Tag: Books on Books

by Robin Sloan

If I had known what this book was like going into it, I probably wouldn’t have read, ha. So I’m glad I knew so little, because I really enjoyed it! Even though it’s about a conspiracy, a secret society, a giant puzzle to be solved by breaking a hidden code. It’s funny and quirky and weird, but also gets a tad nostalgic and tongue-in-cheek at the end. I loved it that the solution to the puzzle was something so simple and overlooked because everyone was expecting something far more complicated. I laughed out loud at how everything finally connected in the end. And of course I loved all the bookish references, especially (oddly enough) to a fictional fantasy series (which reminded me of the fictional series everyone loved in the Magicians books).

It starts out being about a guy in San Francisco out of a job, who picks up a night shift at a small bookstore. Almost immediately he notices something odd about this bookstore: most of the (very few) patrons don’t actually buy books. They borrow hefty tomes written in some kind of code, accessible only because they have membership in some private group. Our protagonist’s employer warns him to never look in the coded books in the back part of the store, or he’ll be fired instantly. But of course he is curious and when a friend eggs him on, he takes a look. And gets sucked into attempting to break the code. Which actually looks possible, because he doesn’t just throw old decrypting methods at the problem, but amasses all the scary powers of modern technology and computer brains, to crack the puzzle in just the blink of an eye (compared to the decades the secret club has been working on it). And what he finds- on practically the very last page- is a total surprise, which really made me laugh. All those people worked up over the wrong thing!

I really liked how this book meshed old knowledge and craftsmanship ways of doing things, with the blazingly fast and frighteningly powerful new powers of programming and crowdsourcing. It shows the best of both worlds, and also -perhaps- how they could mesh into something even better. There’s so much love of knowledge and things bookish in here- from how things are organized, to the vast storage spaces of museum collections, to the beauty of typefaces and the mastery of writing code. Not to mention all the odd people, and the coming together of great minds, and friends. It was great, and it all went by in a flash. There’s a prequel too, which piques my interest, though my library doesn’t have a copy of that, so I’ll have to look for it elsewhere. And of course, I loved the end message, that things written in books which are treasured and handed down from one generation to the next, are the real immortality.

Oh, also- the Google parts were weird. And I thought: maybe that’s just how the Google workplace is. But I gather from some other reviewers that it’s decidedly not. Doesn’t bother me, but it might bother people in the know.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
288 pages, 2012

the True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Deep dive into the world of rare book collectors- in particular, one man who for years methodically stole expensive books from rare bookshops and dealers at book fairs, to build his own collection. Aggravatingly, in spite of being incarcerated numerous times for stealing credit card info, impersonating people whose accounts he used, shoplifting valuable books (getting caught red-handed at least once) and more he was very much at liberty when the author wrote this. In investigating his story, the author herself went to book fairs and shops, talked with book dealers, visited collectors’ homes, and even perused some rare copies herself, to buy a first-edition of a beloved childhood classic (a desire that often gets people started collecting valuable books, she says). She conducted interviews with the book thief, both in jail and while he was at liberty. She also spoke numerous times with a book dealer who was trying to track down the thief and put a stop to his activities.

There’s much in here about what makes certain books so valuable, with descriptions of extremely rare or noteworthy tomes that can make a reader swoon. I’m not one to gather pricey copies for my personal library- I prefer books that actually get read and handled a lot- but something about this makes me start to understand people who do collect them just for their worth as fine objects. This man compelled to constantly thieve and hoard books was something else, though. What really struck me as surprising, was how readily he explained himself to the author, even admitting in conversations and interviews what he had stolen, when and how. It was kind of shocking his complete lack of guilt, his apparent conviction that society “owed” him something, that he had a right to get things for free (not just valuable books, but hotel room stays, restaurant meals, etc). The glimpse the author had of his childhood home, and meeting his mother, hinted to me that this collector’s obsession may be, in some way, an inherited personality trait? I don’t know, but it sure was fascinating.

Have to eat my words from a comment I left on someone’s blog the other day: here is a true crime book I actually liked! It kind of breaks the fourth wall near the end too, in a way- the book thief knew the journalist was writing his story, and mused on how it would end! Side note: I was surprised to see a lot of criticism and disdain for this book in online reviews, on that site that is eating the world. A lot of readers felt the criminal was just a petty credit card thief, did nothing spectacular that deserved notoriety, and/or disliked how the writer included herself in the narrative. For my part, I didn’t at all mind the personal perspective- I appreciated it in fact. It made me reflect on my own bookish affections. And I don’t read enough crime (fiction or otherwise) to need to be impressed by someone’s underhanded skills. So I enjoyed it well enough.

Audiobook, borrowed from the public library. The voice of reader Judith Brackley was pleasant to my ear. No issues with the copy. (Still having mixed success though- I was going to listen to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime just before this, but found the case missing the first CD. I tried A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown but my device wouldn’t play that one at all).

Rating: 4/5
288 pages, 2009

the Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World's Best-Loved Books

by Jenny Bond and Chris Sheedy

This one caught my eye in the library catalog, when I was looking for a copy of Gone with the Wind. It’s casual info essays on fifty popular books: the backstory to why they were written, mostly as very short bios on the authors. I was curious about what made these popular titles so lasting, and it conclusively seems to be: they were based on life. Not necessarily autobiographical in nature, but that the crux of the novel was drawn from something very personal the author experienced, especially if it involved suffering. Surprising, how many of the writerrs weren’t actually studious, or failed to thrive in structured educational environments. Also a bit surprising the selection here. There’s classic writers including Charles Dickens, William Golding, Harper Lee, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Tolkien, Mark Twain . . . but also those who penned thrillers and bestselling romances: Peter Benchley, Jackie Collins, Dan Brown, etc. I read through the chapters about works I’d heard of but never read (or tried and couldn’t) such as The Great Gatsby and Lolita, curious if it would give me some insight into why others liked them. What made them great that I couldn’t appreciate. I admit that I skimmed a few chapters that were about books I’d never even heard of. Interestingly, there was a shorter section at the end on popular non-fiction titles which included In Cold Blood, Alex Haley’s Roots, The Origin of Species (I hope to get through this one someday), the English Dictionary (! explaining the origins of dictionaries alone would take a whole book by itself I think !) and Guinness World Records. That last one was interesting, I didn’t know of its origins before. For the books I was already familiar with in here, I didn’t learn much new. For the ones I hadn’t read, it caught my attention. I noted two titles to add to my TBR. Nice to breeze through.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
318 pages, 2008

More opinions:
Apparently Not Deranged
anyone else?

by Larry McMurtry

Brief memoir by a writer who is also known for his movies but his real passion was dealing in used books. Especially high end collectibles and rare editions. So of course he tells how he came to be a reader, and his love of books which any bibliophile would enjoy absorbing in these pages. However this volume felt a bit choppy to me, as he tells about part of his childhood, then where that led to or some related aspect of his adult life, then drops back into the chronological narrative again. Every other page nearly, as the chapters are mostly only one or two in length. It didn\’t bother me too much, though. I\’ve liked before many memoirs written by readers or writers, but this one is really about being a dealer. A book scout. Mingling with wealthy and monied people (they have the best private libraries) and what finds he had (or missed out on). How some copies resurfaced years later, or were re-bought and sold when you wouldn\’t expect them to be. Lots of titles I recognized fondly, and many many more I didn\’t (my reading tastes are not quite the same). Loads of name dropping which did nothing for me, but I skimmed through that, interested regardless. Plenty of interesting snippets of stories about curious customers or individuals met while seeking out fine book collections. He tells about when secondhand bookshops were thriving, and how he watched them slowly begin to decline in the seventies. This account wraps up just when online selling was becoming a thing, in fact the last chapter is a sort of obituary list of defunct bookshops- many of which he\’d acquired the complete stock when they went under. He also noted how computers are gradually taking over space in public libraries, saying though Book selling will never quite expire unless reading expires first… Civilization can probably adjust to the loss of the secondhand book trade, though I don\’t think it\’s really likely to have to. Can it, though, survive the loss of reading? That\’s a tougher question, but a very important one.

Aside from the bookishness, I also enjoyed reading about places- I\’ve lived briefly in San Francisco and Baltimore, and now am near Washington, D.C.- all locations McMurtry tells about thick with book dealing and bookshop visits. Made me want to visit more of them, before they disappear. (McMurtry says of D.C: What depressed me most in D.C. was that the various great houses I was invited to contained so few books.) !

I haven\’t read any of McMurtry\’s novels yet, but have wanted to try Lonesome Dove. Which he says he wrote as a western version of Gone with the Wind. Another one that\’s on my list!

My favorite quote: Very quickly…. I realized that reading was probably the cheapest and most stable pleasure of life. Sometimes books excite me, sometimes they sustain me, but rarely do they disappoint me- as books that is, if not necessarily the poetry, history, or fiction that they contain.

This amused and saddened me: I\’m proud of my carefully selected twenty-eight-thousand-volume library and am not joking when I say that I regard its formation as one of my most notable achievements. Yet, when I walk along the rows of bookshelves now, I feel that a distance has opened between me and my books.… I think sometimes that I\’m angry with my library because I know that I can\’t reread it all. I would like to, but the time is not there. It is this, I think, that produces the slight sense of alientation that I feel when I\’m together with my books now. They need to find other readers soon- ideally they will be my son and grandson, but if not them, other book lovers.

Rating: 3/5                   259 pages, 2008

by Katharine S. White

This gardening book is a compilation of articles originally written as a column for The New Yorker magazine. It took me by surprise. The individual essays are not actually about gardening per se, but are for the most part, reviews of seed catalogs. I have done this once myself, so I was a bit intrigued. It turns out Mrs. White is quite opinionated about gardening and the development of new plant varieties- especially how showier flowers and bigger produce seem to be all the seedsmen are aiming for- at least that was her take on it. She disparages a lot of trends in the seed catalogs, which makes for some amusing reading. Here and there she mentions her own experiences with certain plants, which were the parts I really enjoyed. She doesn\’t just talk about plants, though. She criticizes (or praises where it was merited) the paper quality, choice of typography and clarity of photos in the seed catalogs. Later in the book are a few reviews of different types of publications regarding plants- field guides to wildflowers and oversized gardening books meant to be decorative (I call them \”coffee table\” books). I admit I was totally uninterested in the two chapters about books on formal flower arranging, styles in flower arrangement, and flower shows. I kind of skimmed through that. I puzzled a bit at how often she made a point of telling which supplier had what particular variety of a species, until I recalled the publication date: there was no internet back then. You couldn\’t just do a search and find where to buy the rose your grandmother used to grow or anything. So of course she made notes on which seeds suppliers grew, developed and sold what particular strains of plants. Specializing in roses, or azaleas, or herbs, etc. Helpfully, in the back of the book is a listing of all the catalogs and suppliers mentioned, with brief notes if they are still in business or have changed their focus. Only the last two chapters review gardening books of the kind I like to read- and here I did note down a few titles that sound particularly good. And on a different note, the introduction is written by her husband, a lovely portrait of Mrs. White and some of her gardening habits.

Rating: 3/5         362 pages, 1958

by Nick Hornby

Bah, another disappointment. I recall really liking Nick Hornby back when I read The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt practically back-to-back in my eagerness. This one, not so much. In fact, halfway through I started skimming. Skipped ahead to the part where he talks about The Road (since I’ve read that one) and the rest just couldn’t hold me. Is it because I haven’t heard of most of the books he mentioned, and only read the one? Or because he seems to talk more about the contents, and less about the reading experience. It’s hard to be interested in a rambling discussion of something I’m unfamiliar with. I wonder now if I went back to the two previous collections, would I find them as delightful as the first time around?

Also this is the kind of book I really ought to hold onto, in case I might actually like it another time around. Only this was a third try- I already gave it a go a few times before. Bummer.

Rating: Abandoned
131 pages, 2008

by Henry Petroski

A history of bookshelves, the physical design of books themselves, and to some extent the organizational systems for libraries. Might sound boring. But I think any book-lover, especially one interested in how things are organized, will find it engaging, as I did. Seeing books lined up vertically on shelves is so much the norm for us that it\’s hard to imagine finding books in other ways (although stacks on the floor are often a norm for me, too). Petroski looks in detail at all the ways throughout history that books have been kept safe, from the oldest scrolls stored in cubbyholes, to precious volumes safeguarded in locked chests, to various takes on shelving until arriving at the horizontal bookcases we are so familiar with today. He looks at library designs as well, and includes plenty of amusing anecdotes about book-lovers through the ages (I remember in particular Samuel Pepys, who was a book collector paramount to none; he had hundreds of books and apparently had to climb over the piles to reach his bed!) I found most intriguing the descriptions of heavy volumes so valuable (back when books were meticulously copied by hand and took scribes many years of their lives to create) they were actually chained to the shelves to thwart library visitors who might also be thieves. It led me to the title The Chained Library, a book that\’s been lingering on my TBR list forever now (mostly because my public library doesn\’t have a copy for me to read). As a little plus, the appendix has all sorts of suggestions on ways to organize your own library, from the usual subject or alphabetical arrangements to sorting by color and other whimsical methods. Overall intriguing and fun at times. The writing is pretty good, too. A lot of it is about engineering of shelving systems, but it\’s written in a friendly fashion that makes that easy to understand, open to the curious mind. Sure to interest any bibliophile who likes to mess with lists and shuffle their books every now and then (I rearrange my shelves every few years just for the fun of it).

Rating: 4/5 …….. 304 pages, 1999

A Simple Repair Manual for Book Lovers
by Margot Rosenberg and Bern Markowitz

This small but very useful book is one I long to own. I found it once at a library, read it avidly straight through, and have never forgotten it. It\’s mostly about how to take care of your books- both by treating them tenderly, storing them properly and avoiding the enemies of books- dust, moisture, paper-eating insects, etc. Before reading this book I never realized how important it was to give my books a little breathing room on the shelves (instead of cramming in as many as I could, so tightly it was hard to wedge one out again). There are instructions on how to make simple repairs, often using ordinary household items. It\’s from this book that I learned how to carefully glue tears, iron out dogeared or wrinkled pages and make a stinky book box! However, the methods described in this book are probably not good enough to use on antique or leather-bound books (they don\’t seem to be archival, for example); but there is a resource list of more extensive book-repair manuals and organizations that offer classes in the book arts. What I really enjoyed about the book was its lighthearted tone and many amusing asides on book collecting and borrowing, as well as dogs. Yes, dogs! The authors owned a bookshop devoted almost entirely to literature about dogs, and kept their dogs in the shop so of course they wrote quite a bit about their dogs in here, as well as comparing book care to dog care. This might be annoying for some readers who want it to stick closer to the subject, but I thought it was delightful.

Rating: 4/5 …….. 190 pages, 2002

by Donn Kushner

I read a review on Savidge Reads today about a book I\’ve been wanting to read, Firmin. It reminded me of another book I read several years ago, about another small animal who loved books, this one a dragon. I saw it on a clearance table at a bookstore one day, and was curious enough to buy it.

A Book Dragon is a charming tale about a dragon called Nonesuch, who is the last of his kind. It covers some six hundred years of his life, starting out when he is a young dragon living in a medieval forest. Needing a treasure to guard, Nonesuch forsakes the usual gold and instead chooses an illuminated book. For a time he observes the monk who illustrated the volume, then accompanies the book on its journey through the centuries. He survives while his relatives die out, by his ability to change size in order to hide. He watches humans from secrecy, reflecting on their various follies, and in the end is a little dragon no larger than an insect, haunting a modern bookshop and still guarding his precious book. At one point a rat teaches him how to read, and Nonesuch can finally value his book not merely as a physical object (albeit a beautiful one) but for the words it contains. A Book Dragon is an engaging little fantasy, written for younger readers but with intriguing little details and clever explanations (like how the dragon survived into modern times by fasting, hibernating and changing shape). There is some moralizing in the tale, and Nonesuch deals out his own form of justice, to people he feels deserve it. A story sure to charm booklovers who like a little light fantasy.

Rating: 3/5 …….. 197 pages, 1987

by Nick Hornby

Being \”Fourteen months of massively witty adventures in reading chronicled by the National Book Critics Circle finalist for criticism\”. Need I say more? I love reading what Nick Hornby says about books and the reading experience, although some reviews have made me dubious of reading his actual fiction. I found that I related more to Housekeeping vs the Dirt than its predecessor, The Polysyllabic Spree, perhaps because he mentioned more American works, and I have either heard of, read or want to read about a third of what was discussed. So it was nice to be able to relate more directly, and not just in the general sense of being a book lover.

I have heard much of In Cold Blood, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Then We Came to the End. I\’ve read some works by Barthelme, too. Hornby has convinced me that I really ought to read more, also Ian McEwan. He\’s also validated A\’s appreciation of \”Sopranos\” and \”The Wire\”, reiterated my puzzlement over people who sell books on Amazon for a penny (or several pennies), and convinced me that I am quite outside the normal realm. After all, I am a person who would read a book after the kids are in bed and the dishes shelved (p. 14) and also one likely to pick up a book on peregrine migration patterns (p.50). Hornby also happens to mention my sister\’s favorite artist, Jack Vettriano, and talks about Into the Wild. This is a book I\’ve read recently, so I was eager to see what was said, but it didn\’t come until the end. I did sit on my impatience and wait until I arrived there in due time, although A. said why do that? it\’s not as if the book\’s written chronologically. But I did!

Oh, and I must have better eyesight than I thought. Even though I wear glasses for astigmatism headaches, I managed to read the small print line without a magnifying glass. It was horrifically disgusting, and A. laughed when I paraphrased it to him!

Quoted in this book are selected excerpts from Sarah Vowell\’s Assassination Vacation, Jess Walter\’s Citizen Vince, Jennie Erdal\’s Ghosting and Marjane Satrapi\’s Persepolis (a graphic novel). All in all, an astonishing good and funny collection of words on reading.

Rating: 5/5                   Published: 2006, pp 153

Read another review at: In Spring it is the Dawn


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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