Let's read about books

Second Take

Let's read about books

The year-end brings a clutch of impressive books about books. It’s difficult to even choose what’s best in the lot because they are all equally fascinating, equally bookish.

There’s a biography of literary failures, except they are all fictitious (just not as famous as Sherlock Holmes, though just as real!) such as Franz, a neighbour of Franz Kafka who wrote better than Kafka and would have eclipsed him if his manuscripts hadn’t been destroyed. There’s a book about a bibliophile who visits secondhand bookshops solely to find books with inscriptions in them, from one reader to another, in order to compile the more interesting ones in book-form. Another book about books is an entertaining write-up on the various kinds of bookshops around the world, while yet another is about a man who took time off just to catch up on his reading. Most intriguingly of all is a book that offers bibliotherapy: books for every problem and ailment readers encounter in their lives.

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell considers as many as 300 bookshops across six continents, from the smallest to the biggest to the weirdest. It even looks at fold-out bookshops and undercover bookshops, and includes what authors consider their favourite bookshops plus interviews with customers and booksellers about what life in a bookshop is like on a day-to-day basis. For many years, Wayne Gooderham has been collecting secondhand books inscribed with personal messages and brings them together in Dedicated To You: A Secret History of Second Hand Bookshops. He first wrote about his mania for such inscribed books in an article for The Guardian where he noted, “E-reads are all well and good when it comes to gift-giving at Christmas, but as far as I’m concerned, for sheer emotional wallop, the old-fashioned physical book is hard to beat. After all, it’s the ideal opportunity to foist a well-loved novel onto someone who is now morally obliged to read the thing (and, indeed, profess to like it)… For this reason, no book-as-gift is complete without a handwritten dedication on its inside cover… And you won’t get that with Kindle.”

The Novel Cure is at once the oddest and the most obvious kind of book in the books on books genre: it offers nothing less than reading as therapy. Its authors, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, offer various literary lists with little write-ups on the books and characters and passages in fiction that could offer cures and remedies and comfort for emotional and physical pain. The whole thing is wittily done and yet allows you to consider their prescription seriously. The book’s website notes that the two authors “met as English Literature students at Cambridge University, where they began giving novels to each other whenever one of them seemed in need of a boost — or keeping on the straight and narrow…In 2008, they set up the bibliotherapy service at The School of Life in London, and since then have been prescribing books, either virtually or in person, to patients all over the world.” (The website also notes an Indian edition by Roli Books with Indrajit Hazra as collaborator offering “a clutch of particularly Indian ailments and cures”).
The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller has been described as “High Fidelity for bibliophiles.” That is, what Nick Hornby did for music, Miller has done for books, which is to say, I’m guessing, writing about reading wittily, coolly and tenderly. Miller discovers he has had no time for reading, though he has always longed to, so he takes a year out to read everything he fancies, from classics to pulp to bestsellers, and winds up offering us a comparison of Melville and Dan Brown and how they are alike!  

We come now to The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure by C D Rose. The jacket blurb is deliberately misleading and playful, calling the book a “signal event in literary scholarship”, and making it look as if Rose is some authority on “the biographies of history’s most notable cases of a complete lack of literary success… the world’s pre-eminent expert on inexpert writers, the book culls its information from lost or otherwise ignored archives scattered around the globe, as well as the occasional dustbin… the authors presented in this historic volume comprise a who’s who of the talentless and deluded, their stories timeless litanies of abject psychosis, misapplication, and delinquency. It is, in short, a treasure.”

It’s only as you read into each humorous, dead-pan entry that it dawns on you that these luckless literary types are clever inventions. Rose himself adds to such credibility by recounting how he “began to find tantalizing traces of untold stories and hidden histories in his long searches of dusty secondhand bookstores, junk shops and flea markets... with the discovery of abandoned manuscripts in house clearances, trawls through the rotting slush piles of minor literary agents, overheard literary gossip and tales from the failing memories of librarians, book dealers, academics and fellow writers across the world.”

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