Books about Books: 9 of the Best

A book that’s about… books? Or about reading books, collecting books or even stealing books? Sure, why not. If there can be books about food, fashion and travel, why can’t there be books about books and about the obsession with reading? For committed bibliophiles, what better than not just reading books but reading books that are about books. And why have these books been written? Well, each author has his or her own reasons. Susan Hill rediscovered the books she had already owned for years and found new joy in them, Allison Hoover Bartlett wanted to find out why John Charles Gilkey stole valuable books, Pradeep Sebastian wanted to lead us into the rarefied world of book collectors and antiquarian booksellers, and as for Anne Fadiman, well, her whole life revolves around books, so she simply had to write about that. There’s also Susan Orlean, who tells us the story of the fire that broke out in the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, destroying and damaging a million books. And Sridhar Balan, who’s written a fascinating account of books and publishing and the way things used to be a few decades ago. There’s also Shaun Bythell, who talks about the trials and tribulations of a small town bookshop owner, and Estelle Ellis, who shows us the magnificent personal libraries of the more fortunate among us. A diverse, disparate set of books, one that bibliophiles will love to read.    

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home, by Susan Hill

‘Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again. A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill’s eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howard’s End Is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the UK’s most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘The journey through my own books involved giving up buying new ones, and that will seem a perverse act for someone who is both an author and a publisher. But this was a personal journey, not a mission. I want to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read,’ says the author. ‘Hill is chatty and intimate in her writing style, each page filled with her simple, clear prose and her overwhelming affection for her subject. I love the name dropping, the encounters with other writers and publishers. The tone is romantic and slightly dreamy, whisking the reader away into a world dominated by books and the bookishly-inclined, a paradise of sorts. Howards End is on the Landing is the best book about books that I have yet read,’ says Claire, The Captive Reader. ‘The autobiographical elements in the book are often delightful. This might have been a smug and indulgent book, but Hill manages to keep it charming, aided by the quality of her writing. Her legion of fans will love it; the rest of us might also enjoy its gently whimsical, self-effacing tone, even if, lurking beneath, are the steely prejudices of Middle England,’ adds The Guardian.  

Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home, is available on Amazon

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

‘In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, this is a compelling narrative set within the strange and genteel world of rare-book collecting: the true story of an infamous book thief, his victims, and the man determined to catch him. Rare-book theft is even more widespread than fine-art theft. Most thieves, of course, steal for profit. John Charles Gilkey steals purely for the love of books. In an attempt to understand him better, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged herself into the world of book lust and discovered just how dangerous it can be,’ says the publisher’s note. ‘John Gilkey is an obsessed, unrepentant book thief who has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rare books from book fairs, stores, and libraries around the country. Ken Sanders is the self-appointed ‘bibliodick’ (book dealer with a penchant for detective work) driven to catch him. The book’s author, Bartlett befriended both outlandish characters and found herself caught in the middle of efforts to recover hidden treasure. With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humour, she has woven this entertaining cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his dirtiest crimes, where he stashed the loot, and how Sanders ultimately caught him but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them. Immersing the reader in a rich, wide world of literary obsession, Bartlett looks at the history of book passion, collection, and theft through the ages, to examine the craving that makes some people willing to stop at nothing to possess the books they love,’ it adds.

‘Bartlett opens up the quirky world of book collecting fanatics with respect but occasionally too much adulation. [Her] enthusiasm is welcome; she excels when exploring the minutiae and arcana of the book collecting subculture and executes the male voices well, with a clear distinction and depth,’ says Publishers Weekly. ‘Bartlett uses these two men [John Gilkey and Ken Sanders] as a starting point for a series of vignettes in which the love of books turns to madness. Her examples range from the merely eccentric to the sociopathic, from the professor in Nebraska who was forced to sleep on a cot in his kitchen to make room for his 90 tons of books to the 19th-century Spanish monk who strangled one man and stabbed nine others in order to raid their libraries. Her sketches of bibliomania are breezily drawn and often fascinating,’ says The New York Times.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, is available on Amazon

The Book Beautiful: A Memoir of Collecting Rare and Fine Books, by Pradeep Sebastian

‘Until 2015, Pradeep Sebastian was a contented bibliophile, quite far from the serious book collector anxiously checking his email alerts. Things however took a dramatic turn when he chanced upon fine press books – printed on a handpress, from metal type pressed into dampened handmade paper, the tactility and typographic beauty of letterpress books instantly captivated him. There was no looking back. In absorbing prose, the author retraces his fulfilling journey of collecting fine books online, his new-found love for modern calligraphic and illuminated manuscripts, and his discovery of the masters of bookmaking – be it the cloistered nuns who printed impeccable fine press books, or the famous printer who lived in a one-room apartment at a YMCA with his small handpress tucked under his bed. Peppered with vivid anecdotes and delightful conversations, The Book Beautiful is as much about the love for fine books as it is about the pleasures of bibliophily – the camaraderie between fellow collectors and dealers, bibliographic connoisseurship, the thrill of the chase, and the joy of striking a juicy bargain,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘There is much to be said for the eccentricity of the seasoned hobbyist who, having immersed himself in a chosen subculture, is now entirely familiar with its dialects, processes and professional circles. Such an individual is best able to present the beauty and the alienness of that inner world of conflicting discourses and unspoken hierarchies, and draw the reader into a realm hitherto unobserved. This is what Pradeep Sebastian does in The Book Beautiful. The book is quite witty, especially so when the author chooses to illustrate his points via conversations with other collectors and dealers,’ says Hindustan Times. ‘The book is peppered with gems of encounters with legendary collectors and antiquarian booksellers engaged in the subtle art of putting out tempting offers and Pradeep, always conscious of his budget, putting out hopeful bids. It’s an intimate account of the hunt for rare and fine books, of the art of bidding for them at online auctions, and the timing of the final bid just before the closing bell, so the prize is secured,’ says Sridhar Balan, reviewing the book for The Asian Age. Incidentally, Balan’s own book, Off the Shelf, is also part of the nine books mentioned in this article.    

The Book Beautiful: A Memoir of Collecting Rare and Fine Books, is available on Amazon

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman

‘Anne Fadiman is, by her own admission, the sort of person who learned about sex from her father’s copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice,’ says the publisher’s note. ‘This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father’s 22-volume set of Trollope and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections, she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. Perfectly balanced between humour and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists,’ it adds.

‘I began to write Ex Libris when it occurred to me how curious it was that books are so often written about as if they were toasters. This model of readers as consumers neatly omits what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books , the ones we’ve lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colours and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin. Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves, they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?’ says Fadiman. ‘Whatever moved Fadiman to write the 18 essays gathered in the book, they deal usefully with little problems people who care for books would be unlikely to think about systematically, let alone discuss with other readers and writers. For instance, in the chapter ‘Never Do That to a Book,’ she identifies those who revere books physically and are therefore believers in ‘courtly love,’ and those who underline, make marginal notes, tear pages out or keep reading books until they fall apart are believers in ‘carnal love.’ She allows that the world has room for both. Ex Libris is a smart little book that one can happily welcome into the family and allow to start growing old,’ says The New York Times.  

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is available on Amazon

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean

‘On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. The fire was disastrous: It reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library, and if so, who? Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before. In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; she delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and re-examines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present – from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr CJK Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as ‘The Human Encyclopaedia’ who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the LA library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves. Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books, and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of a country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever before,’ it adds.

‘I grew up in libraries, or so it seems. My mother and I would take regular trips to the branch library near my house at least twice a week, and those trips were enchanted. The very air in the library seemed charged with possibility and imagination; books seem to have their own almost human vitality. But over time, I had become more of a book buyer than a book borrower, and I had begun to forget how magical libraries are. I never stopped loving libraries, but they receded in my mind, and seemed like a piece of my past,’ says Orlean, on her website. ‘And then I started taking my own son to the library, and I was reminded instantly and vividly of how much libraries had meant to me, how formative they were to my love of reading and writing, and how much they mean to us as a culture. The next thing I knew, I was investigating the largest library fire in the history of the United States. The life and times and near-death experience of the Los Angeles Public Library was a story that felt urgent to tell, and gave me a chance to pay tribute to these marvellous places that have been such an essential part of my life,’ she adds.

The Library Book, is available on Amazon

The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell

The Diary of a Bookseller is Shaun Bythell’s funny and fascinating memoir of a year in the life at the helm of The Bookshop, in the small village of Wigtown, Scotland, and of the delightfully odd locals, unusual staff, eccentric customers, and surreal buying trips that make up his life there as he struggles to build his business and be polite. In this wry and hilarious diary, he tells us the trials and tribulations of being a small businessman; of learning that customers can be eccentric; and of wrangling with his own staff of oddballs. And perhaps none are quirkier than the charmingly cantankerous bookseller Bythell himself turns out to be. Slowly, with a mordant wit and keen eye, Bythell is seduced by the growing charm of small-town life, despite, or maybe because of, all the peculiar characters there,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘t is a wonder, reading some of Shaun Bythell’s descriptions of the customers in his bookshop, that anyone dares cross its threshold at all. The owner of Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop has an entertainingly low opinion of customers. Those who spend nothing – and they are legion – are particularly unflatteringly depicted, but even those who cough up are far from safe,’ observes The Guardian. ‘With wit and humility, Bythell, owner of a used bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, chronicles a year in the life of a bookseller. He shares amusing stories, such as how his staff creatively categorize books. tales of cheap customers, [and] anecdotes of the quirky folk who adore books. Bythell’s narrative is lively and intelligent,’ says Publishers Weekly, adding that some readers may be disappointed that the book dispels any notions about the romance of owning a bookstore. ‘It’s a cheerfully depressing account of independent bookselling today – deadpan, ruthless, poignant, and at times, so charming it’s almost unbelievable. The larger cast of characters in Diary of a Bookseller are so zany and absurd they would seem over-the-top in a 1990s movie about an indie record shop. Bythell is often as charmingly unlikeable as his customers, ridiculing them in the book and online,’ says Quartz, adding that though the book doesn’t seem like it should work, it does.

The Diary of a Bookseller, is available on Amazon

The Library: A Fragile History, by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

‘Famed across the known world, jealously guarded by private collectors, built up over centuries, destroyed in a single day, ornamented with gold leaf and frescoes or filled with bean bags and children’s drawings – the history of the library is rich, varied and stuffed full of incident. In this, the first major history of its kind, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen explore the contested and dramatic history of the library, from the famous collections of the ancient world to the embattled public resources we cherish today. Along the way, they introduce us to the antiquarians and philanthropists who shaped the world’s great collections, trace the rise and fall of fashions and tastes, and reveal the high crimes and misdemeanours committed in pursuit of rare and valuable manuscripts,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘This book is one for all of us book nerds. The Library covers everything you could want to know about books in all their forms. The history of libraries is in-depth, patient, and genuinely interesting, as it not only tells us tales of books, it tells the story of those who owned books throughout history, whether those books were in a library, a single shelf, or just a box. As a result, the history of the book is somehow made human, as it shows from ancient times until now, and from rich to poor, books were the thing that people valued. [And] as libraries were often private collections, particularly Latin books, this book is able to tell the story of kings and queens, mighty rulers, and wealthy merchants in times past, it can tell us about who owns books today,’ says Caroline Angus. ‘Historians Pettegree and der Weduwen take a comprehensive and fascinating deep dive into the evolution of libraries, tracing a repeating cycle of creation and dispersal, decay and reconstruction. They also explore changes in reading habits, the widespread availability of digital resources, and the transformation of public libraries into de facto community centres that fill societal needs unmet elsewhere. Bibliophiles should consider this a must-read,’ says Publishers Weekly.

The Library: A Fragile History, is available on Amazon

At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live With and Care for Their Libraries, by Estelle Ellis

At Home with Books takes the reader into the houses of forty booklovers to view their very personal libraries and reading spaces. Not only is it a visual delight, but it also includes professional advice on editing and categorizing your library; caring for your books; preserving, restoring and storing rare books; finding out-of-print books; and choosing furniture, lighting and shelving. This indispensable resource, newly available in paperback, will be an inspiration for every bibliophile with a growing home library,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Libraries, perhaps more than any other room in the house, express the personality of their owners. The books people read say as much about their tastes, interests and preferences as a psychological profile. This book, then, shines a spotlight on this revealing room and shows how a place filled with books can outrage, delight, intrigue and seduce according to the person who created it. At Home with Books is about those readers, and the very personal, diverse libraries created for the passion they share. People continue to make a home for books because books make a home, the author says.

At Home with Books, is available on Amazon

Off the Shelf: on Books, Book People and Places, by Sridhar Balan

We recently did a piece on how this book – Off the Shelf – is the inspiration behind and we believe the book really is a brilliant piece of work. ‘This is a book about one life, the author’s, and many other lives – of legendary writers, editors, publishers and booksellers – spent with words; written, printed and bound. Drawing upon years of reading and a long career in publishing, Sridhar Balan gives us stories and facts about some extraordinary people and places related to books. There are accounts of Dean Mahomed, the first Indian author in English, and EV Rieu, who set up Oxford University Press (OUP) in Bombay and later initiated the Penguin Classics series, translating Homer’s Odyssey even as bombs fell around him in London. There are anecdotes about Roy Hawkins – Hawk – who laid the foundation for some fine publishing at OUP, and Ravi Dayal, who carried on Hawk’s legacy. The remarkable career of Ram Advani, the legendary bookseller of Lucknow, is sketched along with that of Dhanesh Jain, an academic who manufactured buttons before he found his true calling and established Ratna Sagar, a pioneer in text-book publishing. Along the way, Balan gives us delightful accounts of the launch of Jim Corbett’s Man-Eaters of Kumaon in New York and Salim Ali’s The Handbook of Indian Birds at Indira Gandhi’s residence in New Delhi; describes a memorable meeting between Andre Malraux and Nehru in Paris; and reveals how a nun was persuaded to buy an erotic novel at Delhi’s World Book Fair. Nostalgic, witty and full of fascinating information and memories, Off the Shelf will delight every book lover,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘In his book, Balan draws us not only to the zigzag thoughts engendered by libraries and bookstore nooks, but also into vividly-sketched vignettes from the nation’s reading history. Deftly darting between past and present, Sridhar cites how Macaulay’s much-cited, socially-transformative Minute on Education not only spawned a tribe of English speakers in India, but also stoked a demand for English books in the colony,’ says Brinda S Narayan. ‘The histories and mysteries of the publishing world, more specifically, the English publishing world in India, are illumined by the sunny penmanship of Balan, a self-effacing, though exceptionally erudite writer. [It is] an abridged Arabian Nights of memories, incidental narratives, stories within stories and delightful anecdotes that take the reader on a slow and charming joyride,’ adds The Asian Age. ‘Off The Shelf isn’t a straightforward memoir; it is, rather, a paean to reading. Balan not only celebrates the enduring appeal of the book – as a source of knowledge and entertainment – but also the excitement that goes into the making of a masterpiece. From the giddy joy of discovering a fresh talent to the inventive thinking that goes into marketing. Interspersed with anecdotes and industry lore [and] arranged as a collection of essays, Off The Shelf is easy to dip in and out of. While bibliophiles would certainly enjoy this roller-coaster ride, others too are also likely to be seduced by Balan’s gift for a good story,’ says Mint.

Off the Shelf, is available on Amazon

adventure Allahabad Apple astrology audiobooks aviation Banaras best-of lists Bombay book marketing Calcutta corporate culture design food Formula 1 Iranian Japan journalism journalists libraries literary agents Lucknow Madras memoirs memories motorcycle travel motoring Mumbai music my life with books non-fiction Persian photojournalism Prayagraj publishers publishing retail science-fiction technology travel trends typography Urdu Varanasi wishlists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: