Books About Books

November 11, 2008 at 11:48 pm 2 comments

I recently completed The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee and it reminded me of one of my favorite sub-genres, most commonly found in used bookstores but now making a pleasant resurgence in other bookstores: books about books.

Books about books may sound like an annoyingly redundant form of literature, but I assure you it is a beautiful thing. In a pretentious frame of mind, I suppose I would compare it to a great cathedral. Books about books are created solely for the glorification of something else or, in their case, some other book or books. Cathedrals, similarly, are built solely for the glorification of, depending on who you ask, God, the town or Art. In any event, not for the sake of the cathedral itself. I would also argue that books about books and cathedrals also share a grand beauty, cathedrals with flying buttresses and stained glass and books about books with the perfect words. Indeed, books about books, being written by those who love books possibly best of all readers (to such an extent that they felt compelled to write a whole book about how much they love books), are often some of the most eloquent books you’ll find.

Suffice to say, I generally love the form even if it can go horribly awry as is the case with Rereadings, a book of essays collected by the great Anne Fadiman. The essays all center around the idea of rereading a favorite book and each of the essays is, tragically, written by a different author. All attempt the high art of writing a book about books (or in this case an essay about books) and most, frankly, fail. There is always the opportunity in a book about books to be too self-centered and most of the essayists in Rereadings seize this opportunity with zeal. The essays range from wholly pretentious to literary criticism (a thing quite different from books about books) to simply egotistical. In my opinion, the book about books is ideally two parts intelligence, one part biography and one part adoration mixed with some good old fashioned good writing. Of the authors in this collection, only Ms. Fadiman succeeds at this.

In fact, the greatest of all books about books for me will always be Ex Libris by Ms. Fadiman. I often try to articulate just what is so wonderful about this book, but it is well nigh impossible. Suffice to say that the writing borders on divine and whenever I read (and reread and reread) it, I am simultaneously struck with awe, jealousy and admiration that such writing still exists in this digital world. At the risk of veering into fangirl territory, I will leave off and simply recommend vigorously that you read it.

Hugh Walpole (above with his dachshund), perhaps more well-known as a novelist, wrote a lovely little piece of bibliomania called Reading: An Essay. I stumbled across it in a used book store, and I have never been quite so pleased with an impulse buy. It is delightful, relatable, eloquent, amusing and intelligent. In addition, the book is rather autobiographical but, despite coming from a gay man living in the 1920s, is still perfectly applicable to today. I guess reading and readers haven’t changed much in the ensuing decades, which is rather as comforting as this book is.

Mr. Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop enters this realm of extremely good books about books with aplomb. His book is described as “a memoir, a history” and it is wonderfully both. Unlike Ms. Fadiman’s collection of unconnected essays in Ex Libris, Mr. Buzbee’s book has a narrative that follows his life in books and bookstores with a cleverly parallel account of the history of the book and bookstore as an institution. Both sides of the story are fascinating and the book only falls slightly short in the latter chapters when Mr. Buzbee feels compelled to take a stance on the “literacy is dead!” debate that has risen with the Internet as well as toss in his two cents on what his favorite bookstores are and why. The history of the book parallel has died out by this point, which is a shame, as it might have enlivened the later chapters. That aside, the book is a genuine joy and I heartily recommend it as I head out the door to find other books by Mr. Buzbee.

Next Up: Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott. At last! A return to fiction!


Entry filed under: Non-fiction.

“A Curious History”? More like a winding history ‘Beginner’s Greek’ Proves Cinematically Wonderful

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  November 22, 2008 at 3:07 am

    LOVE books about books! One of my prized possessions is an old edition of “In Praise of Books” that I found for a few euro in Galway with all kinds of quotes from famous writers about how much they love books :D

  • 2. Corey  |  November 22, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Ooh! I think I have a copy of that! I distinctly remember seeing it somewhere and I’m pretty sure I bought it…if it’s the same book, it’s so wonderful! I guess I can check once I’m back in Williamsville with all my lovelies (books, that is).


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