8

‘The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’ by Laura Miller *****

I have never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but I could not get enough of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I remember, on a couple of occasions, finishing the last paperback in the series – a gorgeous boxed edition which my mother was given when she was a child, and passed on to me – and going right back to the beginning. I have read the series in adulthood, and found it almost as magical.

I was therefore very keen to read Laura Miller’s memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which charts her own experiences of reading the Chronicles, both in childhood and adulthood. She writes: ‘My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as heady as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.’ Jonathan Lethem deems Miller’s book a ‘superb long essay’, ‘conversational, embracing and casually erudite’, and Karen Joy Fowler calls it ‘smart, meticulous, and altogether delightful’.

The Magician’s Book chronicles – pardon the pun – Miller’s ‘long, tumultuous relationship’ with C.S. Lewis’ books. Just as I did as a young teenager, Miller discovered the wealth of Christian material which suffused the books; these seem obvious to me as an older reader, but as a child, they went right over my head. Miller’s experience from this point veered in a different direction to mine; I was still keen to submerge myself within the books, but the ‘Christian themes left [Miller] feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust.’

As an adult, Miller – who was working as a literary critic at the time – came to the stories from a different perspective. She decided to investigate the Chronicles, alongside Lewis’ life, ‘to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes’. She was thankfully enraptured by the stories once more, and was able to recapture some of the childhood love which she felt for them. She muses at length upon the Christian symbolism in the novels, explaining why she initially felt let down by this element, and how cleverly Lewis drew parallels between the two. She examines, too, the role of women and race within the novels, and the lack of distinct politics in Narnia, amongst so many other elements.

I loved the mixing of Miller’s own memoir alongside a quite detailed biography of C.S. Lewis himself. She visits the places in which he lived, in both England and Ireland, and travels to the specific Irish landscapes which inspired portions of the books. Miller found Lewis to be a man ‘who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation’. In her research, she was particularly interested in his all-engulfing friendship with Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the influence which he has had upon a slew of modern writers, including Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen. Miller gives a fantastic commentary regarding mythology and Medieval romance, and its influences on both Lewis and Tolkien.

The Magician’s Book opens with a reflection of Miller’s childhood, when the greatest love which she felt was for the Narnia stories. She writes in especially touching prose here, telling us: ‘I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.’ Narnia showed the young Laura how she ‘could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.’

Miller writes beautifully throughout about Narnia and its magic. She also details how formative reading the Chronicles were, and how they provided a sort of moral and educational primer for its child readers. She says, for instance: ‘To me, the best children’s books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood – a vast tundra of tedious years – could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters…’.

I found The Magician’s Book fascinating. Miller offers a thorough, even intricate, work of literary criticism. I left with a renewed love for the Narnia books myself, as well as a list of a few other lists and authors to explore – something which I greatly appreciate. The Magician’s Book is, overall, a fantastic melding of a variety of genres and interests, and of themes and elements found within a children’s series which contains an awful lot of depth.

As Miller puts it so wonderfully herself, Narnia ‘mixed up classical and Northern mythologies, canonical fairy tales and slangy modern schoolchildren, myth and satire, all with such cheerful indiscrimination.’ This is a wonderful piece of literary criticism, and I can only hope that every fan of Narnia will have the chance to pick it up.

5

‘I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life’ by Anne Bogel ****

I have wanted to read Anne Bogel’s I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life since it was published in 2018. I adore books about books, and find them incredibly relaxing to read. I therefore treated myself to a secondhand copy of this gem during an impromptu pandemic book haul.

Bogel is the creator of the Modern Mrs Darcy blog, which I must admit I had never heard of, as well as a podcast entitled ‘What Should I Read Next?’ which sounds quite wonderful, if dangerous… On the back of I’d Rather Be Reading, she is labelled a ‘tastemaker’. Bogel describes herself as ‘a writer, certified book nerd, and all-around bookish enthusiast’.

In the reviews which adorn the gorgeous little hardback edition which I read, the book is variously described as ‘a love letter to the reading life’, ‘a self-portrait in books – weaving together all the readers she has been’, and ‘a charming exploration of all the ways books entertain, challenge, and change us.’ It sounded quite lovely. The book is also sweetly dedicated to ‘everyone who’s ever finished a book under the covers with a flashlight when they were supposed to be sleeping’, which sums up my own childhood rather aptly.

I’d Rather Be Reading has been split up into a series of self-contained essays, some of which share common themes, and each of which explores an element of literature, or of reading. These sections range from ‘Confess Your Literary Sins’ and ‘Book Bossy’ to ‘The Books That Find You’ and ‘The Readers I Have Been’. Along with titles which she has loved – or which she has felt almost indifferent to – Bogel writes at length about the process of reading, and how much of a necessity it is in her life.

Bogel’s prose throughout is warm and conversational; it gives the same kind of cosy satisfaction as talking about recent reads with a good friend for hours does. ‘But avid readers know a great book doesn’t exist only in the realm of the material,’ she comments in her introduction. ‘The words between those covers bring whole worlds to life. When I think of the characters and stories and ideas contained on a single shelf of my personal library, it boggles my mind. To readers, these books – the ones we buy and borrow and trade and sell – are more than objects. They are opportunities beckoning us.’ She goes on to say that ‘we can’t know what a book will mean to us until we read it. And so we take a leap and choose.’

I would recommend keeping a notebook to hand whilst making your way through I’d Rather Be Reading. Whilst there are perhaps not as many recommendations to be found here as in other books about books, those which Bogel mentions are clearly very important to her, and I found a lot of titles of interest to seek out on my future library trips. The books which Bogel mentions are highly varied, ranging from the memoirs of a hostage negotiator (Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss) and L.M. Montgomery’s ‘darker and broodier’ Emily books, to a class reading of A Bridge to Terabithia which left ‘half of us sobbing and the other half futilely attempting to hide our tears’ and her first experience of reading The Great Gatsby as a sixteen-year-old: ‘Slightly put off by the strange title, surprising herself by not hating it, beginning to understand what a good writer could do with the written word…’.

I’d Rather Be Reading is a very personal account, but in some ways, it feels universal. Bogel writes at length about finding the perfect read at the perfect time, for instance, or using reading to divert yourself from the myriad of worries which the modern world holds. Bogel also writes of lasting encounters with books, which I’m sure every avid reader has experienced at one time or another; she writes: ‘Sometimes, of course, I seek out a book I need. But sometimes it’s more apt to say the book seeks me. I’ve learned books move in mysterious ways, and I’d do well to pay attention.’

I’d Rather Be Reading is a marvellously diverting book about the power of reading, which is lovely to settle down and spend some time with. Bogel’s reminiscences and comments are thoughtful, and often amusing. I personally loved the emphasis on borrowing books from the library, which is where I find the majority of tomes which I read. Every essay here is a relatable delight.

2

‘Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life’ by Will Schwalbe ****

Some years ago, I was on a cruise around the Mediterranean.  On a day spent at sea, I devoured Will Schwalbe’s moving debut memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, much of which has stuck with me to this day.  I requested his second book, Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life from my local library with high hopes, and settled down to read it amidst the mounting pre-lockdown panic which Covid-19 brought with it.  Books for Living proved to be a wonderful piece of diversion from current events.

The New York Times deems Books for Living ‘inspiring and charming’, and Publishers Weekly comments ‘Schwalbe’s tremendous experience with reading and his stellar taste make for a fine guide to the varied and idiosyncratic list of books for which he advocates.’  Publishers Weekly also promises that ‘By the end of the book, all serious readers will have added some titles to their to-read lists.’  (I certainly did this.)  The book’s blurb describes it as a ‘magical exploration of the power of books to shape our lives in an era of constant connectivity’ – or, as I found, in the midst of a pandemic. 37831664._sy475_

For Schwalbe, as indeed is the case for most of us, I expect, reading is a way ‘to make sense of the world, to become a better person, and to find the answers to the big (and small) questions’.  In Books for Living, he has therefore compiled a list of books ‘that speak to the specific challenges of living in our modern world.’  He has chosen to split the book into quite a few different sections, entitled in such ways as ‘Searching’ and ‘Trusting’ to ‘Quitting’ and ‘Disconnecting’.  Each of these sections focuses on a specific work.  Books for Living opens with a recurring dream of Schwalbe’s, in which ‘the thought of being bookless for hours… jolts me awake in a cold sweat.’

The books which he selects are wonderfully varied; he considers running and napping with the aid of Haruki Murakami; the enduring characters in Dickens’ David Copperfield; the core message of the delightful Stuart Little by E.B. White…  There are books here which were originally written for children and adults, and which take place in fictional worlds.  There are gems of non-fiction, and even the odd self-help book. He writes of ‘crowd-pleasers’, and of those books which he feels have been unfairly forgotten, or have slipped under the radar of the reading public.

Not all of the books which Schwalbe addresses and comments upon in Books for Living are his favourites, but each has either spoken to him, stuck with him for a particular reason, or allowed him to see things from a perspective other than his own.  Some of these books helped him through incredibly difficult periods in his life, primarily the death of friends from HIV, and the passing of his mother.  One of the most touching chapters, I felt, is ‘Giovanni’s Room’, where a beloved librarian in his hometown quietly selected a lot of LGBTQ+ literature for Schwalbe to read, to help him realise and come to terms with his homosexuality.

Schwalbe continually asserts how the reading process of any book changes him as a person.  He writes: ‘I’m not the same reader when I finish a book as I was when I started.  Brains are tangles of pathways, and reading creates new ones.  Every book changes your life.’  He goes on to comment: ‘I’m not just a fifty-something-year-old reader; I’m the reader I was at every age I’ve ever been, with all the books I’ve ever read and all the experiences I’ve ever had constantly shifting and recombining in my brain.’

Schwalbe wonderfully demonstrates the power which books hold over all of us.  It is a joy to encounter a book like this, written by someone who reads so widely.  Not all of the individual tomes appealed directly to me as a reader, but I read Schwalbe’s own commentary with a great deal of interest.  I appreciate his honestly and openness throughout.  So much of Books for Living was relatable for me as a fellow bookworm.  It is a book which is as entertaining as it is full of heart.

I shall end this review with perhaps the most enduring message from the book: ‘When I most enjoy reading, I’m not really conscious that I’m reading.  It’s at those moments when I’m so wrapped up in a book, so engrossed, so moved, so obsessed, or so fascinated, that the part of my mind that is watching me read – maybe keeping track of the pages or trying to decide how much longer I should keep on reading – that part of my mind has gone away.’

 

5

‘The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words’ by Tom Mole ***

I am drawn to books about books, and Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words really caught my eye. It is marketed as ‘the season’s ultimate gift for bibliophiles’, and certainly holds a lot of appeal for the more bookish members on this year’s Christmas list.

The Secret Life of Books is about ‘everything beyond the words on a page’, and focuses on the book as a physical entity. Mole has explored ‘how books feel and smell, books defaced by lovers and books in art to burned books and books that create nations’. He is concerned with how books and printing processes have evolved over time, along with their readers, and ‘about how books still have the power to change our lives.’

This book, written by the head of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the History of the Book, is described as a ‘stylish and thought-provoking exploration of the book as an object.’ Mole confesses that he is ‘not all that interested in books as things to read. Instead, I want to talk about all the other things that we do to books – and that books do to us.’ They are, he goes on to say, ‘part of how we understand ourselves. They shape our identities, even before we can read them.’

First published in 2019, The Secret Life of Books is filled with reminiscences of Mole’s own reading life, as well as anecdotes about books. It opens, for instance, with one of Mole’s university professors, whose books were rapidly taking over his room: ‘Every time I visited the professor’s office, it seemed a little harder than before to navigate a route across the room on the decreasing area of visible carpet… when I opened the door there was no professor to be seen – the room was full of books, but apparently empty of its occupant. For a moment, I would think perhaps the professor had been crushed under a toppling pile of hardbacks. Then his head would appear from behind a ziggurat of volumes on a bewildering variety of topics.’

Mole certainly presents a lot of interesting ideas about books within the pages of his own. These have been largely collected in vignette form, and gathered together. He writes that ‘to the careful observer, the book can be excavated like an archaeological dig, revealing layer upon layer of information about its previous users from the material traces they left behind them.’ He goes on to discuss holy books, book signings, book clubs, and bibliomancy – the rather unpredictable practice of using a randomly chosen page in a book to predict the future – and gives nods to many authors.

I was particularly taken with the musings he makes over the ownership of books, and what a privilege it is to be able to build a personal library. He writes: ‘Buying books, reading them, organising them and referring back to them – all these things seem to be distinct and different kinds of pleasure.’

I did find The Secret Life of Books became rather repetitive at times, but perhaps this is an inevitability given the subject matter. I enjoyed all of the bookish facts which the volume was peppered with, and found that the general approach took an interesting angle, but on the whole, it failed to captivate me entirely. The prose is consistent, as is the thematic structure, but on some level it did not quite work for me as a reader.

I will end my review with this rather prescient quote from The Secret Life of Books, concerning inheritance. Mole muses, as, I imagine, do many readers in possession of their own libraries: ‘What will become of my books? Not the ones I write, but the ones I own. No doubt, I have too many, and there will have to be some winnowing over the years ahead as I inevitably acquire more. But I’m equally certain that I’ll never get rid of all my books, and that when I do I’ll still own some of them. The paperbacks will probably be falling apart by then, but some of the hardbacks will easily survive me by many years. Books endure. And so – whether sold, gifted, donated or bequeathed – my books will find their ways to other owners and readers.’

4

Three Books About Books

Here, I have chosen to collect together three books which encompass the joy of childhood reading.  One of them, Lucy Mangan’s memoir Bookworm, discusses the many books which shaped her as a child.  The other two are beautiful picture books, one based on the life of Virginia Woolf, and the other on Jane Eyre.

 

bookworm-lucy-mangan-97817847092281. Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan ****
In Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, Lucy Mangan offers up a wonderful slice of nostalgia. Although older than I, Mangan read many of the same books which I did during my childhood, and recalls them with such humour and tenderness. Alongside her own recollections of the literature which shaped her, Mangan offers much informative detail about how children’s books came about, and how they have evolved over time. I really appreciated the structure of Bookworm, and found its prose engaging and really enjoyable.

 

2. Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear ***** 515fzs0onsl
I am undoubtedly too old for picture books, but consistently find Kyo Maclear’s work enchanting.  When I found a copy of Virginia Wolf online, I borrowed it, and immediately started to read.  As anyone who knows me even a little will recall, Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors, and I was keen to see how Maclear would interpret her story.

Isabelle Arsenault’s illustrations are beautiful, and I appreciated the way in which they worked so well with Maclear’s prose.  The book has an almost Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland feel to it; it is both otherworldly and recognisable.  I love the use made of the original material, and feel as though the author has interpreted Woolf’s mental health in a way which can be understood by younger readers.  Beautiful and unusual, with such attention to detail, Virginia Wolf was just even better than I had hoped.

 

51tzahbqlbl._sx375_bo1204203200_3. Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt *****
I have been keen to read Fanny Britt’s work for such a long time, but have never been able to find it, secondhand or otherwise.  I was so pleased, therefore, when I spotted a copy of Jane, the Fox and Me in my local library.  Britt writes her own modern-day story, about a young girl being picked on at school, and weaves in the story of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

Both stories worked so well together, and I was enchanted throughout.  I loved the illustration style, and found the story rather moving, and so relatable.  I’m so pleased that I finally had the chance to read Jane, the Fox and Me, and will keenly look out for more of Britt’s work in future.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which is the last book about books which you read?

2

One From the Archive: ‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

I was most excited when the copy of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading dropped through my letterbox.  It has been in my top twenty list of ‘please read soon!’ books since I found out about it, but I was unwilling to pay full price for a copy because I had read some rather unfavourable reviews of it.  If it was anything like Sankovitch’s second book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, however, I knew it would be a real treat.

9780061999857After the death of her sister Anne-Marie, the grieving author decided to ‘put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom’.  Its blurb heralds it ‘a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading’; just the thing for bookworms.  Sankovitch began her year of reading on the 28th of October 2008, three years after her sister’s passing, for the following reasoning: ‘I looked back to what the two of us had shared.  Laughter.  Words.  Books…  That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life.  I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again’.  For Sankovitch, the catalyst is that she is approaching the age – forty-six – that Anne-Marie was when she died.

In undertaking her project, Sankovitch put several sanctions in place to ensure that she made the most of the year for which a similar opportunity in future may never come: ‘The rules for my year were simple: no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t re-read any books I’d already ready and I had to write about every book I read…  All the books would be ones I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have…’.  Sankovitch also chooses to read from the comfort of a purple chair, which she has had since pregnant with her eldest son.  She writes wonderfully about the very experience of getting to grips with a book: ‘For years, books had offered to me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotones and frustrations.  I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience.  Books would give me all that and more…  My year of reading would be my escape back into life.’  As well as the experiences which her current projects bring her, Sankovitch weaves in familial memories, which makes her memoir all the stronger.  Her writing is bright and intelligent, and never feels forced or overdone.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair does tend to become a little cheesy at times – for example, the tendency to draw out morals from every book – but it is a great read, and a marvellous project to undertake.  Sankovitch’s book is about remembrance, as well as forging new memories with the books which she has chosen to include during her project.  I would personally love to undertake something just like this; I tend to average around a book a day, but I do not read as methodically as Sankovitch does.  This is partly, I think, because I do not choose what I read based on whether it is of a manageable length to get through in a day, as she does.  I can spend a week reading something long (hello, Dostoevsky), and then get through seven or eight novellas in a weekend.  I read as often as I can, but sometimes life gets in the way.  Kudos, then, to Sankovitch’s husband and four sons, who allowed her the freedom to do what she most wanted to; they allowed her to grieve in a constructive way, and from what she writes of her reflections, it seems as though she got an awful lot from the process.

Just a tiny niggle; I would have liked to see the list of read books in chronological rather than alphabetical order.  I was interested in the journey which she took from one tome to another, and how one choice perhaps led onto another.  Whilst she does not even mention a lot of the books which she read, those which she does discuss are varied and interesting.

The enduring message for me is as follows: ‘I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much’.

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4

‘Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer’ by Ann Morgan **

I love undertaking reading projects, such as Ann Morgan does as the basis for Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer.  I have never, however, read only translated literature throughout the course of a year, as Morgan does.  She decided, when the Olympics came to London in 2012, that she would read one work published in every country in the world during the course of the year, and blog about them.  This sounds like an easier project than she found it, on the face of it; firstly, the difficulty of deciding how many countries are in the world came about (the numbers differ wildly dependent on who is being asked), and is discussed in depth in the first chapter, before she discusses the trouble which she sometimes had in getting her hands on a single book from some of the countries.

I had read several mixed reviews about Reading the World before I began to read, and the doubt which some readers have had in Morgan’s approach to her book are, I feel, justified.  I thought that Reading the World would be like Nina Sankovitch’s wonderful account of a yearly reading journey, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, with a lot of focus upon the books chosen, the reasons for them, and a series of personal thoughts which follow the reading.  Instead, Morgan presents what feels like a series of loosely connected essays, talking at length about the ways in which we define world literature, and addressing things like cultural identity and heritage, and the kinds of books which tend to be translated into English.9781846557873

The majority of the books which Morgan read during 2012 are not even mentioned in the body of the text; rather, they have been fashioned into a list at the back of the book, which is ordered alphabetically by country.  These entries do not always include the translator, and feel a little inconsistent as a result.

Reading the World is undoubtedly an intelligent book, but it is not one which I would recommend to the general reader.  For the most part, Morgan’s prose is fine, but in several places it came across as clunky, repetitive, and even a little patronising.  There is an academic, or perhaps just a highbrow, feel to it, which does not make it an easy tome to dip in and out of at will, like many other books about books tend to be; it errs toward the heavy-going in places.

It isn’t that Reading the World is an uninteresting book; it is simply not at all what I was expecting.  I would go as far to say that it is more involved with the translation and publishing processes, than with reading the end results.  I did read Reading the World through to its conclusion, but did not find it a very engaging book.  All in all, the ideas which went toward the book were far better than its execution, which seems a great shame.  I have, perhaps fittingly, left my copy in one of those sweet little free libraries in France.

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2

Three Books About Books

As I’m sure can be said about the majority of bibliophiles, I love a good book which is about…  well…  books!  Many have come to my attention of late, so here is a little wishlist of three books about books which I am hoping to get my hands on soon.

1. Scribbles in the Margins by Daniel Gray 34466359
We lead increasingly time-poor lifestyles, bombarded 24/7 by petrifying news bulletins, internet trolls and endless noises. Where has the joy and relaxation gone from our daily lives? Scribbles in the Margins offers a glorious antidote to that relentless modern-day information churn. It is here to remind you that books and bookshops can still sing to your heart.  Warm, heartfelt and witty, here are fifty short essays of prose poetry dedicated to the simple joy to be found in reading and the rituals around it. These are not wallowing nostalgia; they are things that remain pleasurable and right, that warm our hearts and connect us to books, to reading and to other readers: smells of books, old or new; losing an afternoon organising bookshelves; libraries; watching a child learn to read; reading in bed; impromptu bookmarks; visiting someone’s home and inspecting the bookshelves; stains and other reminders of where and when you read a book.  An attempt to fondly weigh up what makes a book so much more than paper and ink – and reading so much more than a hobby, a way of passing time or a learning process – these declarations of love demonstrate what books and reading mean to us as individuals, and the cherished part they play in our lives, from the vivid greens and purples of childhood books to the dusty comfort novels we turn to in times of adult flux.  Scribbles in the Margins is a love-letter to books and bookshops, rejoicing in the many universal and sometimes odd little ways that reading and the rituals around reading make us happy.

 

2. The Book of Speculation by Erica Swyler
23014670‘Simon Watson, a young librarian, lives alone in a house that is slowly crumbling toward the Long Island Sound. His parents are long dead. His mother, a circus mermaid who made her living by holding her breath, drowned in the very water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, ran off six years ago and now reads tarot cards for a traveling carnival.  One June day, an old book arrives on Simon’s doorstep, sent by an antiquarian bookseller who purchased it on speculation. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of “mermaids” in Simon’s family have drowned–always on July 24, which is only weeks away.  As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly worried about his sister. Could there be a curse on Simon’s family? What does it have to do with the book, and can he get to the heart of the mystery in time to save Enola?’

 

3. The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski 95979
Henry Petroski, “the poet laureate of technology” and author of the highly acclaimed The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things now sets his sights on perhaps the greatest technological advances of the last two thousand years: the making and storing of books–from papyrus scrolls to precious medieval codices to the book as we know it, from the great library at Alexandria to monastic cells to the Library of Congress.  As writing advanced, and with it broader literacy, the development of the book was seemingly inevitable. And as books became more common, the question of where and how to store them became more pertinent. But how did we come from continuous sheets rolled on spools to the ubiquitous portable item you are holding in your hand? And how did books come to be restored and displayed vertically and spine out on shelves? Henry Petroski answers these and virtually every other question we might have about books as he contemplates the history of the book on bookshelf with his inimitable subtle analysis and intriguing detail.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite books about books?

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1

The Book Trail: From ‘Artful’ to Footnotes

For today’s Book Trail post, we begin with one of Ali Smith’s lecture series-cum-incredibly readable book, and weave our way through tomes weird and wonderful.

1. Artful by Ali Smith
15811569In February 2012, the novelist Ali Smith delivered the Weidenfeld lectures on European comparative literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Her lectures took the shape of this set of discursive stories. Refusing to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature.  A hypnotic dialogue unfolds, a duet between and a meditation on art and storytelling, a book about love, grief, memory, and revitalization. Smith’s heady powers as a fiction writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.  Artful is a book about the things art can do, the things art is full of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. It glances off artists and writers from Michelangelo through Dickens, then all the way past postmodernity, exploring every form, from ancient cave painting to 1960s cinema musicals. This kaleidoscope opens up new, inventive, elastic insights—on the relation of aesthetic form to the human mind, the ways we build our minds from stories, the bridges art builds between us. Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world and a meaningful contribution to that worth in itself. There has never been a book quite like it.

 

2. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger
In an extraordinary distillation of his gifts as a novelist, poet, art critic, and social historian, John Berger reveals the ties between love and absence, the ways poetry endows language with the assurance of prayer, and the tensions between the forward movement of sexuality.

 

3. The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer 378529
The Ongoing Moment is Dyer’s unique and idiosyncratic history of photography. Seeking to identify their signature styles Dyer looks at the ways that canonical figures such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Kertesz, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and William Eggleston have photographed the same scenes and objects (benches, hats, hands, roads). In doing so Dyer constructs a narrative in which those photographers – many of whom never met in their lives – constantly come into contact with each other. Great photographs change the way we see the world; The Ongoing Moment changes the way we look at both. It is the most ambitious example to date of a form of writing that Dyer has made his own: the non-fiction work of art.

 

4. Yours Ever: People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon
Yours Ever explores the offhand masterpieces dispatched through the ages by messenger, postal service, and BlackBerry. Thomas Mallon weaves a remarkable assortment of epistolary riches into his own insightful and eloquent commentary on the circumstances and characters of the world’s most intriguing letter writers. Here are Madame de Sévigné’s devastatingly sharp reports from the court of Louis XIV, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tormented advice to his young daughter, the besotted midlife billets-doux of a suddenly rejuvenated Woodrow Wilson, the casually brilliant spiritual musings of Flannery O’Connor, the lustful boastings of Lord Byron, the cries from prison of Sacco and Vanzetti. Along with the confessions and complaints and revelations sent from battlefields, frontier cabins, and luxury liners, a reader will find Mallon considering travel bulletins, suicide notes, fan letters, and hate mail–forms as varied as the human experiences behind them.  Yours Ever is an exuberant reintroduction to a vast and entertaining literature–a book that will help to revive, in the digital age, this glorious lost art.

 

5. Classics For Pleasure by Michael Dirda
249203In these delightful essays, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Dirda introduces nearly ninety of the world’s most entertaining books. Writing with affection as well as authority, Dirda covers masterpieces of fantasy and science fiction, horror and adventure, as well as epics, history, essay, and children’s literature. Organized thematically, these are works that have shaped our imaginations. Love’s Mysteries moves from Sappho and Arthurian romance to Soren Kierkegaard and Georgette Heyer. In other categories Dirda discusses not only Dracula and Sherlock Holmes but also the Tao Te Ching and Icelandic sagas, Frederick Douglass and Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Whether writing about Petronius or Perelman, Dirda makes literature come alive. Classics for Pleasure is a perfect companion for any reading group or lover of books.

 

6. 500 Great Books by Women, edited by Erika Bauermeister
Here is an articulate guide to more than 500 books written by women, a unique resource that allows readers the joy of discovering new authors as well as revisiting familiar favorites. Organized by such themes as Art, Choices, Families, Growing Old, Growing Up, Places and Homes, Power, and Work, this reference book presents classic and contemporary works, from Lady Nijo’s thirteenth-century diaries to books by authors including Toni Morrison, Alice Hoffman, Nadine Gordimer, and Isabel Allende. With annotated entries that capture the flavor of each book and seven cross-referenced indexes, 500 Great Books by Women is a one-of-a-kind guide for all readers and book lovers that celebrates and recommends some of the very best writing by women.

 

7. The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly 329275
In an age when deleted scenes from Adam Sandler movies are saved, it’s sobering to realize that some of the world’s greatest prose and poetry has gone missing. This witty, wry, and unique new book rectifies that wrong. Part detective story, part history lesson, part exposé, The Book of Lost Books is the first guide to literature’s what-ifs and never-weres.  In compulsively readable fashion, Stuart Kelly reveals details about tantalizing vanished works by the famous, the acclaimed, and the influential, from the time of cave drawings to the late twentieth century. Here are the true stories behind stories, poems, and plays that now exist only in imagination.

 

8. Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore by Lawrence Goldstone
More than a sequel, Slightly Chipped: Footnotes in Booklore is a companion piece for Used and Rare. A delight for the general reader and book collector alike, it details the Goldstones’ further explorations into the curious world of book collecting. In Slightly Chipped, they get hooked on the correspondence and couplings of Bloomsbury; they track down Bram Stoker’s earliest notes for Dracula; and they are introduced to hyper-moderns. Slightly Chipped is filled with all of the anecdotes and esoterica about the world of book collecting that charmed readers of Used and Rare.

 

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‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

I was most excited when the copy of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading dropped through my letterbox.  It has been in my top twenty list of ‘please read soon!’ books since I found out about it, but I was unwilling to pay full price for a copy because I had read some rather unfavourable reviews of it.  If it was anything like Sankovitch’s second book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, however, I knew it would be a real treat.

9780061999857After the death of her sister Anne-Marie, the grieving author decided to ‘put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom’.  Its blurb heralds it ‘a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading’; just the thing for bookworms.  Sankovitch began her year of reading on the 28th of October 2008, three years after her sister’s passing, for the following reasoning: ‘I looked back to what the two of us had shared.  Laughter.  Words.  Books…  That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life.  I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again’.  For Sankovitch, the catalyst is that she is approaching the age – forty-six – that Anne-Marie was when she died.

In undertaking her project, Sankovitch put several sanctions in place to ensure that she made the most of the year for which a similar opportunity in future may never come: ‘The rules for my year were simple: no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t re-read any books I’d already ready and I had to write about every book I read…  All the books would be ones I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have…’.  Sankovitch also chooses to read from the comfort of a purple chair, which she has had since pregnant with her eldest son.  She writes wonderfully about the very experience of getting to grips with a book: ‘For years, books had offered to me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotones and frustrations.  I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience.  Books would give me all that and more…  My year of reading would be my escape back into life.’  As well as the experiences which her current projects bring her, Sankovitch weaves in familial memories, which makes her memoir all the stronger.  Her writing is bright and intelligent, and never feels forced or overdone.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair does tend to become a little cheesy at times – for example, the tendency to draw out morals from every book – but it is a great read, and a marvellous project to undertake.  Sankovitch’s book is about remembrance, as well as forging new memories with the books which she has chosen to include during her project.  I would personally love to undertake something just like this; I tend to average around a book a day, but I do not read as methodically as Sankovitch does.  This is partly, I think, because I do not choose what I read based on whether it is of a manageable length to get through in a day, as she does.  I can spend a week reading something long (hello, Dostoevsky), and then get through seven or eight novellas in a weekend.  I read as often as I can, but sometimes life gets in the way.  Kudos, then, to Sankovitch’s husband and four sons, who allowed her the freedom to do what she most wanted to; they allowed her to grieve in a constructive way, and from what she writes of her reflections, it seems as though she got an awful lot from the process.

Just a tiny niggle; I would have liked to see the list of read books in chronological rather than alphabetical order.  I was interested in the journey which she took from one tome to another, and how one choice perhaps led onto another.  Whilst she does not even mention a lot of the books which she read, those which she does discuss are varied and interesting.

The enduring message for me is as follows: ‘I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much’.

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