[This is a multi-part series.]
In Part 1 last week, we explored the whys and wherefores of bibliomemoirs, the challenges with writing them, and how there might be a respected place for the genre in the literary canon.
While it is understandable why someone may choose to write a bibliomemoir despite the challenges described in Part 1, it is not so clear why one should be read. There is definitely merit in the argument that it is better to do one’s own close reading and form thoughts, ideas, opinions about the books one reads and loves. So one of the main objectives, with this multi-part series, is to explore the possible benefits of reading bibliomemoirs — beyond a pleasure shared with the author for particular books. Parts 2-5 include micro-reviews of a sampling of bibliomemoirs. Part 6 is an overall summation of the pros and cons of reading this genre.
On to Part 2, where we consider bibliomemoirs that fall into the first category: objective-driven.
A. The Objective-driven Bibliomemoir:
Books in this category are focused on reading and exploring particular book(s) or author(s) by design, sharing how-to-read and how-to-live approaches, etc. Often, there is a time constraint for the reading projects.
Ben Yagoda, in his Memoir: A History, refers to these, generally, as “shtick lit”: books perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it. A rather unfair derogatory dismissal because there are some very well-written books on this list for all bibliophiles. Still, it is, overall, a tricky sub-genre because of the “inform” and “educate” aspects, which require the author to impart expert knowledge while keeping the reader interested and entertained.
The sample list below is chronological and, by no means, exhaustive. The books are, mostly, from my bookshelves, to-read lists, or popular lists on book-related sites.
1) Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen (2014) — Van Wagenen is a teenage author who picked up a popularity guide by a former teen model from the 1950s called Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide for Teens. This might seem like an odd choice, but Van Wagenen managed to find ways to follow Cornell’s decades-old advice on dieting, hair, makeup, posture, and attitude, etc., regardless of the embarrassment it caused her with her own peers. She even managed to meet the 86-year-old Cornell and include that in the book. And, if the curious antics and subsequent book publication did not make her as popular as she wanted to be, odds are that being one of TIME’s ‘16 Most Influential Teens of 2013‘ and this movie deal with Dreamworks has. It will be interesting to see how many more copycat books or blogs will follow.
2) How to be a Heroine: Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much by Samantha Ellis (2014) — Ellis took a year off to reread her favorite books and write this exploration of the particular literary female protagonists who have inspired her. The list is wide and varied, with The Little Mermaid standing shoulder to shoulder with Jane Eyre and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In addition to sharing why and how some of these iconic heroines have influenced her from an early age, Ellis also investigates whether they still hold her in the same thrall as before. And, throughout it all, she assesses what it means to allow books and their characters to take such central roles in our lives. This is not an easy question to resolve, particularly in today’s world, and there are, of course, many arguments for and against it (we’ll explore more in Part 6).
Whether you agree with all of her heroine choices or not, you will find yourself questioning the bookish influences in your own life and how they’ve shaped your worldview and personal journey. The book’s title is a reference to mythologist Joseph Campbell’s archetypal male hero and his journey (see The Hero with a Thousand Faces). But, of course, all the best literary heroines that have stayed with us through centuries and continue to spark the imagination of younger generations are quest-seekers too. What I’ve also particularly enjoyed, I must admit, is how, in various articles, interviews, and podcasts, Ellis’ genuine earnestness and unabashed affection for these books and characters she has written about comes through unmistakably and consistently. [Note: This book will be out in the US in Fall 2014.]
3) My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (2014) — Of the new crop, this is the most critically-acclaimed book. This is, partly, because there’s less of the “my life” and more of the subject in it. But, also, because of the subject itself. Middlemarch, George Eliot’s masterpiece, is, at 500-some pages, a daunting book for today’s average reader. Eliot herself continues to be one of the most fascinating female authors of the Western Literary Canon and Mead gives us many, many biographical details of Eliot and her writing of this book.
Mead writes in an even, measured way and has done thorough research to back up her assertions, queries, and exploration. All in all, despite the zealous, evangelistic overtones and some of the PR gimmicks, this is a book worth reading if you’re not a literary expert and want a better understanding of the subject.
I first reread Middlemarch over a 4-day Thanksgiving break about ten years ago. It wasn’t a case of returning to a much-loved book as it had been for Mead. In fact, I’d struggled with it as a teenager. What prompted me to try this behemoth again was this glowing tribute from Virginia Woolf. And, while I cannot say that it has changed my life, not even after revisiting it recently due to Mead’s evangelism, it will remain one of my favorite novels of all time.
4) Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet by Harry Eyres (2013) — Eyres is another British journalist and writer. He’s also a poet and critic. So this book is definitely well-written and tries to bring Horace back into the limelight. Interestingly, Eyres did not take to Horace immediately and the affinity developed over various rereadings and studies. Beyond the traditional components of literary criticism, autobiography and biography, there is also travel, wine, and beautiful poetry (translated by Eyre himself) here — all making for a heady combination.
Of course, Eyres cannot resist being polemical about classical literature and present-day distractions (what I officially refer to as “Franzentialism”), but this is delivered in a palatable way — he doesn’t hit us over the head with it. Eyres started the “Slow Lane” column, which focuses on “creative uses of leisure time” in the Financial Times in 2004, so that ethos permeates the prose here. And, certainly, if you subscribe to it as well, you will enjoy the discursive rambles here. This one is on my to-read list. Not because I’m a classicist, by any means, but because of having read Eyres’ other writing.
5) What W H Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith (2013) — A true pleasure, this one. It is also one of the rare bibliomemoirs that focuses on a poet. McCall Smith’s many novels reference a lot of Auden’s poetry, so it is clear that he is not only a big fan, but also something of an Auden scholar. I remember listening to a podcast a few years ago when McCall Smith described meeting the old, disheveled Auden at a reading or some such public event. And how, even though Auden shuffled onto the stage in his carpet slippers, flies undone and food stains on his clothes, people were so in awe of him that, as soon as Auden began to speak, it was as if none of that mattered.
The book is part of a book series by Princeton University called ‘Writers on Writers‘, which includes other similar homages (see #9). The beauty of this book is that it appeals to non-academics and scholars alike; Auden fans and non-Auden fans alike. While enriching our understanding of various Auden poems, it also gives us insight into McCall Smith’s own evolution and inspiration as a writer. One of the best on this list, I promise you.
6) The Man Within My Head by Pico Iyer (2012) — Iyer is an author I keep meaning to read more of. This book is about his own obsession with Graham Greene. And, through the attempt to unravel the mystery of Greene’s influence on his own life and writing, Iyer gives us a lot of biographical detail about Greene, close readings and reflections on Greene’s works and, of course, memories of his own past. The prose is beautiful, especially when Iyer describes the many places all over the world as he travels in Greene’s footsteps.
Even if you’re not a Graham Greene fan, or a Pico Iyer fan for that matter, this is an interesting book because of how it weaves narratives together seamlessly — Greene’s life and Iyer’s life. That said, it definitely helps if you have some knowledge of Greene’s works as Iyer dives rather deep into some of them. It took Iyer some eight years to finish this book, which should give some idea on how much he meditated and explored his own mind and the man who inhabited it.
7) Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra (2012) — Let me open with the fact that, for most average readers like myself, Henry James is not an easy read. With his paragraph-long sentences, tangential rambles and 19th century language, he is, these days, favored mostly in academia. Yet, he created some of the most wonderful characters in his fiction — both the novels and short stories.
Gorra is a literary critic and, in this book, he focuses on James’ masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady, which was quite a scandalous book for its time and is widely considered to be based on his cousin, Minnie Temple (also, arguably, the great unconsummated love of his life). Like Janet Malcolm did with Chekhov in #15, Gorra travels around Europe through all the places as James and the female protagonist of this novel, Isabel Archer. The book includes various anecdotes and tidbits about James’ own life, pieced together from letters, diaries and other accounts from the literary circles that James moved around in at the time, as well as those from Gorra’s own travels.
I approached this book with some misgivings at first, I admit. I did not want to find neat, logical interpretations of how James had devised his novel — this assumes a too-literal connection between an author’s life and his storytelling which, for me, is reductionist. The best fictional stories are not so easily explained and, if they are, then they’re simply thinly-disguised biography or memoir and not really fiction. So it was a relief to find that this was not Gorra’s intention. Even as he delicately and thoroughly unpacks clue after clue to reveal how Henry James was inspired, he also shows us the sheer, inexplicable genius of James’ creativity in bringing the overall story to life. As with many of the books on this list, it helps to have read or, at least, have some understanding of the Henry James book to pick up all the nuances.
8) A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz (2011) — At the risk of sounding sexist, I found it intriguing to learn that this book had been written by a man. Most Austenites or Janeites are, as you may know, women. With men, while academia respects her, the rest keep a respectable distance. Deresiewicz was an academic (Yale, English) and is now a full-time author and literary critic.
Like Eyres with Horace, Deresiewicz had an initial animosity to Austen. As a graduate student, he then encountered Emma and found Austen’s attention to everyday life, her richness of characters, etc., interesting. His style is witty and candid and the writing, though insightful in its comparisons between what has changed and what has stayed the same in our cultures and societies, is not entirely revelatory. There’s also a whiff of that “shtick lit” quality because, while Deresiewicz goes into a lot of detail about Austen’s heroines and what they mean to him, to culture, and to society then and now, he does not spend as much time on Austen’s striking male characters.
Sadly, the men who might benefit the most from this book and Deresiewicz’ account of his personal transformation and coming-of-age are not at all likely to read it. Still, the personal appreciation for 200-year-old Austen works from a man in present times is novelty enough for there to be, apparently, a TV series under development, which might bring it to a wider audience.
9) On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling by Michael Dirda (2011) — Dirda is a Pulitzer-winning critic and well-respected in both literary and academic circles. Many of his essays have been published as collections. It is difficult to pick just one book by this author as he has written several that classify as bibliomemoir and we have three more in another category. With this one, while diving deep into Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, giving us both biography and literary history and criticism, we get an entertaining account of Dirda’s own times with ‘The Baker Street Irregulars‘ a famous Sherlockian group. Along the way, as he unpacks various Sherlock Holmes mysteries and characters for us, Dirda also meanders into lesser-known Conan Doyle writings and other authors’ works and their impressions or responses or influences related to Conan Doyle overall.
His near-encyclopedic knowledge of Sherlock Holmes is daunting, I have to admit, particularly for an amateur Sherlockian like myself (aren’t we all, now, Sherlockians thanks to the latest Cumberbatch portrayal?) This particular book is part of a book series by Princeton University called ‘Writers on Writers‘, which includes other similar homages (see #5).
10) Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch (2011) – This is not entirely my kind of book because of the “reading as therapy” angle. Sankovitch was a mother of four and spends a year wading through a great book a day from Pynchon to Nora Ephron. She had lost her sister to cancer and come to literature as a way to heal herself. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that literature, like all the arts, can be therapeutic. I just don’t know that it is reason enough to write a personal memoir on the subject. Then again, I daresay that the writing was part of the therapy process.
The other aspect that doesn’t sit well with me is the reading of a single book a day. I’m a slow reader myself — I read in one day as many pages as the author here read in one hour to meet her goals. Even then, I often feel the need to revisit certain previous sections of a book before I’ve finished it. And I often find the need these days to revisit certain books. So I don’t know how much benefit can be gained, really, by reading books so quickly. Anyway, Sankovitch is an earnest and candid writer. The bibliomemoir started, as many do these days, as a personal blog called ‘ReadAllDay.org‘. And, for those who identify with her world and life, I don’t doubt this will be a good read.
11) The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else by Christopher Beha (2009) — I shied away from this bibliomemoir because, quite frankly, of the moniker “great” books. For me, that’s a highly subjective term. Still, given the reviews, I thought it worth considering.
Beha is a movie critic, journalist, author, and co-editor. Inspired by his grandmother, who had educated herself on the Harvard Classics during the Depression, Beha plans to spend his 27th year doing the same thing. Another “year of” book, yes. Anyway, he starts reading them all — one volume a week. This book is organized by month so we can follow along with his journey reading the Western canon from Plato to Darwin. He has a lot of personal drama happen during that time as well, so there are many interesting digressions and trying to relate the reading to the life.
There is something about this book that I simply didn’t connect with. It might be the particular books (many of which I have not read and did not intend to read alongside this book as I did not have a year to dedicate). It might also be because, at 27, Beha’s life experiences in, let’s admit, a privileged 21st-century American world had not exactly given him the perspective and depth to be able to relate to the big questions in those great books. One of the Amazon reviews states that even Beha admitted that the book didn’t quite turn out to be the one he’d wanted to write. I don’t critique him for that — it was an ambitious venture to take on, whether he realized it as such or not. And, despite that, he managed to keep his tone humble, unpretentious and honest. So that’s something.
12) Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill (2009) — Now, if you’re one of those people with shelves and shelves of books that you’ve even forgotten which books you own, this bibliomemoir is for you. Susan Hill is an award-winning British author and this is about her travels through her own bookshelves, reading books she’d forgotten she owned, or ones she’d always wanted to reread.
In the course of a year, she did just that. Yes, another “year of reading” book. But this one is a joy to read. Partly because Hill does not have the sentimentality or the over-sharing attitude that plagues many bibliomemoirs. And, partly, because, as a writer, she comes to her reading with a different aesthetic sensibility. Along the way, she shares stories about her own reading experiences, conversations about books, meeting famous authors, and so on. At the end, she provides a list of the 40 books she would keep if she had to choose from her entire home library. It’s a good list, of course, and, throughout the book, we get a sense of why those particular books hold a special interest for her. Personally, I cannot even bear to think of having to limit myself to just 40 books.
13) Nabokov’s Butterfly: And Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books by Rick Gekoski (2004) — An American, Gekoski has dual citizenship for Britain where he moved when he went to Oxford University. As a writer, broadcaster, and rare books dealer. he has done a lot of writing and talking about books. There is another book by him in another category as well.
This one deals with Gekoski’s adventures with rare books — a kind of memoir of how he finds them and, sometimes, parts with them. Along the way, we get biographical details about the authors, literary history, and various thoughts on the books themselves. There are entertaining stories of how he tangles with some of the authors or their families over the acquisition or disposition of certain editions. Sometimes, the entanglements turn into enduring friendships and, sometimes, well, quite the opposite.
Each chapter focuses on a particular major book, so it’s easy to follow or dip into randomly. There is also an earlier and similar book from 2004 called Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books, which focuses on another 20 writers and a major work of theirs, including some contemporary ones like Rushdie and Barnes. Both are gems in how they go behind the scenes of how the particular books came into existence and, of course, the obscure art of book-dealing.
14) So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson (2003) — A literary and publishing industry veteran, Nelson decided to read a book a week for a year. This book is like a diary of what she read and how it colored her personal experiences at the time. Her choices are varied and she changes them often. There are times when the book is more “memoir” than anything else. And there isn’t a lot of literary criticism or history to be found. Yet, there is a sort of curiosity that keeps you flipping the pages to find out what she thinks of a certain book, particularly if it is one you have read and feel strongly about.
Eventually, she doesn’t even keep to her goal of 52 books in a year, but the journey has been a satisfying one for her, no question. I found the book to be rather self-indulgent and navel-gazing for my tastes. Still, I can see how, at an earlier age — say, in my early-20s — I might have enjoyed this one more. Certainly, since I’ve never managed to read 52 books in a year (my current best record, per my LibraryThing account, is 33 books in 2013), I am intrigued by the idea, though not likely to follow it through for myself. I prefer Prose’s exhortation of close reading too much to pull this off.
15) Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey by Janet Malcolm (2001) — I debated about whether to include this. But it does strike me as less a full-fledged literary critique and more an appreciation of Chekhov, along with a Russia travel memoir. Malcolm is an author and journalist and currently writes for the New Yorker. If you are a writer of any stripe, and you enjoy Chekhov, get this book. It covers literary criticism through close readings of many of his works, along with a lot of biographical details through first-hand research in Russia. And we get Malcolm’s personal anecdotes of travel through a country that is fraught with many of its own cultural challenges today. Quite a delicious combination.
It is a slim book, just 13 chapters. But it is filled with Malcolm’s decisive, sharp, detailed prose and rich, fertile ideas that could easily have streamed out into longer tangents if she’d let them. A part of me wished that she had as some of them were very interesting. An engrossing read that will leave you wanting more when done. And I don’t say that often about a book.
16) Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D H Lawrence by Geoff Dyer (1998) — A Brit journalist, Dyer rose from a working class upbringing to go to Oxford on a scholarship and further develop his literary leanings. He has also written novels but it is really his essays and non-fiction where he is at his best. This book started as an attempt to write a serious study or biography of Lawrence but turned into a rambling discourse on everything but. Dyer did manage to travel to all the places that Lawrence had ever been, and then some. So there is fascinating Lawrentian lore from all those pilgrimages. And a LOT of emphasis on Lawrence’s personal writing — letters, etc. — which sent me running to read them too, I must admit.
While this book might come across a bit gimmicky as a few of the books above, one can see why Dyer took this tack. There are thousands of books out there already about Lawrence and, to attract any decent attention in that crowd, he needed to do some backflips and fancy acrobatics. That he does it all so wittily and self-deprecatingly makes it all the more charming. The jargon-free rants about and, often, against Lawrence — still a controversial figure in Western literature today — are entertaining because of their many digressions into Dyer’s own angst-ridden existence.
This is a book I still dip into for the odd page now and then. The irreverent takes on lionized literary greats like Lawrence help build a writer’s confidence if nothing else. The word “wrestling” in the subtitle is a nod to the controversially famous nude wrestling scene in Lawrence’s ‘Women in Love’ between the two male characters, Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich (also immortalized on film by Oliver Reed and Alan Bates).
17) How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (1997) — de Botton is a controversial figure, to say the least, and not just in his home country of England. Still, I went through a phase between 1999-2004 when I devoured everything by him. Couldn’t quite say why now. Except that I have always enjoyed his writing, despite not always agreeing with his ideas. I picked up this book as a way to find my way into reading Proust — a daunting challenge, given his seven-volume masterpiece. de Botton dives into Proust whole-heartedly — letters, essays, anything he can get his hands on. And, through chapters on various life topics, he gives us self-help, autobiography, literary history and criticism and a Proustian biography.
Further, he diverges into pop culture, politics, and any other topic he can find a connection — although, always, with an interesting perspective. Like Dyer with Lawrence, given the thousands of books already on Proust, there really is no good way to write yet another book without taking a different angle, as de Botton has done here. In the end, this book did not encourage me to pick up a Proust volume, nor do I believe that Proust will change my life. But, I definitely gained an appreciation for both Proust and de Botton. It is also curious that, on the other side of the pond, Phyllis Rose, also released a somewhat similar book (see next) in the same year.
18) The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time by Phyllis Rose (1997) — This book is exactly what Rose says it is: a very personal account of her trying, doggedly, to get through all seven Proust volumes. Where she differs from de Botton is in her tone, which is more personal and somewhat diffident. Otherwise, she attempts similar things: the diversions into life truths, personal relationships, pop culture, her own writing efforts, etc.
Yet, while de Botton’s book is a quick and enlightening read, this one is very difficult to get through. It’s as if Proust is not the main subject, Rose is — a lot more of the “memoir” and not enough of the “biblio.” Perhaps, the attempt was to imitate the Proustian narrative style, but it doesn’t come through as such. In fact, by the end, any small desire to tackle Proust, for me, is quite squashed. All that said, to be fair to Rose as a writer, I absolutely enjoyed her Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (the history of the marriages of five Victorian writers: Carlyle, Ruskin, Stuart Mill, Dickens and Eliot), and recommend it highly.
19) Great Books by David Denby (1996) — Another one about “great” books. And another film critic. Denby currently writes for the New Yorker. At age 48, he decided to go back to his alma mater, Columbia University, to re-take a couple of courses on literature/humanities — specifically, on the great books of the Western Canon. Of course, he must have stood out like Rodney Dangerfield in ‘Back to School‘ with students who were 30 years younger than him. This book is an account of how he tried to connect the lessons or messages from those classic works to his own life and understand how it had been shaped by them, directly or indirectly.
It is interesting to note that Columbia, at the time at least, had kept their Western Canon as it had been for decades rather than expanding it to include writing from women, other cultures, etc., like other universities. In this, Columbia had stood firm against controversy and criticism and Denby does address them head-on by interviewing the academics and students and commenting/analyzing the place and impact of canons, in general.
The writing here is stylistically sharp, lively and, in places, funny. Denby’s journalistic nose for conflict helps him present classroom drama on the page without losing our interest. And the personal anecdotes of his own life are delivered with the skill of an engaging raconteur. If you haven’t read these great works, no matter, for the book will give you introductions to most of them. And, if you have read some or all of them, you will find the cultural and social commentary Denby puts forward irresistibly engaging, whether you agree or not.
20) U and I: A True Story by Nicholson Baker (1991) — I’ve enjoyed Baker’s fiction. So, when I stumbled onto this book, being a fan of Updike myself (not all his works, I hasten to add), I had to look into this one. The book has been described as a “comedy of literary manners”, which does make it sound quaint. And, no doubt, it is very funny in the Bakerish way. But, more than that, it is the story of a writer’s obsession with one of his literary heroes. And almost all writers have their literary heroes, of course. Baker also, somehow, shares some personal traits with his — psoriasis, insomnia, etc.
This may well be the kind of book that James Boswell might write about Samuel Johnson today instead of the rather staid “Life of Samuel Johnson”. At times, Baker is so deep into his flights of fancy about Updike that it does seem like, as some critic remarked, we’re reading a Baker story with an Updike-like character.
Speaking for myself, I’ve never had such deep fantasies about any of my literary heroes. In fact, I’ve never even really wanted to meet them in person. With the handful of writers that I have loved and been lucky enough to meet at a reading or a book festival, I’ve never felt the kinds of urges that Baker describes here. But, while I cannot identify with Baker, I did enjoy the humor and the many tidbits about Updike that he threw in. Turns out Updike also enjoyed the book and considered it an act of homage, which, of course, it was. The humor prevented it from appearing sycophantic or psychopathic.
Honorary Mention: Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times by Andrew D Kaufman (2014) — Due out in a couple of months from the present writing time, this one focuses on Tolstoy’s epic which is daunting to most readers. The blurbs so far promise that it will be an entertaining and fun book, even for those who have not read Tolstoy. Kaufman is a Russian literature scholar and something of a Tolstoy expert, having written other books on the latter. With everything going on with Russia and even the Middle Eastern civil wars in our present-day world, it is definitely a timely revisiting of a classic that covers pretty much every theme and situation possible in fiction.
Honorary Mention: Reading the World: Postcards From My Bookshelf by Ann Morgan (2015) — Although this book is not out yet, it has been getting a lot of press since last year. In 2012, British writer, Ann Morgan, decided to spend the year reading books beyond the Western Canon. She managed to, through her blog, crowdsource recommendations from readers across the world. This was after she had spent 2011 reading women. With this latest, she has made her way across nearly all 196 countries. Both projects are, of course, worthwhile endeavors. It remains to be seen whether the upcoming book is more a re-packaging of blog posts or something more meaningful and skillful.