The Secret Lives of Books: 11 destiny-defining reads
You came in on a whim. Or maybe just to get out of the weather. Now you can’t bring yourself to leave.
The walls are lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, the topmost ones accessible only by ladder. Sunlight streaming in through windows in the vaulted ceiling illuminate scratched wooden tables. The floors creak underfoot –– unless they’re marble. (I’ll leave the choice of flooring up to you.) Tread softly or you’ll disturb the antiquarian bookseller snoozing on a moldy stack of back issues of National Geographic.
There’s no particular book you’re looking for. Doesn’t matter: soon enough, one finds you.
Maybe you feel compelled to pull a book off a shelf (at random, or so you think). Or you trip over one splayed on the floor. Or a book seems to fling itself at you, dropped by a butterfingered bibliophile climbing one of those shelf-ladders.
No matter how the book finds you, you can’t resist opening it. Inside the pages, you’re astonished to find...what?
An unfinished love letter scribbled over a century ago by a famous male Victorian poet to a nameless woman poet...
An alternate version of your life, recounted by a book that not only knows who you are, but who you might have been....
Tiny slips of paper, each containing a single word (English, you think) that you’ve never heard before...
A fairytale-romance set in a mythical country of giants, sorcerers and disgustingly over-grown rodents — but wait a minute, didn’t your father claim to be an immigrant from the same imaginary land?
The memoirs of a 14th-century monk who finds himself in a labyrinthine Northern Italian library containing the most precious and dangerous books in existence in an almost book-less world. (Whatever you do, don’t lick your fingers before you turn the page: it might be coated with a deadly poison!)
If you’re a book lover – and since you’ve stuck with me this far, I assume you are ––have you ever noticed how many beloved books are actually about books? I’m talking about ones in which the book itself has a personality and voice, moving the story forward in a godlike way. Whether literary mysteries or wordy fairy tales, or they have a story-within-a-story coiled in their pages like a snake, or they hide (by design or accident) a trove of ephemera (shopping lists, love notes, inscriptions) that hint at a whole other story from the one the book is about –– the story of the reader who left these bits and pieces of their own lives behind.
Perhaps books about books should be a sub-genre all its own. Judging by the number of them that I’ve read, reread, packed up and carried with me from place to place over my lifetime, they exert a powerful influence. I’ve literally turned into these books’ arms and legs.
Call it an obsession. Maybe you’re obsessed with books about books too.
As both a reader and a writer, I love books that have the power to control destinies, conceal mysteries, inspire cults, drive monks to murder, provide a place for forbidden love to flourish, heal emotional trauma and guide the course of history.
Aha, I see what you’re thinking – but that’s what books do, right? Inspire, conceal, heal, reveal? And aren’t they always (or usually) about lovers, villains and visionaries?
Well yes: but there’s a very special shelf in the great library of life reserved for books about the secret lives of books (and the writers, publishers, editors, librarians, researchers and booksellers who serve them) that suggest that books are ... well...kind of alive. That their purpose isn’t just about providing a blank space for a writer to fill with words but rather about being at the heart of a vast network of writers and readers; the books in these books take on a type of human ability to control events.
They’re also portals for the great flow of narrative that hands off from one writer to another over generations (after all, writers are always readers first). And each of us responds in a different and unique way to a book, creating a sort of mental metaverse of stories.
With all this in mind, here’s my top 11 list of Books About Books, written by American, Canadian, English, Australian, Italian and Spanish authors. Several have been turned into movies, varying in quality from brilliant to god-awful. This list is not a hierarchy, but offered up in the order they were (or will be) published, from oldest to newest.
1.“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”(1952), the third book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, all ‘stories within stories’ about the adventures of the Pevensie children who exist both in a dreary England of wartime and postwar boarding schools and a fantastical alternate reality called Narnia. In this particular book, the children fall into Narnia through a painting of a ship under sail, and find themselves on the Narnian high seas. In one especially memorable chapter, Lucy Pevensie is sent on a mission to read a Book of Incantations, an illuminated manuscript in which the illustrations speak and move –– to 21st-century eyes it sounds like Lucy is reading the stories on an iPad. Reading this book allows her to remove a spell of invisibility on creatures living on an enchanted island, but the Book of Incantations also reveals troubling truths to Lucy about herself. I first read “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” at age seven and although much of it has been lost to memory over the years, this episode stuck in my mind: Lucy, alone in a room, turning pages in a giant book that would only let her keep reading forward, never back –– and which, once read, would change her sense of self forever. What if you could only read your favourite story once in your lifetime?
2. “The Princess Bride: Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure” by William Goldman (1973). The film adaptation is so beloved and so often quoted (“My name is Inigo Montoya, prepare to die!” “Someone has beaten a giant!”, etc.) it’s easy to lose sight of the story-within-a-story of the original book. You see hints of this in the film, which uses the framing device of a grandfather (a perfectly cast Peter Falk) reading the story aloud to his grandson who is sick In bed. The original novel takes the conceit of a ‘story within a story’ much further, starting with Goldman’s very first line: “This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” In the novel, the narrator (William Goldman himself) claims that his father read Morgenstern’s “The Princess Bride” aloud to him as a child, but that he never actually read the book himself until adulthood when he finds it in a used book store. That’s when he discovers that the book isn’t exactly the story he remembers: his father skipped over long sections of boring facts and exposition, only reading aloud the sections he knew would hold his son’s interest. Goldman positions himself not as the ‘author’ of “The Princess Bride” by rather as its “adapter”, borrowing “the good parts” from Morgenstern’s original. (Was there really an “S. Morgenstern”? I’ve always resisted the temptation to find out, but given that Goldman claims that both his father and Morgenstern were originally from the imaginary kingdom of Florin, I think we can assume that the “S. Morgenstern” version of “The Princess Bride” is a metaphor for any much loved but dimly remembered story, told to us in childhood.)
3. “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco (1980), English translation by William Weaver. Like Goldman, Eco frames his novel as his adaptation of a ‘found’ book –– in this case, the manuscript of a medieval monk named Adso of Melk, told as a proto-detective story –– as if Sherlock Holmes was a monk who solved a murder mystery at a creepy abbey in the mountains of Northern Italy in 1327. Having read Adso’s manuscript once, Eco claims that he loses it when a disgruntled lover steals it from him. He writes the novel based on his recollection of the lost manuscript, explaining: “I really don’t know why I have decided to pluck up my courage and present, as if it were authentic, the manuscript of Adso of Melk. Let us say it is an act of love. Or, if you like, a way of ridding myself of numerous, persistent obsessions.” This long, remarkable novel, one of my all-time favourites, was named one of the greatest 100 books of the 20th century, and was adapted into a good film starring Sean Connery as the Sherlockian monk William of Baskerville.
4. “Possession” by A.S. Byatt (1990). While doing research in the British Museum, a graduate student discovers a draft of a love letter, stuck into a manuscript, by a Victorian poet the academic has spent his lackluster career studying. Who was the woman poet that the letter was directed to? Whoever she was, she may had a heretofore unrecognized influence on the Great Man’s work! This discovery triggers a pan-Atlantic rivalry between self-serving academics and sets up a wonderful story within a story of the secret love affair of the two Victorian poets. Byatt even went so far to write epic poems in the voices of the two lovers, hinting at how they influenced each other’s works and heightening the sense these were “real” people, echoing the framing devices of both “The Princess Bride” and “The Name of the Rose”. This sprawling romance-mystery book-within-a-book won the Booker Prize, among other awards, and was eventually turned into a forgettable movie. (Read the book, don’t see the movie!)
5. “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (2001), English translation by Lucia Graves. Set in postwar Barcelona, this magic realist novel is about a book called “The Shadow of the Wind” by an obscure writer named Julian Carax. The book becomes the obsession of an antiquarian bookseller’s son who finds it in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, described this way by his father in words that evoke the ‘alive-ness’ of books: “This is a place of mystery...a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthen.”
6. “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt (2011). The opening sentence of this non-fiction masterpiece reads: “When I was a student, I used to go at the end of the school year to the Yale Co-Op to see what I could find to read over the summer. I had very little pocket money, but the bookstore would routinely sell its unwanted titles for ridiculously small sums.” What he finds is a prose translation of Lucretius’ poem “On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura)” marked down to ten cents. Greenblatt becomes obsessed with a 2,000 year old poem that, miraculously, survived the Dark Ages and helped set the course of thought in our modern world.
7. “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) takes its title from an unpublished science fiction comic book called Station Eleven, created by Miranda, a graphic artist turned executive whose imaginary world outlives her. Although Miranda dies during the pandemic that kills the bulk the world’s population, a few copies of Station Eleven survive and go on to influence a number of survivors, including a young actress going from town to town as part of a horse drawn troupe of performers called the Travelling Symphony, and an evil cult-like leader who emerges out of the ruins of the Before Times. As different lives and narrative strands knit themselves together, a story emerges of the impact of storytelling on civilization even as it falls into chaos. Winner of a raft of awards for both literary fiction and science fiction, “Station Eleven” was recently made into an acclaimed streaming series.
8. “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig (2020). This alternative reality novel sends its protagonist Nora on a journey through what-if versions of her life, using a library where each book provides a possible other version of herself. Quoting from a section of the book used as an epigraph, “Between life and death there is a library...and within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices.”
9. “The Dictionary of Lost Words” by Pip Williams (2021). Based on the actual events surrounding the creation of the original Oxford English Dictionary, this work of historical fiction focuses on ‘rejected’ words that are associated with lower classes women, especially sex workers. The novel uses the decades-long editing of the OED both to frame the life story of its protagonist and to pose questions about the nature of language itself: what words are acceptable and ‘real’? Why are some words deemed unworthy of “official” recognition?
10. “The Book of Form and Emptiness” by Ruth Ozeki (2021). In this Zen Buddhism infused novel, libraries are the ultimate safe spaces, librarians and writers are superheroes, and some chapters are narrated by “The Book”. The Book speaks directly to the story’s protagonist Benny Oh, an adolescent boy traumatized by the death of his father. Benny’s mom, Annabelle, who channels her grief into hoarding, is saved by a Marie Kondo-like book called “Tidy Magic” that throws itself into her shopping buggy in a thrift store. (Similar to the books-within-books structure of “Possession” and “The Shadow of the Wind”, excerpts from “Tidy Magic” are quoted at length in the novel.) Eventually Annabelle starts sending emails –– cries for help –– to the author of “Tidy Magic”, a Zen Japanese nun. The Book knits together these disparate lives, presenting them as part of a network of relationships between readers, characters and books: “Books do not exist in a singular state...The notion of “a book” is just a convenient fiction, which we books go along with because it serves the needs of the bean counters in publishing, not to mention the ego of writers. But the reality is far more complex. Of course there are individual books –– you may even be holding on in your hand right now –– but that’s not all we are. At the risk of sounding full of ourselves, we are both the One and the Many, an ever-changing plurality, a bodiless flow..”
11.The Sisters Sputnik(2022). Sequel to my 2017 speculative fiction novel “Sputnik's Children" , “The Sisters Sputnik” is a time travel odyssey, wrapped in a love story, about a trio of professional Storytellers whose journey through the multiverse of alternate worlds is set in motion by an evil book called The Adventures of the Futureman –– a collection of newspaper comic strips from the 1950s to the 1970s by a racist horticulturalist turned cartoonist named Doc Time. The book spreads a virus of hate that sends humans back to the past of their ancestors. Libraries (including a Robot Librarian named ‘LiBra’) and the Little Free Library system play a part in the book, too. You might see hints of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, Umberto Eco’s murderous medieval library and the pandemic-surviving influence of “Station Eleven” – perhaps even a bit of the magic realism of “The Shadow of the Wind”. Here's a taste:
"Unlike back home in Earth Standard Time, Storytellers in Co-Ordinated Zeroth Time are protected, respected and extremely well compensated, one of the main reasons Unicorn Girl and I came here in the first place. The old pre-atomic myths and legends have been all but forgotten, and the Cozies don’t have the energy or imagination to create new ones. With no books to dive into, movies to watch or songs to sing, they prize the power of storytelling
about all else. Everyone in this world loves to hear about adventures; no one dares to actually have any. All they ask of us is to wander from settlement to settlement, killing contagion in the open air before entertaining them with tales of Earth Standard Time of Old. Their favourites include the Space Race, the Cold War, the tragic life and death of
Marilyn Monroe, even Watergate. I sometimes go further back in time, before the first nuclear test denotation in 1945, when their history began to deviate from ours. Two world wars provide plenty of fodder for stories the Cozies think they’ve never heard. Occasionally I toss in something fictional — bits of Shakespeare or Stephen King, or one of Nonna Peppy’s Italian bedtime stories involving man-eating alpine giants, or my dimly remembered
versions of the Narnia books, inspired by an earlier visitor to Cozy World who took it upon himself to stick lampposts in the wilderness as directional markers. Unicorn Girl can offer up
a selection of grim Russian folk tales featuring knuckleheads stupid enough to take on pointlessly complex tests of courage in exchange for golden-egg-laying geese. Along the way, we occasionally pick up lucrative public relations work, conjuring epics
for past-their-prime warriors about their forgotten (or imagined)
feats of bravery — you’d be amazed what a dead dragon or
a narcoleptic princess can do to revive a reputation."