Reading About Reading

February 23, 2015

A simple pleasure for many book lovers (including me) is reading about 1) What other people are reading, and 2) Why other people read. I’m quite curious (not to say nosy) about others’ books and reading habits. (If I come to your house and you momentarily lose track of me, you’ll find me poking through your bookshelves.) I extend this to reading books about books and reading, not because I need more recommendations for what to read, but because reading fascinates me, and it adds to my enjoyment to share it with like-minded (and sometimes not-so-like-minded) readers.  Judging by the number of books about books and reading, I’m not the only one. I have a small collection of these on my own shelves (which you are welcome to explore) and a several more on my TBR list.

I bring this up now because I just finished reading Nick Hornby’s  The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns for The Believer. I enjoyed it so much I’m now on the hunt for the three other collections of his columns: Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, Shakespeare Wrote for Money  and More Baths Less Talking all of which I want to read right now.  I’ve put Shakespeare and More Baths on hold with my library, but they don’t have Housekeeping, unfortunately. I loved Hornby’s chatty and personal tone, and though we mostly read very different types of books, he made me laugh out loud, and there were several passages that resonated with me, including this one: “…I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal….with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”

The problem with reading books like this is that I always come away with more books to read—an ongoing problem for me, as you all know. I may have checked this one book off my TBR list, but I’ve added at least three more. Oh, well.

But back to books about books, which, if you remember, is the theme of this ever-lengthening post. If, like me, you love reading about others’ reading habits, I offer this incomplete list of books about reading, beginning with books on the subject that I have already read:

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman. Eighteen essays, and (oh, dear) a recommended reading list. She writes beautifully, and just looking at the table of contents makes me want to reread this book. These pieces are also compiled from a column written for a magazine, and what I want to know is: how do I get a job writing a column about reading? 

Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books, Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I could have written this snippet, so well does it describe what often happens to me:

“In a bookstore, I leaf through the book next to the one I came to buy, and a sentence sets me quivering. I buy that one instead, or as well…. A remark overheard on a bus reminds me of a book I meant to read last month. I hunt it up in the library and glance in passing at the old paperbacks on sale for twenty-five cents. There is the book so talked about in college—it was to have prepared me for life and here I have blundered through decades without it. Snatch it up quickly before it’s too late. And so what we read is as wayward and serendipitous as any taste or desire. Or perhaps randomness is not so random after all. Perhaps at every stage what we read is what we are, or what we are becoming, or desire.”  Oh, and I bought this book for a quarter at my library’s used book store.

So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, Sara Nelson. Another library bookstore purchase, this chronicles a year in Nelson’s life when she determines to read a book a week and record how reading intermingles with life in the “real world.” 

Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason and Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers,Vagabonds, and Dreamers, Nancy Pearl. Pearl is an author, book reviewer and public librarian. Her lists of books, with short descriptions and critiques, are great fun. Read with caution unless you want your TBR list to explode beyond all reason. It’s too late for me. Save yourself.

The following books are on my TBR list:

Reading in Bed: Personal Essays on the Glories of Reading, Steven Gilbar. I haven’t gotten to this one yet, but plan to read it this year as part of my Mt. TBR challenge.

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose. Another book I haven’t read yet, this one is close to the top of my what-to-read-next list because I want to be both a better reader and writer.

A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel. “Manguel brilliantly covers reading as seduction, as rebellion, and as obsession and goes on to trace the quirky and fascinating history of the reader’s progress from clay tablet to scroll, codex to CD-ROM,” according to Amazon.

The Novel Cure, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.   I know I’ll end up with another long list of books I want to read when I get around to this one, but I still want to read it.

My Reading Life, Pat Conroy. 

Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, Anne Fadiman (editor). Similar to Bound to Last, perhaps, but I want to read this nonetheless.

And, scariest of all to the TBR list, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Peter Boxall (editor).

I know there are many other books about books—these are just the ones currently on my radar. Dare I ask? What are your favorite books about books?

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  1. Once again, I so enjoyed reading your thoughtful writing. So much here. In my older age, my personal library has been pared down to, yes, the books that reflect something of my essence at this time. I will send your fantastic bibliography to several librarian friends, if that's OK. Hornby's books sound great, how nice to find books that spark our brains & our souls! Do you enjoy to the site Goodreads?

  2. The quote from Lynne Sharon Schwartz resonated with me as well. It really does seem I read a lot of things randomly. I read almost only fiction, so I can't think of any books about books that I've read.

  3. Rita--So glad you liked the post. I hope your librarian friends (who probably know so much more than I do about this!) find it helpful. I have occasionally visited Goodreads, but haven't explored it too much. Do you visit it regularly?

  4. Cheryl--Sometimes randomly is the best way. It's more fun, anyway, than having a list of books you "must" read. Despite my reading challenges and so on, I read pretty randomly myself, unless I'm researching something.

  5. Gee, only a MONTH late! You know, I did try and leave a comment on your post way back in February but I was having computer problems and it never showed up here! I love books about books and have another one to add to your list--Anna Quindlen's How Reading Changed My Life! Must get back to Nick Hornby, too....

  6. Ha, ha, Danielle--better late than never (she says as she responds to your comment a week later)! I like Anna Quindlen, so I'm adding her book to my TBR list.