BOOKS I LOVE: PART I – BOOKS ABOUT BOOKS

BOOKS I LOVE: PART I
BOOKS ABOUT BOOKS

Recently a reader wrote to ask what some of the books I liked were, saying, “I would love to read authors/stories that she enjoys.” I totally get that. Many of my favorite books were first recommended to me by authors. I read The Pickwick Papers because the March girls had a Pickwick Club in Little Women, read Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” because Anne was acting it out in Anne of Green Gables, and discovered Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat because Kip’s dad was reading it in Have Space Suit, will Travel. So I’d be happy to share some of the books I love.

But making a list of all of them will take far more than one post, so I’ll start with one category of books I’ve always adored, and one which has been on my mind a lot lately since I’ve been writing a story about a mysterious bookshop, and that’s stories about books.

Here are some of my favorites:

1. 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff.

I think I saw the movie of this, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (before he turned into a cannibal) first, and it’s great, but I’d recommend doing it the other way around and reading the book first. It’s composed entirely of the correspondence between booklover Helene and the bookshop Marks & Company (at 84 Charing Cross Road) as she orders hard-to-find books in the years immediately following World War II and gradually develops a friendship with the owner of the bookshop. Like all epistolary books, the story exists entirely between the lines, which is why it’s so funny and sweet and touching.

2. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith.

This book about a girl growing up in New York City in the early 1900s was loaned to me when I was ten or so, by somebody who thought I’d like it, and I adored it, even though I was probably too young to really understand it. But I totally identified with Francie, who loved to read and spent all her time in the public library. At one point, she decided to read her way alphabetically through the library, so I decided to do that, too, and discovered all sorts of books I’d never have read otherwise: Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, Margery Allingham’s A Tiger in the Smoke, Peter Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place (about which more later), and Peter DeVries’s Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, which had the memorable line, “The recognition of how long, how long is the mourner’s bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship, all of us, brief links, ourselves, in the eternal pity.”

Unfortunately, I’d only made it through part of the D’s when I discovered science fiction and I abandoned Francie’s plan to read everything with a spaceship-and-atom symbol on the sign.
And then the Rocky Mountain News published a pages-long insert of “Books Every Well-Read Person Should Read,” and I started my way through that. But Francie’s plan was a great plan, and if I didn’t have a miles-high stack of unread books to get through, I’d start up where I left off.

3. MATILDA by Roald Dahl.

This is another one where I saw the movie first and then read the book, and they’re both wonderful. It’s the story of a little girl living in an awful situation with wretched parents and a truly scary school headmistress who rescues herself with the aid of a little telekinesis and a lot of books. Oddly, since Dahl is such a great writer, it’s the movie that has the best line: “These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message. ‘You are not alone.'”

4. SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury.

This novel about a strange and ominous carnival that comes to town has one of the most evocative and frightening scenes set in a library that I’ve ever seen. Bradbury obviously loved libraries–and books–and he writes them in many of his works, from Zen in the Art of Writing to Fahrenheit 451. My favorite, though, is “The Exiles,” his short story about what happens to books–and the imaginary worlds they create–when they’re no longer read.

5. THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco.

This award-winning book is a mystery novel about a medieval monk investigating a suicide that might be a murder, but it’s the strange, labyrinthine library that’s the real mystery, and Eco has some truly profound things to say about books. Like: “Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside of books. Now I realized that not infrequently books spoke among themselves…(the library) was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a known mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or been their conveyors.”

And finally, my absolute favorite:

6. THE UNCOMMON READER by Alan Bennett.

This delightful little book (it’s actually a novella) tells the story of what happens when Queen Elizabeth II stumbles across a bookmobile parked on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It’s actually there for the staff, but when the Queen asks if she can check out some books, they’re hardly in a position to say no, are they? The Queen’s never had the opportunity to read for pleasure before and her takes on literary classics are wonderfully original and funny. But reading, as we all know, is a highly subversive activity, and there are all sorts of unforeseen consequences to her launching into literature.

The first time I read The Uncommon Reader, I was very nervous. I hadn’t read Bennett before, though I knew he’d written the screenplays for The History Boys and The Madness of King George. The book ambled along amusingly enough, but I didn’t know whether he actually knew what he was doing, or whether the story would peter out or take some awful turn (like so many books), and I’d be sorry I’d ever started it. But he knew EXACTLY where he was going and what he was doing, and when I reached the end I was both surprised and delighted. So then I promptly read it again–and gave it to every booklover I knew for Christmas.

I hope this list will be enough books to get you started. Good reading!

Connie Willis

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