How can a novelist go wrong when her subject is books? It’s the one topic for which all readers have a guaranteed soft spot. I’m no enemy to ereaders (or to reading on the internet, of course), but I’ve yet to read a really great novel about, say, celebrity tweets. So while we wait for the Great American Twitter Novel to drop, here are some of my favorite books on books:
The Princess Bride. William Goldman’s most famous book is prescription-level charming, the kind of story you instantly want to read aloud to everyone you love. It’s ostensibly the story of Goldman, a screenwriter with a high-strung wife, and his attempts to abridge and republish the contents of famous work of history The Princess Bride, written by the (fictional) S. Morgenstern. In Goldman’s “retelling,” the history book is whittled down to a fast-reading tale of terror, adventure, and, yes, some kissing parts. If you only know it from the movie, get ready for the greatest summer read ever.
The Blind Assassin. Margaret Atwood’s mesmerizing, triple-layer novel alternates between the story of Iris, a cantankerous old woman best known as the elder sister of deceased novelist Laura Chase; a flashback to Iris and Laura’s youth and Iris’s unhappy marriage; and chapters from Laura’s only work of fiction, The Blind Assassin. Even the fictional work contains two stories, that of a pair of unnamed lovers meeting for assignations in dingy rooms, alongside installments of the grim science fiction tale that the man, a dime-store novelist, spins for his mistress. It’s a haunting work of storytelling with a twist that makes you want to read it twice.
The Abortion. This offbeat tale, written by beat oddity Richard Brautigan, largely takes place in a 24-hour San Francisco library, where nobody ever checks anything out, and there’s never more than one visitor at a time. The library exists as a home for unpublished manuscripts, dropped off by strangers and shelved by a reclusive keeper. This conceit later inspired the creation of the real-life Brautigan Library.
The End of Mr. Y. The title of Scarlett Thomas’s book refers to an extremely rare work by the fictional author Thomas Lumas. When the book’s protagonist, a struggling Ph.D student, comes across a copy in a used bookstore, she becomes the target of shadowy characters seeking to track down the book—which has powerful occult abilities—for their own nefarious purposes. The cursed book genre has more than a few entries, but this is definitely one of the weirder ones.
Pale Fire. Nabokov’s nimble, mind-blowing novel is presented as a heavily annotated edition of Pale Fire, the final epic by the late poet John Shade. But the poem is hijacked by its editor, Charles Kinbote, a madman who believes himself to be the exiled heir of an invented kingdom. His story takes hold in the footnotes, which reposition Shade’s memoir masterpiece as a veiled account of the imagined life of its annotator.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. Though chronologically told and linked by the presence of three characters (the narrator, a frustrated writer; his best friend, a misanthropic novelist; and the narrator’s elusive dream girl), this novel stands on shifting terrain. Names and details change from one episode to the next, and lines are blurred between “fact” and fiction. The narrator sheds and creates identities and manuscripts at a mind-bending pace, but finds firm ground in passages on process and the transformative power of storytelling.
The Bookman’s Tale. This recent release tops my summer reading list: when a grieving widower finds a Victorian-era watercolor that exactly resembles his late wife, nestled in the pages of an 18th-century book, he goes on a hunt to determine her connection to the woman in the image. Antiquarian books, studies on Shakespearean forgeries, mysterious resemblances—this year’s book-nerd beach read has arrived.
What’s your favorite book on books?