Susan here. Recently I read an intriguing and wonderful novel, which I mentioned in our last What We’re Reading post—The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell. The story centers around the last of the Bronte family, and her relationship to that legacy, to books, literary questions and secrets–a top-notch and enthralling literary mystery. And I realize, enjoying that read so much, that I'm especially drawn to this sort of sub-sub-category: books about books. I love mysteries, thrillers, romances too, where a primary focus of the book, no matter the genre, centers on books or a book, an author, an old or ancient mystery, a field of knowledge: I love books about books.
"She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain." –Louisa May Alcott
"The love of learning, the sequestered nooks / And all the sweet serenity of books." — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It’s more than another bibliophilic compulsion (as in, never enough books!!). Novels about books pose literary questions and pursue mysteries about rare books, ancient texts, medieval manuscripts, later literary treasures—and the stories often involve authors, collectors, harboring or investigating secrets contained in books. All of these things absolutely fascinate me, and I gravitate to this kind of book often. Lately I'm in that sort of mode, hungry for books within books, stories about writing, authors, stories, and I'm grazing through my bookshelves looking for just such reads.
The setting might be contemporary, as in The Madwoman Upstairs or Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book or Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, or the plot might move back and forth in time, as in A.S. Byatt’s Possession. It might be set in the past, as in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Stories about books are often multi-layered mysteries leading deep into warrens and mazes about history or esoteric knowledge or ancient secrets that just might threaten or influence humanity. Plots centering on old, missing, stolen, mysterious and valuable books can be found in any genre and category—I’ve written a few myself, such as Waking the Princess, where a Victorian historian’s work leads the hero and heroine to secrets about the real King Arthur, or in The Black Thorne’s Rose, where the heroine, a manuscript illuminator, includes secrets in the manuscripts she illustrates—though plots about books most naturally lend themselves to mystery and thriller genres, where the scope can be large-scale.
In The Madwoman Upstairs and The Thirteenth Tale, a rabbit hole takes the reader wandering into the very nature of the act of reading and thinking and the interplay of author, story, and reader. They can be dynamic, playing off one another, mutually dependent and elevating one another. A book does not exist without its author… nor its reader, in a sense (like the tree in the forest, what's in the book without the reader?). Readers are an essential piece of the formula of what gives a book meaning and purpose. We turn the pages, we experience, we think and feel, we activate the story in a sense. Not many novels explore these facets of reading and the synergism of author, story, book and reader, yet those that do often take on deep and intriguing layers.
Books about books explore fascinating questions, and as the story spirals around, the reader can gain a little more than expected in those pages when they sit down to an entertaining, wonderful read. I like to ponder, sometimes, what, why, and how we read, stepping back to look at that perspective now and then. Susan Hill’s Howard’s End Is On the Landing is a wonderful exploration of what and how and why we read and treasure the books we read. And — most often — in any novel, it's the entertainment and excitement of the story that I'm looking for and loving the most . . . .
Books about books can be fun fantasies, too, as in Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair or Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, or William Goldman's incomparable The Princess Bride, about a grandfather reading a book to his grandson. And in these, too, the very nature of story, reader, author and subject matter are ingrained.
Books contain, preserve and protect knowledge, and we often have a natural and sometimes insatiable curiosity about the past and particularly about ancient reserves of wisdom, learning, or secrets about humanity. And as a bit of a bonus, I often find that the writing itself, the author's craft, in such books, can be beautiful and to be savored.
Not only do I love stories about books – I adore big glossy picture books about books, manuscripts, rare books, collecting books, or books on displaying and decorating with books and bookcases. In my living room is a growing stack of books featuring houses crammed to bursting with books and bookcases, and of course among those volumes are gorgeous books about the extraordinary beauty of libraries.
Along with the books mentioned above, here are some others among my favorite books-about-books,
as well as a few I haven’t read yet, but will definitely get to as soon as possible!
This is simply a never-ending list. If you too are fascinated by stories about books, literature, ancient or hidden secrets within books, please share some of your favorite titles! What's the pull of this kind of story for you, if you're a fan of this sort of thing too?