Merry Christmas, readers!
What better way to celebrate the holiday season here in the newsletter than by featuring some books about books. This genre doesn’t always hold my attention very well (maybe I have high standards regarding my favorite topic?), but every once in a while I find one that really stands out. Jim Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is a doorstopper that I keep on my desk and flip through on an almost weekly basis. Michiko Kakutani’s Ex Libris, on the other hand, felt too modernist and uninspiring.
This week, I’m excited to share a fun new listicle-type book by Kenneth Davis as well as a great bookish essay collection/memoir by my friend Anne Bogel, which has been in my queue for far too long. And there’s a couple other titles thrown in for good measure.
Let’s jump in and, of course, I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas weekend!
Don’t forget! If you're interested in joining The Big Read (my online book club), subscriptions are 20% off through Christmas. We start reading Lonesome Dove on January 1st!
Great Short Books: A Year of Reading — Briefly by Kenneth Davis
Though I’m often drawn to big books, there’s something really powerful about a well-written, well-executed short book. It’s harder to put a complete, filled-out story into fewer pages, which often translates to short books being more potent on a per-page basis.
In Great Short Books (which isn’t a very short book, funny enough), author Kenneth Davis, walks readers through the ins and outs of 52 great books that can be read in just a few days.
This isn’t a book to pick up and read straight through — it’s far more of the “peruse now and then” variety for when you need ideas or inspiration.
I quite enjoy the format, which is important for a list-type book. For each title, Davis gives a preview of the first lines, a brief biographical portrait of the author, a rough outline of the plot, and most importantly, why Average Reader should read it.
The couple times that I’ve sat down with it, it’s actually been hard to put down, which is testament to Davis’s engaging writing style.
Great Short Books is definitely worth owning for any obsessively bookish person.
I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel
Anne Bogel, who runs ModernMrsDarcy.com and hosts the What Should I Read Next? podcast, published this delightfully bookish collection of stories and essays just over four years ago. Chunks of it are memoir-like — her stories about the neighborhood library were especially heartwarming — and chunks of it simply focus on the reading life.
From a cheeky chapter on organizing bookshelves to the gems that can be found in the “Acknowledgements” sections of books to the various taxonomies of readers, she explores things that readers often think about but rarely voice.
What I particularly loved about I’d Rather Be Reading was Anne’s relatable approach to reading and the reading life. So many books that are in this category are outrageously pretentious and serve only to make the majority of readers feel either left out or like they’re “bad” readers.
Anne is clear that all reading is good, worthwhile time spent — except when it’s out of obligation.
I’d Rather Be Reading is a pure and joyful meditation on the delights of reading. It’s a must-read (or must-listen) for anyone who proudly wears the bookish label.
Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry
Since we have Lonesome Dove coming up in January for The Big Read, I’ve been thinking a lot about and diving deeply into Larry McMurtry’s life and work. Not only was McMurtry a prolific author, he also spent decades building up an antiquarian bookselling business.
Unfortunately, the first quarter of this book is where you’ll find the most noteworthy and entertaining anecdotes. We get some insights into his early life, which was mostly without books but chock-full of storytelling.
He eventually acquired a box of books from his uncle, which kickstarted a lifelong love for books as objects. Out of that love, McMurtry became a prolific collector who ended up focusing on rare and hard-to-find collections. He amassed tens of thousands of books over his lifetime.
In narrative form, though, Larry’s life in the book trade wasn’t all that interesting. I was hoping for so much more! There’s a lot about specific book deals with specific well-known rare book dealers, all of it told in a fairly dry, clipped manner. There’s over 100 chapters in this short book, each of them only 1-2 pages.
It was just kind of awkward to read — there wasn’t enough of a clear narrative. I wanted it to be Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man, but there’s a reason that one’s a classic and McMurtry’s Books isn’t very well-known. Unless you’re a McMurtry completist, this is one to skip.
Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf
This is another book that I really wanted to like, but which ultimately fell flat for me. Wolf is a literacy scholar who focuses on reading and the brain. She takes a scientific approach to the subject, seeking to explain how and why the brain responds to reading.
There were two things about this book that I didn’t enjoy:
1) Wolf sets up the book as a series of letters to the reader. I’m totally okay with that setup (I quite enjoy the epistolary format, actually!), but it’s not very well executed, in my opinion. She starts each chapter with “Dear Reader,” but then uses section headings and long explanatory notes that lose the feel of a letter. She’s supposed to be in conversation with us rather than just presenting information.
2) When I got a few chapters in, I realized I wasn’t all that interested in learning the science of reading. For me, it’s an activity that’s laden with intrinsic enjoyment and even some elements of unexplainable magic. I don’t want to lose any of that wonder I have towards my favorite hobby. There are some things I’m okay not knowing the ins and outs of — turns out reading is one of them.
Reader, Come Home wasn’t for me, but it’s definitely going to be an enjoyable read for some of you. Give it a shot if you’re interested in the neuroscience of reading.
That’s all for me this week! Have a great holiday weekend! I so appreciate the time and inbox space.
I'd highly recommend The Library Book by Susan Orleans if you haven't read it! A great narrative on books plus a true crime mystery of a library fire!