THE LIBRARY OF CONTEMPORARY THOUGHT is a groundbreaking series where America’s finest writers and most brilliant minds tackle today’s most provocative, fascinating, and relevant issues. Striking and daring, creative and important, these original voices on matters political, social, economic, and cultural, will enlighten, comfort, entertain, enrage, and ignite healthy debate across the country.
This was a re-read – I meant to grab Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (which I’ll be re-reading next), but once I started I was happy to keep going.
This is one of those rare books (extended essay, really) that I rated higher on my second read. While I mainly agree with my thoughts from the first read, I didn’t find myself annoyed by the things that annoyed me the first time around. (My original review is on the next page.)
Overall, just an excellent essay on reading, re-reading, the importance of reading Important Texts, and just the joy of being a bookworm.
When Lucy Mangan was little, stories were everything. They opened up different worlds and cast new light on this one.
She was whisked away to Narnia - and Kirrin Island - and Wonderland. She ventured down rabbit holes and womble burrows into midnight gardens and chocolate factories. No wonder she only left the house for her weekly trip to the library.
In Bookworm, Lucy brings the favourite characters of our collective childhoods back to life and disinters a few forgotten treasures poignantly, wittily using them to tell her own story, that of a born, and unrepentant, bookworm.
Were you a bookworm as a kid? I was. I was even voted “Class Bookworm” in 7th grade – a category they made up just for me. I was the kid with the book inside the text book during school lectures. So when I saw this a few years ago, I thought … maybe. As much as I enjoy most books about books, I figured the title was likely to be an overstatement and I’d be reading a sedate, literary criticism of childhood books. The front flap reinforced this suspicion. Which is why it sat on my shelves for so long.
Oh, how wrong – and kinda right – I was. Lucy Mangan is a true bookworm; back in the day, she’d have given me a run for the title and the award. She was also way better read than I was, so there is some lit criticism here, but it’s fabulous lit criticism; she’s hilarious and she’s rational and she’s so very real.
On Enid Blyton:
I can barely bring myself to talk about my Enid Blyton.
Like generations of children before me,
and like generations since (she still sells over 8 million
copies a year around the world) I fell head over heels in
love. No, not love – it was an obsession, an addiction. It
It was an older girl that got me into the stuff. Becky-
next- door lent me her copy of something called Five on a
Secret Trail. It was a floppy, late 1970s Knight Books
edition with, I believe, the original 1950’s illustrations
inside. I read it. It was good. Very good. I enjoyed it. I
enjoyed it very much. I asked Becky if she had any more.
She did. It was called Five Run Away Together. I read it. It
was good. Very good. Possibly even better than Five on
a Secret Trail. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it very much. I
noticed it had a number ‘3’ on the spine. Five on a Secret
Trail had a ’15’. What did that mean? I decided to look for
clues. Even without a loyal canine companion to help me,
it didn’t take long. The endpapers carried a
list. Apparently Enid Blyton had written twenty-one
books! What excellent news! What riches! What vital.
absolutely essential riches!
I took the news and the list to my parents. I’m going
to need all of these,’ I said, gently.
And so it began.
And on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series being a Christian allegory:
The tale of Lucy Pevensie discovering the secret
world beyond the wardrobe door is a story about
courage, loyalty, generosity, sacrifice and nobility versus
greed, conceit, arrogance and betrayal. You can call the
former Christian virtues, or you can just call them
virtues, let the kids concentrate on the self-renewing
Turkish delight, magically unerring bows and hybrid
man-beasts and relax.
Reading this, I feel like I missed out on something amazing by not living down the road from Lucy. I suspect we’d have had a lot of fun swapping books and comparing notes. But it was a joy to read her memoirs now and in so doing take a trip down the memory lane of my own reading.
Mangan primarily recounts her childhood reading in a fun and often funny style, but she also dips lightly into the historical aspects of Children’s literature here and there, when the subject matter seems to call for it – a specific genre, or the roots of illustrations. These bits are less engaging, more straightforward, and in context with the whole, makes the pace drag a tiny bit when you get to them. They’re interesting, but they’re not entertaining.
Because Mangan’s writing style is very conversational, the sentences that include many clauses and often long parentheticals can sometimes be hard to follow. This was probably my only criticism – not that I didn’t enjoy the style, because I absolutely did – it’s just once or twice, by the time the sentence ended, I had forgotten how it began.
Admittedly, a large number of the books that Lucy Mangan covers are books unknown to me. I expected this because she was growing up in London, and I was growing up in tiny town Florida. But I was delighted at how often our book titles did converge, and how many titles that, even if I didn’t read them, I was familiar enough with to easily follow along.
The author has written a few other books, and I enjoyed this one so much, that I’m interested to discover what they’re about and see about getting my hands on one or two.
A visual feast celebrating the alluring power of bookstores - 68 paintings by illustrator Gibbs M. Smith.
The local bookstore, a place of wonder, refuge, and rejuvenation for book lovers the world over. Books & Mortar is a celebration of these literary strongholds. Sixty-eight oil paintings capture these storefronts at a moment in time, and pair the artwork with quotations about the joy of reading, the importance of bookstores, and in many cases, anecdotes about the shops and owners themselves.
I’m a sucker for these types of books, even though I know they date quickly, and I was feeling grumpy about my DNF and needed something easy and quick.
Based on the About this Author on the back page, I gather that this was a posthumous publication of primarily the author’s (who was also a publisher) personal paintings of bookstores around the country, put together as a memorial of sorts. As such, some of the bookstores included had already closed (thought only a small number). Most have some description about the history of each shop, some only a quotation.
The painting style appeals to me and I was delighted to see a section at the back for “bookshops I have visited” with each shop listed and a place to include the date, making this book a journal of sorts for anyone willing to write in a book.
This is a madman’s library of eccentric and extraordinary volumes from around the world, many of which have been completely forgotten. Books written in blood and books that kill, books of the insane and books that hoaxed the globe, books invisible to the naked eye and books so long they could destroy the Universe, books worn into battle, books of code and cypher whose secrets remain undiscovered… and a few others that are just plain weird.
From the 605-page Qur'an written in the blood of Saddam Hussein, through the gorgeously decorated 15th-century lawsuit filed by the Devil against Jesus, to the lost art of binding books with human skin, every strand of strangeness imaginable (and many inconceivable) has been unearthed and bound together for a unique and richly illustrated collection ideal for every book-lover.
I knew I wanted this book as soon as I saw it; gorgeously illustrated in full colour, and really well written, this is exactly what is purports to be. Broken into categorical chapters that include “Books that aren’t Books”; “Books Made of Flesh and Blood”; “Literary Hoaxes”, etc., the book covers a comprehensive span of the beautiful, the frightful and the unusual.
I enjoyed Brooke-Hitching’s writing style, appreciating his small infusions of humour as well as the information he imparted about each category and specific books. It was easy to read, but not easy reading; I found reading a chapter at a time worked well for my comprehension and enjoyment – the one time I tried to read more in one sitting, I found my eyes glazing over.
All in all, an enjoyable book and one that I’m happy to have on my bookshelves.
"Absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you're dead."
So begins Christopher Fowler's foray into the back catalogues and backstories of 99 authors who, once hugely popular, have all but disappeared from our shelves.
Whether male or female, domestic or international, flash-in-the-pan or prolific, mega-seller or prize-winner - no author, it seems, can ever be fully immune from the fate of being forgotten. And Fowler, as well as remembering their careers, lifts the lid on their lives, and why they often stopped writing or disappeared from the public eye.
These 99 journeys are punctuated by 12 short essays about faded once-favourites: including the now-vanished novels Walt Disney brought to the screen, the contemporary rivals of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie who did not stand the test of time, and the women who introduced us to psychological suspense many decades before it conquered the world.
This is a book about books and their authors. It is for book lovers, and is written by one who could not be a more enthusiastic, enlightening and entertaining guide.
The 4th star I’m giving this book, a collection of 99 authors who have been ‘forgotten’, is a tip of the hat bump-up for witty dialog that made me chuckle throughout the book, and for giving me a handful of author names worth researching for future used bookstore treasures.
Otherwise, this is a collection of 99 authors who have been ‘forgotten’, along with a half-dozen or so essays that discuss additional forgotten authors, that is made a bit average through sheer volume. It’s both a book that doesn’t lend itself to reading through, nor dipping into here and there. It’s best read in chunks, I guess, but then one is apt to get to authors who write – or wrote – in areas of no interest to the reader, and suddenly there’s skimming and skipping.
There are a number of authors Fowler includes that I’ve not only heard of and/or read, but whose titles are actively sitting on my shelves: Allington, Wheatley, Orczy, Mitchell and Crispin, among others. This made me feel oddly better about myself in a way I probably shouldn’t admit to, but there it is; suddenly my wall of cozies seem a tiny bit elevated by sharing company with these names who have been deemed worth remembering.
Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again.
A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill's eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howards End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation's most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.
I had issues with this book and with the author. Mostly the author. She starts off strong, impressing me with the fact that the first book she chooses from her library to read again is a Dorothy L. Sayers. She goes on the name more than a few books we both have on our shelves, and I’m just settling in with delight, when she suddenly turns uppity. And I don’t mean with the name dropping – she’s met famous authors and they make up important moments in her memoirs, that’s fine. But in the fourth or fifth chapter she opens with “Girls read more than boys, always have, always will. That’s a known fact.” Well, that’s a bold and rather inflexible statement. I don’t quarrel with girls reading more than boys historically, or even presently, but to state categorically that they always will, and state it’s a known fact rankled. I knew Susan Hill is an author and publisher, but I didn’t know she was a prognosticator too.
If only this was a one off, I’d probably have forgotten by now. Alas it was not. In a chapter about writing in books, she says “Bookplates are for posers.” Wow. She then explains how she unapologetically scribbles in all her books, folds down pages, cracks spines, etc. But Bookplates are for posers. Nice to know where Susan Hill draws the line. Personally, I’d never use a bookplate or write in my books, or dog-ear pages, but I’m also not going to judge anyone who chooses to do those things to their books. I’m totally ok judging Susan Hill for her self-defensive and hypocritical judging of others who enjoy bookplates, though.
In another chapter she talks about covers and fine bindings, offering a backhanded compliment to The Folio Society by praising their products, but suspecting those who own them as “not being a proper reader”. To which she can kiss my south-side. I own Folio Society editions and I read them. In fact the list of authors and stories I’ve discovered because of my Folios is long and distinguished.
In between all these grievances, and in spite of all the books we have in common, she fails to connect with me, the reader. While I admire her honesty and forthrightness about her trouble with Jane Austen’s work – even though it mystifies me – I can’t help but think her failing is the same one she perceives in Austen’s work: “… I never feel empathy with, or closeness to, an Austen character.” I could not find a closeness or commonality with Susan Hill.
I finished the book out of sheer cussedness, I think. I have her second memoir, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books, but I can’t see mustering any enthusiasm for it after this one. Perhaps out of perverseness, to see who she manages to belittle or insult next, but I doubt I’ll ever be that curious.
So, I ended up finishing How About Never? Is Never Good for You? entirely too quickly last night and needed something else to read while waiting for sleep to claim me. The bookshelf right next to my bed held this slim little tome and it felt just right.
And it was. A slim volume of 21 essays about books, reading books, owning books, borrowing books, and becoming the books you read. Each one well written and thoughtful, touching on subjects that any dedicated reader has faced before, be it library fines or a dearth of bookshelves and the space to keep them.
It was a pleasant, relaxing read that reminded me that slump or not, I’m a book nerd and will always, always be a reader.
"Do you have a list of your books, or do I just have to stare at them?"
Shaun Bythell is the owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. With more than a mile of shelving, real log fires in the shop and the sea lapping nearby, the shop should be an idyll for bookworms.
Unfortunately, Shaun also has to contend with bizarre requests from people who don't understand what a shop is, home invasions during the Wigtown Book Festival and Granny, his neurotic Italian assistant who likes digging for river mud to make poultices.
The follow up to his Diary of a Bookseller, a book I enjoyed even more than I expected, so when I heard this was out, I immediately went out and bought it.
Every bit as good as the first, though where the first was primarily wacky and funny, this one had a sharper, more contemplative edge and, as far as my memory goes, this one feels a bit more personal. The book he read/talked about made more of an impact with me in this book too, though I can’t say why.
A great read if you like books about books, or memoirs of misanthropic booksellers.
Anne Fadiman is--by her own admission--the sort of person who learned about sex from her father's copy of "Fanny Hill," whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate's 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice. This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story.
Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father's 22-volume set of Trollope ("My Ancestral Castles") and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections ("Marrying Libraries"), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony--Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners.
Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, "Ex Libris" establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.
I loved this from first word to last. A collection of essays first published in Civilization, each about some facet of the love of books or the written word.
Her first essay, Marrying Libraries started the collection off on a high note with me; after 10 years together, I still can’t quite embrace the marriage of my books with MT’s: he has his shelves and I, mine. I’ve only recently (last weekend) catalogued his books in my database software; until that point neither of us knew what he had or didn’t.
Other highpoints of the collection for me included Never Do That To a Book, My Ancestral Castles and Secondhand Prose. Fadiman’s essay on plagiarism was…interesting. I’m fairly sure it’s heavily satirical, (it’s 10 pages long and has 38 footnotes, some rather absurd) but reading it, it is clear that she has strong feelings about the theft of other people’s work. I was left with the feeling that she felt conflicted about such a sticky subject. She has also written an outstanding essay on compulsive proofreading, whose title includes those handwritten edits that are impossible to reproduce on a screen with nothing but a keyboard. But it’s one of my top three favourites of the book.
Ex Libris wraps up with a small chapter of recommended reading; a list of books about books; a list I’ll be using in the next few days as I look for more titles to add to my TBR.