Saturday, March 5, 2011

Books About Books: My Favorites

Books about books - is there a better subject? Yeah, one or two, but books are right up there near the very top. The following list is fashioned with titles straight from my own bookshelves. When I recommend these books, I am doing so from first hand knowledge. I'm not making this stuff up. Ha!

These are the sorts of books that are fun to dip into whenever you have a spare moment. Or if you prefer you can spend all sorts of time reading up on book-lore, book-lists, fascinating bits about authors, genres, writing how-to, why-to-read, who-to-read, and even how-to-read, and other esoteric book delights. A great way to spend the few odd minutes of the day when you aren't busy doing something else. So, here we go. The list below is in no particular order, by the way.

1) 100 ONE NIGHT READS - A Book Lover's Guide by David C. Major and John S. Major (2001 Ballantine Books)

This is a handy book with titles that are purportedly easy or short enough to make for a good one night's reading. Some make for pretty hefty one night reading, I think, but it's up to you, obviously, and how quickly you read. The authors admit that some titles might make for a two night reading, but still, it's a great guide to books that are not great thumpers. Each title listed gets its own one or two page essay so you're not going in cold. It's fun to go through and check what you've already read and what you might read and what you definitely plan to read. A few of the titles included: A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, Lost Horizon by James Hilton, True Grit by Charles Portis, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White and Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse. Plenty more where they came from.

2) THE WRITER'S CHAPBOOK - A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century's Preeminent Writers edited from The Paris Review Interviews. (1999 Modern Library Edition)

This is basically self-explanatory and fascinating fun to look through. Some of the authors included: E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, John Fowles, Isak Dinessen, Aldous Huxley, Patrick O'Brian, John LeCarre, E.B. White, John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, Evelyn Waugh, Shirley Jackson, Arthur Koestler, etc. Many of the comments are contradictory, but that's part of the fun. A lot of it makes common sense, some of it doesn't. It's up to you to decipher and glean.

John LeCarre on Films: Having your book made into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.

John Mortimer On Plot: I've always enjoyed crime fiction. I think that much of the best writing being done today is in crime novels. The plot and discipline essential to a crime novel save it from the terrible traps of being sensitive and stream-of-consciousness and all of that stuff. You do need that discipline, I think, and plot! Life happens in plots all the time, life is absolutely composed of plots!

Oscar Wilde on Editors: Ah! Don't say you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.

3) THE WRITER'S HOME COMPANION - Anecdotes, Comforts, Recollections and Other Amusements For Every Writer, Editor and Reader by James Charlton and Lisbeth Mark (Penguin Books 1989) Again, self-explanatory. Interesting and intriguing bits and pieces.

Example: Theodore Dreiser had a reputation for being very careful with his money. Sailing home from Europe, he was given the option of traveling by steamer, the Koonland, or indulging himself on a brand new luxury ship equipped with every extravagance. Dreiser decided on the Koonland and sailed April 1912, foregoing the opportunity to be a passenger on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

Example: Leo Tolstoy said, "If you ask someone, 'Can you play the violin?' and he says, 'I don't know, I've not tried, perhaps I can,' you laugh at him. Whereas about writing, people always say, 'I don't know, I have not tried.' as though one had only to try and one would become a writer."

Example: When Alfred Hitchcock telephoned Georges Simenon, he was told he was working (on his 158th novel), Madame Simenon told the director that, because her husband was writing, she would rather not disturb him. Knowing of Simenon's speed, Hitchcock joked, "Let him finish his book, I'll hang on."

4) EX-LIBRIS Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998)

I wrote about this and the following book by Anna Quindlan in one my Favorite Books posts, but I thought I'd mention them again. If you only want to read one or two of the books on this list, the two Ann's are the ones I highly recommend.

5) HOW READING CHANGED BY LIFE by Anna Quindlen (Ballantine Library of Contemporary Thought 1998)

Both of these books by the two Ann's are one-night reads (though their wisdom is of a rather more enduring length) so there's no excuse not to read them as quickly and as often as you can.

6) USED AND RARE Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (Thomas Dunne 1997)

I've given this book to anyone and everyone I know who's ever expressed the slightest interest in the book collecting trade, books in general or just the love of reading. This book is wonderful on several levels. First it's about how book collecting neophytes and writers Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone became caught up in and fascinated by the book trade. The stories of the people they meet along the way are worth the price of the book alone. But this is also a book about a marriage and the deep affection the shared love of books adds to the mix. I love this book and reread it at least once a year.

7) SLIGHTLY CHIPPED Footnotes in Booklore by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (Thomas Dunne 1999)

A sort of sequel to Used and Rare, but also a separate book about Lawrence and Nancy's continued dealings in the oh-so-eccentric world of book dealing and collecting and, of course, their continued comments and opinions on books and life. A terrific follow-up to their first book about books. This one has a bit more about mysteries and the new (then) fashion for collecting first/firsts of new mystery/thriller writers - anticipating the next 'big thing' in publishing. In both these books, I am so taken with the writing, the obvious love of books that shines through even the most acerbic comments.

8) ON WRITING by Stephen King (Scribner 2000)

I wasn't going to include a book ABOUT writing itself, but this one's too good not to mention. Mainly because King talks not only about his writing but writing in general and books, of course. And dammit, the man has wisdom. I'm all for wisdom, no matter where it comes from. I am not a big fan of King, I've only read one of his novels, but I am a BIG fan of this book. How I came to read it, I don't remember. But I think someone recommended it very highly and I thought I'd take a look. It is brilliant. I loved it.

9) BOOK LUST Recommended Reading For Every Mood, Moment, and Reason by Nancy Pearl (Sasquatch Books 2003)

What I would do without this book (and it's follow-up) I just don't know. Seattle librarian extraordinaire, Nancy Pearl and I seem to be on the same wavelength - she likes a lot of the same books I do and vice-versa. How she manages to read all the books she wants and needs to, plus write her columns and books AND do her NPR radio bits AND blog AND travel is beyond me. But somehow she does it all. Simply put: she is amazing.

BOOK LUST is my go-to book when I'm in a lull and need something interesting to read. It's all there, listed under authors, subject matter, mood, etc. Through Nancy I've discovered so many books I might have otherwise overlooked. I can never thank her enough for being such a guiding light.

10) MORE BOOK LUST 1,000 New Reading Recommendations for Every Mood, Moment and Reason by Nancy Pearl (Sasquatch Books 2005) Exactly what the title states. With this and the first BOOK LUST in hand, you will not lack for reading suggestions for the rest of your life. And that's not even counting the million book blogs we've come to know and love.

P.S. Nancy Pearl also has a book for the budding reader in the family: BOOK CRUSH For Kids and Teens Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Interest. AND her latest book: BOOK LUST TO GO Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds and Dreamers.


  1. I love these kind of books. I am currently reading *The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop* by Lewis Buzbee about his life as a bookseller and his "book-lust"--along with all sorts of tid-bits about books and book-selling through the ages. I'm only about a third of the way in, but I am totally enthralled.

  2. You know, Bev, I think I have that book somewhere on one of my shelves. The title is so familiar and I can picture the book in my hand. Don't think I've read it, but I know I've held it. It has to be here someplace. I am going to double my efforts to find it, for sure.

  3. Thanks for this.

    I love Anna Quinlan, missed her column so much in the NY Times. Will try to find her book at the library.

    I am so jaded, though, that I just pick up mysteries, along with reading the daily NYT, often a Herculean task. Nonfiction books rarely are read, though I have some.

  4. You will love this book by Anna Quindlen, Kathy. I know it.

    I like non-fiction, I must admit. I read it along with my mysteries and whatever else catches my interest.

  5. Ah now look at all of the books you've added to my most-read book list!

  6. Lisa: THAT'S what I'm here for. Ha! Books about books are so much fun.


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