“[T]hey were sure of nothing save that the books were on file behind their quiet eyes, the books were waiting, with their pages uncut, for the customers who might come by in later years …”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
“We didn’t go to church, but we did go to the library.”
Julian Barnes, A Life with Books
Sydney Writers’ Centre drew my attention to Flavorwire’s list of 10 Essential Books for Book Nerds; this is my response. Being the bibliomaniac I am though, I’m not restricting myself to 10 books. The only restriction I placed on myself was the decision not to include anthologies, such as Where Books Fall Open: A Reader’s Anthology of Wit and Passion.
Top novels about books and reading
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Both novels are about the power of books and the dangers that ensue when they are censored, used to justify tyranny, or neglected in favour of mind-numbing distractions. In one, a library is turned into a deadly trap to stop readers accessing knowledge and in the other, books are burnt. I especially love how Eco’s novel reflects on the way that books speak to and give birth to other books. The Name of the Rose and Fahrenheit 451 remind us to treasure books and either should be a kind of bible for any book lover.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett deserves a place on any book lover’s shelves. After all, it’s a novel about the joy of reading and the way that reading changes us.
A comic classic about reading is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which Catherine Morland reads more Gothic novels than are good for her.
And then there’s A.S. Byatt’s Possession, a novel about competing interpretations of books, academics writing literary biographies and hunting for missing manuscripts–what could be more appropriate for a book nerd? David Lodge’s hilarious novels about literary academics, Changing Places (so nimble and well structured), Small World and Nice Work, are also great books for book nerds, as is Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Sweet Tooth, which features an unreliable narrator who happens to be a voracious reader.
If you mull over the gaps, internal inconsistencies and unresolved mysteries within novels, then you’ll love John Sutherland’s ‘puzzles in classic fiction’, Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?
Memoirs and biographies about reading
Julian Barnes’ autobiographical essay on a lifetime of reading, A Life with Books, is available as a pocket-sized book to treasure. (Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, however, didn’t live up to my expectations.) In a completely different style, there’s Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life, the kind of energetic and impassioned rant that you’d expect from Henry Miller. I adore Oscar’s Books by Thomas Wright; it tells the story of how books shaped the life and writing of Oscar Wilde. Wright set out to read everything Oscar Wilde had read and this is his account of trying to reconstruct Wilde’s library and follow in his footsteps.
I’ve been tempted to read Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, but I’d rather get on with reading the books I’ve collected instead of reading another writer’s memoir about doing exactly that. I am tempted, though. Flavorwire have sold me on Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much; I must read this.
Books about the publishing industry
Steve Hely’s satire How I Became a Famous Novelist is scarily close to the truth about what it’s like to work in book publishing, and very entertaining. (Uncorrected Proof: The True History of the Australian Book Scene is an extremely funny compilation that parodies an Australian book industry newsletter, but you have to be familiar with the original to get some of the humour.)
From the classics, Balzac’s Lost Illusions is the mother of all books about aspiring writers and their corruption, and I’d choose this, or George Gissing’s New Grub Street, over Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop!, or Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami.
If you like memoirs, I recommend Jennie Erdal’s Ghosting, about her life as a ghost writer, and Hilary McPhee’s account of founding a publishing house, Other People’s Words.
Novels that didn’t make the cut
Although I wanted to love Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind for its Cemetery of Forgotten Books (what a lovely idea—if only the protagonists had spent more time there), I found this novel unsatisfying and more of a 1940s film melodrama with goodies and baddies. It feels very cinematic but lacks depth as a novel.
I thought that Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief was more a young adult book about the Holocaust than an essential book for adult book nerds; Flavorwire and I will have to agree to disagree.
Jasper Fforde’s series of comic fantasy/parody/crime novels (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, etc.) about literary detective Thursday Next are fun, but not quite essential for book lovers. In Thursday’s parallel universe, you can enter into the world of a book, characters from the classics pop up and literature is a life-and-death matter. I love the literary jokes but sometimes the Thursday Next novels read like a string of good ideas that haven’t been fleshed out, partly because of the restrictions of the crime genre.
What are your essential books for book nerds?
I recently came across a new release called Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan and I wonder if it will become the latest novel for book nerds. Have you read it?
Which books have I overlooked?
What are your book nerd favourites and why?