A Hot Baker’s Dozen: Books About Reading (and Having A Bookish Life)

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We are all in this club together aren’t we? And whether you call yourself an avid reader, a bibliophile or a book nerd, we love books and reading. So, it’s nice to get some reinforcement and perhaps validation by occasionally tucking into read books about reading. Doing so can help us understand our own reading compulsions and think about how books have shaped us.

The following baker’s dozen features essays, biblio-memoirs and thoughts on books and reading by authors, literary critics and avowed bibliophiles.

Books about reading, with book covers.

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13 Books About Reading

My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, Pamela Paul

Bob isn’t Paul’s life partner. Rather, Bob is her “book of books”…an exhaustive catalog of every book that she’s read since high school.

Paul reflects on these books and how each holds memories for who she was (and what she was doing) at the time of reading. She ties these specific books to moments in her life, creating a sort of biblio-memoir. She looks at why, how and what we read and how it helps to shape our own personal narrative.

“Books gnaw at me from around the edges of my life, demanding more time and attention. I am always left hungry.”

The Gifts of Reading, Robert McFarlane

McFarlane’s short essay manages to say everything about how the right book, generously given, can mean the world. McFarlane fondly remembers Don, a fellow English teacher whom he met in China in 2000. Don managed to obtain books (which was very difficult at the time) and he generously pressed them onto McFarlane. These books influenced McFarlane in his own writing, and it inspired him to develop his own list of go-to books for gifting to others.

One of those books is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, which we feature in our article about books on walking. The Gifts of Reading is a great pick if you’ve been in a reading slump and need some inspiration.

“The act of giving encourages the onwards circulation of generosity.”

One For the Books, Joe Queenan

In this book of essays, you’ll learn that Queenan has some pretty quirky reading habits. He won’t read in the bathroom. He once spent a year reading books that he suspected that he might hate. He’s a self-professed literary snob and he can’t hang with book clubs and summer reading lists, but he has a grudging admiration for truly bad books.

He’s a curmudgeon for sure, but he understands us book nerds. He knows that we take books to sports games and family events, and that our TBR is too long. He also knows that at 61, his time is limited, and in the book, he reflects upon how his time for reading is dwindling.

And in one essay, he makes a most important point about books and reading: “A reading life… is an adventure without maps where you meet unexpected soulmates along the way.”

Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose

Even if it’s not your goal to write The Next Great American Novel, this book about reading will help you think about the craft of writing and how it affects your own reading experience.

She breaks the book down into sections like: narration, paragraphs and dialogue. She talks about how the careful application of each is everything in writing, offering specific examples. She’s an advocate for closely reading a book, so that you can really appreciate the craft.

“Every so often I’ll hear writers say that there are other writers they would read if for no other reason than to marvel at the skill with which they can put together the sort of sentences that move us to read closely, to disassemble and reassemble them, much the way a mechanic might learn about an engine by taking it apart.”

On Writing, Stephen King

Yes, this is an article on books about reading, so why are we recommending a(nother) book about writing. Because the best writers are voracious readers and good readers can learn a lot by studying the craft of writing.

Enter the prolific Stephen King, who is a writer because he was first a reader. On Writing is partly a memoir on how his reading habit transformed him into a writer (and how his drug habit nearly did him in). But the book also offers practical advice on craft of storytelling.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut”

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Reader, Ann Fadiman

Well, we all have literary confessions to make don’t we? The guilty pleasure reads. How we judge others by their reading (or lack of it). How sticking our nose into a book is preferable to family and work obligations. Or maybe that’s just me.

In Fadiman’s book, she shares 18 essays (or confessions) that cover topics like how she and her husband negotiated the merger of their libraries, her obsession with weird words, and her rules about how treat books. There’s even a chapter on how she feels about books that are about books. (We feel great about them and even have a whole list on the topic.)

“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves.”

Packing My Library, Alberto Manguel

Manguel’s 35,000 volume library sat in a perfect 15th century barn in France. That it until, he commences a move to a small apartment in New York City (and later, Buenos Aires). Ostensibly, the book is about his process for culling his enormous collection. But in the process, he digresses to thoughts about the tragic loss of books (such as with a burning of the Alexandria library) or how the wisdom found it books often doesn’t make it way to influencing bad human behavior. The book is an ode to the power of the written word, books and libraries.

“The discovery of the art of reading is intimate, obscure, secret, almost impossible to explain, akin to falling in love.”

And if you find that you like his writing, check out his full catalog because he’s written books on the history of reading, the reader as a metaphor, literary monsters and more.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Karen Swallow Prior

Prior is an award winning teacher and a professor of literature. In this very personal memoir, she talks about how the classics have woven themes into the story of her own life. The chronology of this memoir uses lessons from a piece of literature (such as Tess of D’Urbervilles, Gulliver’s Travels and others) to highlight her personal experiences and spiritual growth.

“If the right book can save your soul, then perhaps the wrong ones can damn it.”

Howard’s End is on the Landing, Susan Hill

When Hill went looking for her copy of Howard’s End, she hunted all around and ultimately did find it on the landing. But what she also found was a large collection of books that she had meant to read…or reread. So, she paused new book purchases, muted the noise of the internet and made a project out of reading what she already had on hand.

What results is a mix of biblio-memoir and literary criticism. She shares her thoughts on being an author, stories about her encounters with great literary authors, what she would choose if forced to cull her book collection, and you get to wander around her farmhouse with her.

“A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.”

Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books, Tim Parks

Parks is a novelist, translator and professor of literature living in Italy. This collection is the compilation of a series of essays that he wrote for the New York Review of Books. Unlike many of the other books about reading listed here, this is less a memoir and more a hard look at the state of books and reading in our modern culture.

He poses a series of questions like: do we need to finish books, does copyright matter, what’s wrong with the Nobel, and is the globalization of literature producing homogenized, Americanized works. The essays are deliberately provocative and he doesn’t shy away from sacrificing some sacred literary cows.

“…this global mingling of cultures works against nuance and in favour of the loud, clamorous, highly stylized and idiosyncratic voice that can stand out in the cosmopolitan crowd…”

How Reading Changed My Life, Anna Quindlen

Reading may be a solitary activity, but Quindlen argues that in doing it, you are never alone. The books welcome you and their stories find a home for you. These essays explore how she came to be a reader, why mid-brow literature matters, why book are nourishing in their own way, and why she is hopeful that books will never go out of style.

“While we pay lip service to the virtues of reading, the truth is that there is still in our culture something that suspects those who read too much, whatever reading too much means, of being lazy, aimless dreamers, people who need to grow up and come outside to where real life is, who think themselves superior in their separateness. There is something in the American character that is even secretly hostile to the act of aimless reading, a certain hale and heartiness that is suspicious of reading as anything more than a tool for advancement.”

Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, Jane Mount

This little jewel is great for book lovers who also love a lovely design. It’s chock full of illustrations, quizzes, and book lists from the author’s fave stack (which includes classics, fantasy, book club darlings, travel etc.) The book is a perfect gift or a nice little coffee table object that you can easily dip into and out of.

The book is available on Kindle, but do spring for the hard cover…it’s worth it.

“The goal of this book is to triple the size of your To Be Read pile. It’s a literary Wunderkammer, connecting you with books you might love for all kinds of reasons―because the subject speaks to you, because you found it through a great local library, or because there is a cute cat on the cover. Like a portable, beloved bookstore with aisles full of passionate shelf-talkers, this volume contains for everyone who enters. Each time you open it, you’ll find another jewel you didn’t you needed to find until that moment.”

How to Raise a Reader, Pamela Paul & Marie Russo

(Illustrations by Dan Yaccarino, Lisk Feng, Vera Brosgol & Monica Garwood.)

As avid readers, don’t you think that we have a responsibility (or at least an opportunity) to evangelize books and reading? Obvious I think so, or this website wouldn’t exist. But you can also evangelize reading by encouraging the next generation of readers.

This how-to is divided into age-appropriate sections, from babies to teenagers. The book offers tips for how to engage the kids at those ages, suggestions for how to choose books, and then actual book recommendations.

The book makes a great gift for new parents and grandparents.

“School is where children learn that they have to read. Home is where kids learn to read because they want to. It’s where they learn to love to read.”

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