[This is a multi-part series.]
In Part 1, 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.
In Part 2, we considered a sample list of bibliomemoirs that are “objective-driven”: focused more on specific goals or authors or genres by design, how-to-read or how-to-live approaches, and so on.
In Part 3, we looked at bibliomemoirs that are more “story-driven”: usually set in larger historical/cultural/social contexts — personal or collective — with strong narrative structures.
In this installment, let us now turn to an entirely different category. Throughout their careers, many academics, literary critics, and writers have written essays and articles (and, these days, blog posts too) about books. Often, such pieces go beyond literary criticism to also include their personal worlds. Collected together thematically, they meet our criteria for bibliomemoirs when they include all 3 key elements: literary criticism, biography, and autobiography.
C. The Re-purposed Essay Collection as Bibliomemoir:
These are previously-published essays, lectures, reflections or anthologies edited and packaged together as a new book. Mostly, they are like collectibles for loyal, long-time readers as well as an attempt to reach a newer audience through some clever re-packaging and re-positioning. Often, these will appeal to bibliophiles who are not too fond of the overly-confessional memoir or the misery memoir.
As mentioned before, 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) A Place in the Country by W G Sebald, translated by Jo Catling (2014) — German writer, Sebald, is, even after his unfortunate death, a literary lion who continues to incite both controversy and deep divides in literary circles. Perhaps that is why he is one of those writers who everyone knows of, but only a select few really read. This posthumous collection came out earlier this year but did not get as much popular attention than some of the other bibliomemoirs that came out at the same time (see Part 1). There are six specific essays on the artists and writers — most of them are not well-known — who had shaped his creative life. Written in Sebald’s luminous prose, the essays give us everything we could hope for from a Sebald book — literary, social, and political criticism; close readings of the works he most admired; interpretations of the lives of the artists and writers he shares with us; and, of course, more insight into his own evolution and being. I found this one a bit difficult to read due to not knowing of the people he wrote about. Still, it’s a small hurdle to cross for the pleasure of reading Sebald. And, of course, the pleasure of discovering new artists and writers is one of the reasons that I enjoy bibliomemoirs overall. I will say that it helps to have read and acquired a taste for Sebaldian writing before picking this book up. Then again, perhaps, if you’ve never read a Sebald novel before, it will pique your curiosity enough to make you want to do so.
2) My Ideal Bookshelf by Thessaly La Force & Jane Mount (2012) — There are many, many books dedicated to bookshelves (and bookstores, for that matter) — personal and those of others. The only reason I’ve included this one on this list is that it does get deeper into the impact particular books have had on the lives and works of about 100 creatives (writers, artists, musicians, film-makers.) There are beautiful illustrations of bookshelves with the specific books on them, done by artist and illustrator, Jane Mount. They even run a site of the same name where you can commission your own book art or buy prints from their shop. This particular aspect does wander into “book fetishism” territory for me. I’d rather have the actual books on my shelves and in my hands than a painting of their spines, no matter how pretty. That said, I can see how they might make a beautiful gift for, say, kids and teenagers. And, while I try to avoid book fetishism, I’m not above snooping the bookshelves of people I know and/or admire. So, looking through the book lists of the many featured creatives here and reading about their thoughts on them is definitely fun.
3) Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose (2006) — First of all, despite the title, this is not a book for writers alone. And it may not even classify strictly as a bibliomemoir. But Prose is a highly-respected author, academic, and critic and, in the essays within this book, she does describe personal classroom experiences as well as her own personal and critical reactions to the texts. Also, it happens to be one of my favorite books ever, so it’s on the list.
More than anything else, it is about the practice of close-reading. It was prompted by Prose’s encounters with the many MFA students she was teaching. She was, for example, shocked to find they had never read Dostoevsky and couldn’t even spell Turgenev. Here, in addition to showing us, sentence by sentence, how other writers created their masterpieces, she also gives, in the end, a list of books to read immediately. Yes, there is a lot about the craft of writing — dialogue, plot structure, character development, etc. But, even if you are never going to be a writer, you will find her ideas worthwhile simply to appreciate literature in general. Her love for literature, sometimes a bit earnest but always inspirational and insightful, shines through on every page. This book is worth more than 10 writing courses. A bold assertion on my part, but then, I’ve met many writers who’ve workshopped themselves to death and not read even five of the books on Prose’s list. What is it with writers who think they can become good at their art and craft without reading the masters?
4) Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love by Anne Fadiman (2005) — Fadiman grew up in a bibliophile family (see book #8). So it is no wonder that she found herself in literary circles and counts many of the literati as her personal friends. This book is, let’s say, a smaller, more intimate version of #1. There are no fancy illustrations here. Just seventeen writers and the one book they have each loved and revisited. The essays are beautifully written and highly personal about the relationship between the reader and the text. Also, I prefer the focus on a single work as it allows deeper exploration. Of course, all the books featured are from the Western Canon, but then, that’s what many of us grew up with.
Fadiman’s introductory personal essay is quite a charming read in itself. As with all her writing, her love and joy of reading are infectious. You’re not going to know all the writers featured here. But you will definitely know or have read almost all the books that they write about. And, whether they’re sharing their more nuanced perspectives on rereading the book or their own disappointment at noticing things that they hadn’t on the first read, the over-arching idea is that no two experiences of a book can ever be the same, even for the same reader. So, if you’re trying to decide on whether re-reading certain books is for you (like I had done just recently), then try these essays. They might help you make up your mind and, even further, decide on which books you’d like to revisit and why. By the way, not all rereadings involve books — there are poems and even a music album here.
5) Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda (2003) — Yes, Dirda shows up yet again. Really, he’s the kind of guy you’d want at a dinner party, I think. This book is a collection of 40-some essays on authors and their works — ranging widely across different genres (so not just literary) and forms (fiction, personal writing, biographies, etc.). It is also about the reading life of a literary critic — the acquisition of books, the family life, teachers that played crucial roles, travel related to bookish events, etc.
The writing here is humorous and witty but never mean-spirited. And Dirda’s erudition and passion shine through on every page. Almost all the essays are from his column for the Washington Post. They’re short and have rather fun titles so you can dip in and out as you like. It’s the kind of book for a lazy Saturday afternoon when you’re not quite sure what reading mood you’re in. Pick this up and, within the hour, you’ll have a hankering for several of the books described within.
6) Literary Occasions: Essays by V S Naipaul (2003) — Nobel Laureate, Naipaul, is known to be fiercely intellectual. As a novelist, critic and essayist, he has produced some singular works in the 20th/21st centuries. I was a bit nervous to even consider this particular book. But, as often happens with writers I find intimidating at first, I was pleasantly surprised. If anything, I found that, after reading this book, I had a better understanding of the man and the writer. This collection of essays takes us through both the books he has read and loved as well as the books he has written. Ranging over several decades, many of these essays have also been published before. One of them is his 2001 Nobel Lecture, ‘Two Worlds‘.
Naipaul has suffered from a lot of bad press for his irascibility, misogyny, egotism, and so on — both from fellow writers and literary critics. Yet, when you read about his beginnings and his coming of age as a writer in Trinidad and then England, it might be somewhat easier to separate the chaff from the wheat. Or, at least, to understand his idiosyncrasies as a writer, personal conflicts with his own cultural legacies, and that stubborn non-conformance in almost every aspect. Of course, this is not an unbiased account of his life — not even biographies written by others can be truly unbiased. But, in terms of bringing a better understanding of how certain books can influence a particular writer’s life and his works, this is a worth a read.
7) For the Love of Books by Ronald B Schwartz (1999) — 115 writers weigh in on the 3-6 books that changed their lives. The writers surveyed are all from the West but quite an illustrious group, with Nobel Laureates and other such award-winners. The books they pick are more varied, both in terms of genre and style. Yet, there were some that showed up many times and they were mostly literary classics: Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, Shakespeare, and so on.
Still, what makes this a worthwhile essay collection is how candid the writers were about sharing why their selections were life-changing for them and how they’ve influenced their own writing. Schwartz himself is, apparently, a Boston lawyer and bibliophile, not an author. It is amazing that he simply sent out letters and made telephone calls to most of the authors and that they agreed to participate in the exercise. In a way, each essay here is a mini-masterclass in particular aspects of literature. Of course, as with most bibliomemoirs, particularly the ones in this list, there is a danger that readers will find themselves wanting to read all the books referenced. And, of course, Schwartz intended that when he put all these essays together.
8) Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (1998) — I came to this book rather grudgingly when it first came out. In fact, I remember that I didn’t allow myself to buy it till around 2000 or 2001. Part of this was because I didn’t know who Anne Fadiman was (daughter of literary critic, Clifton Fadiman, and World War II correspondent, Annalee Jacoby Fadiman). And, partly, it was because the few blurbs I’d come across seemed to indicate that this book was more about indulging book fetishes than about books themselves. I have to admit there is a fair amount of fetishism here. Also, there really isn’t quite as much literary criticism as literary anecdotes. It is, after all, a very slim volume. Yet, Fadiman’s love for books, her esoteric knowledge about authors and their works, and how certain books changed her life all come through. The 18 essays here were originally published as installments for a regular magazine column. It’s a light, fun book and, at least on my shelves, sits respectably alongside the other, more proper bibliomemoirs. Fadiman, who wrote that “I have never been able to resist a book about books.” would be pleased about that, I think. (OK, I snuck this one in, I grant you.)
9) The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading Writing, and the World of Books by Robertson Davies (1998) — This book was a posthumous publication after the Canadian author, professor, and famed novelist passed away in 1995. Almost all of the material was collected from previously-unpublished work. There are 24 essays here on widely-varying topics and cover books for all ages — ones that he loved and ones that he hated. They don’t necessarily represent the best of his writing, likely, because he wasn’t around to polish and add finishing touches. Also, the editors didn’t do a great job with addressing repetition of certain ideas and themes. So it is rather a mixed bag of essays, lectures, personal reflections/musings, diary excerpts, etc. Still, Davies’ unique voice comes through, with all its insight, humor and depth.
If you’re a Davies fan, this is a book you will not want to miss. And if you’ve never read Davies before, you’ll want to read it to get some measure of the man and the writer. Some of the essay titles alone are intriguing. “Can a Doctor be a Humanist?” and “The Fiction of the Future.” I wonder what he would make of the fiction of today, which has already evolved so much since he put his thoughts down on that latter topic.
10) It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future by Saul Bellow — This is a collection of thirty-some essays that span forty-some years — lectures (including his Nobel lecture), essays, articles. And, while being a commentary on the evolution of literature and literary culture, there are also profiles of other literary colleagues. The best part, for me, is the selection of interviews that give us a deep insight into his literary likes/dislikes and how his own reading and writing evolved. Whether reflecting on or giving us dry, amusing anecdotes about life, art or politics, he gives us, as always, his trademark wit, intellectual vitality and infectious love for literature.
Essays like ‘A Distracted Public’ and ‘There Is Too Much to Think About’ are still relevant today. The essays on places— Chicago, Tuscany, Spain, etc.— are gems by themselves and show us how wonderful his sense of place was and how he managed to convey his place impressions so well in his novels too. Bellow is one of the 20th century literary lions. And, even if you’re daunted by his novels because of that reputation, do read this essay collection. It will give you an intimate, personal view of the man and, perhaps, make it easier to go to his greater works, as it did for me.
Honorary Mentions: Some wonderful bibliomemoir essay collections that did not make it in the list above due to the 1990-onwards threshold are as follows:
— Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb — As Elia is a thinly-disguised Lamb, we can take his memoirs as those of Lamb’s. There is, of course, a fair bit of history, literary criticism, and biography of various other literary luminaries throughout.
— Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography by Irving Howe — As a literary and social critic, Howe had a sharp prose style. His Jewish background, WWII experiences, teaching of English and Yiddish Literature, left-wing politics and founding of the wonderful quarterly, ‘Dissent’ — all these experiences inform and shape the essays here.
In Part 5, we’ll wrap up the list-making with the final category of bibliomemoirs. Until then.