Alchemical Thoughts

Some thoughts on those “must-read” books about books

Posted on: July 8, 2016

I recently came across this list of “100 Must-Read Books About Books.” I tend to be very skeptical when I see one of these 100 books lists of whatever the topic is that inspired the compiler because very often the stuff on those lists is just not that great. In the case of some so-called classics that are being forgotten, perhaps they are best left forgotten. Now in terms of books about books, as a librarian and as an avid reader, I find the topic interesting. I do read some books about books, mainly nonfiction. I have found that fiction “about books” is not really that great, and often the “books” are actually tangential and not the main focus even. In terms of the nonfiction in this topic, there are some books I even reread now and then.

So, what have I read from the list? Not as much as you would think. Some of what I have read is good, and there are even one or two I might recommend. Others not so much, and there are even books I have abandoned because they were just bad. I am going to comment a bit on the ones I have read, that I may have tried to read, or have on my TBR list. If I reviewed the book, I will link to it.

From their fiction list:

  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. I read this eons ago (I think it was before I started reviewing books), and I remember hating it. I mainly hated the ending. Yea, there is something about books, mostly because there is some reading of Balzac going on but other than that it’s about two guys pining for a girl.
  • The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. I read this in its original Spanish. I remember it being a very intricate book. The attention to detail about the antiquarian book trade is something that folks who find that interesting will enjoy. As I note in my review, there is a movie based on the book, but it leaves a lot of stuff out from the book.
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I am familiar with it mainly because I had to teach it in high school. I probably will not be rereading it any time soon due to that experience.
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Another one that I read ages ago. I remember struggling to get through it; Eco packs a lot into the book. You can tell the guy is a literary theorist. However, I felt reading it was worth it, and I am planning on rereading it down the road.
  • The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #1) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This is one I dropped. I actually picked it up in original Spanish as well, and I tried to read it. It was terrible in terms of the writing and the sappy material. What the hell readers see in this author to make this such an overrated book is beyond me. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books was an intriguing idea, and it is probably the reason so many librarians drool over this book, but it is just not a good book. You want stories about books and depositories and so on? Go read some Borges.

From their nonfiction list:

  • Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason by Nancy Pearl. Nancy Pearl is the uber heroine for most librarians, especially those who do reader’s advisory. Do not get me wrong; she has done a lot to get people reading. However, she has sort of become a “franchise” and books after this first one feel more like she is stretching the brand. She has not reached Chicken Soup for the Soul series level yet.  I read this one and her second book, More Book Lust. They are nice books to browse, and as I said in my reviews, the first book is the best of the set.
  • The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read by Stuart Kelly. Another one I dropped. I thought this really had potential, but damn it was one seriously boring reading.
  • The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski. I have this on my TBR list, but I am highly skeptical about picking it up. I tried reading his other book on the history of pencils, The Pencil: a History of Design and Circumstance, but I dropped it because it was, again, a seriously boring book. Now keep in mind, I enjoy microhistory books. Those are books that delve deeply into a single subject, so it pained me to drop that one. So on the one hand, I want to give this other book a chance, but on the other hand, ugh.
  • The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell. I recently read this one, and it was one I really liked.
  • Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman. Read it a while back.
  • A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. Another one I read a while back. This is one I am planning on rereading soon. Manguel is a great and very evocative writer. Not listed, amazingly enough, is Manguel’s other book, The Library at Night, which is excellent, and if you are a librarian, it will make you feel all warm and fuzzy too.
  • A Passion for Books: A Book Lover’s Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Love and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring for, and Appreciating Books by Harold Rabinowitz. This is one of my favorite books. In fact, I listed it in my recent post on comfort books.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. I read this. Hated it. The book went on to become a selection for women’s book clubs wanting to read something “edgy” as it deals with book censorship in Iran and women there trying to read illicit books. Problem is the book is not that good in terms of writing and when you get down to it not that interesting either. But I guess after a few glasses of wine during book club, it may look better.
  • Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books by Paul Collins. I liked this one, but I also had some reservations about it. You can check out my review.
  • So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson. I read this too. It had its pluses and minuses. Again, feel free to click the link and check out my full review.
  • A few other nonfiction titles from the list I have on my TBR list:
    • Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages by Michael Popek. I do follow the blog for Forgotten Bookmarks, so I am interested in seeing what selections made the book.
    • A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes. I have read other books by Basbanes, and oddly enough, have not read this one yet. I do have it on my shelf to get to it down the road.
    • The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett. My local public library has this an audiobook, and since I am doing an audiobooks reading challenge for 2016, I may pick it up.
    • The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester. I have heard good things about this one, so maybe one day I will get to it.
    • Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. I want to read this mostly because I have read something else by these authors.

I have read 13 out of 100 with some additional drops. Do keep in mind that though it is a big list, there are books missing. Have you folks read any of the books on the list? Do you folks have a favorite book about books and reading that did not make the list? Let me know in the comments. If it was good, tell me why it was good, and I will add it to my TBR list. If it was bad, let me know why I should avoid it. Folks talking about books, good and bad, after all is one way reader’s advisory works out.



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