Books on books
I have just finished reading Alan Bennett’s incredibly funny novella, The Uncommon Reader (read a review here), which describes what happens when the Queen suddenly becomes passionately devoted to reading. In Bennett’s best style, it is as much a wicked comedy of manners as an inspiring delineation of the pleasures of reading, of why we do, and what might come of it.
Reading The Uncommon Reader, I thought of books that talk about the pleasures of reading – of books that talk about books. Here is a sample from my shelves of books that have inspired me to read more, that have opened doors to other books by talking about them or alluding to them or writing about their writers.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman: A charming, intimate collection of essays about writers, writing, the joy of books (as, among other things, as physical objects) and the experience of reading. It taught me to never write my own name on the title page of something I’d bought; that is the prerogative of the author.
The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf: The original heavy-duty book of its genre. And the book to which both Fadiman and Bennett are indebted. Here is a 1925 review from the New York Times.
Inner Workings by JM Coetzee: The Nobel Laureate and double Booker Prize winner’s collection of essays written between 2000 and 2005 is rigorous, erudite, precise and incisive, underlit by the poise and the deliberate austerity that inform his fiction. Don’t miss Coetzee on VS Naipaul. (Read a review here)
The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis: Acerbic, laudatory, vast in its depth and its breadth, this is an indispensable collection from one of Britain’s finest living writers. He is as good on Thomas Harris and Elmore Leonard as on Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. Worth reading at one go. Worth coming back to – again and again.
The Curtain by Milan Kundera: Stunning in the breadth of his allusions, Kundera offers a commanding, persuasive exposition of the poetics of the novel. The job of the novelist (who is never “a valet to historians”) is to rip apart the curtain of received notions that stand between us and the truth and unveil the truth. Cervantes – one of Kundera’s big heroes – did that in Don Quixote). Cervantes, Kundera says, “by tearing through the curtain of pre-interpretation… set the new art going; his destructive act echoes and extends to every novel worthy of the name…”
Which are the books on books you have enjoyed? What would you recommend?