Robert Browning to – and here we come full circle – George Eliot, whom she celebrates on many grounds, including the personal:
And I, as a woman writer, am grateful that she stands there, hidden behind the revered Victorian sage, and the Great English Tradition – a writer who could make links between mathematical skill and sexual inadequacy, between Parliamentary Reform and a teenager’s silly choice of husband, between Evangelical hypocrisy and medical advance, or its absence. When I was a girl I was impressed by John Davenport’s claim, in a Sunday novel-column, that “nobody had ever really described what it felt like to be a woman.” I now think that wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. People are always describing that, sometimes ad nauseam. George Eliot did that better than most writers, too – because it was not all she did: she made a world, in which intellect and passion, day-to-day cares and movements of whole societies cohere and disintegrate. She offered us scope, not certainties. That is what I would wish to celebrate.