5 Best of…Books About Books

There are readers who love a good book and then there are readers who just love books. If you are the latter, you can conjure up the smell of a crisp new book (as it’s cracked open for the first time) or a dusty old book (as it’s plied open for the first time in a long time). You can stay at a library or bookstore for hours, touching the spines of books, wondering which book, out of all the hundreds (or thousands, or millions) will find its way into your hands. The fact that there are countless books out there, most of which you have never read, many of which are no longer in circulation, fills you with awe.

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Maybe libraries are places you go for fun, not even just to read.

 That spiritual feeling is integral to a lot of books about books. In each selection on the following list, the author’s love for books shines out and for book-loving readers, the stories connect right to our hearts. Writing a book about a book is not easy–especially since the reader will not often get a full picture of what the book within the story is truly like. Instead they will get the character’s relationship to the book and maybe a few snippets of the (usually pretend and not actually existent) book. But these authors all get it just right.

If you think back to all your favorite books, each story is entwined with the time and place where you read it, and who you were at that time. Those books that deeply affect us come to mind later on, becoming part of who we are now. Even if we have the same favorite books, those books are different in our minds, because those stories we love become our own. Harry’s realization at the end of Deathly Hallows that he is alone in his choices–but still loved–speaks to each of us differently and how we interpret the subtleties in a narrative is entirely subjective. This the major theme in these books–the stories we love become ours.

The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (trans. Lucia Graves)

In 1940/50s Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, the young son of a bookseller, falls in love with a book he finds in a library, but when he tries to find the author’s other works, he discovers that almost every other copy of the author’s works are being systematically destroyed by an unknown man. The deeper he looks into the mystery, the more questions arise about the author’s life and strange untimely death.

Much as Daniel’s search in the strange halls of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books brings him to the last copy of little-known author Julian Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind, I found this English translation of Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón in a display by street bookseller Bookslair by Prospect Park on a day where I was disappointed to find the Brooklyn Public Library closed early. Shadow of the Wind is a deeply Spanish work, beautifully crafted even in English and elegant even in its intense scenes of violence or sensuality. It’s mainly first-person POV, but takes risks in having some sections told by others in different first-person and sometimes third-person. Even when it suggests a slight plothole (how does this character know what that other character was thinking?), Zafón is a master storyteller and compels you to just keep on reading.

Shadow of the Wind is a coming-of-age story, as Daniel grows up over the story, not rereading Carax’s book often, but forever remembering its impact on him, and as he gets older, identifying and growing with the author as if he knows him. The story becomes Daniel’s just as much as Carax’s, maybe even more so.

The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster has lived knowing she doesn’t have long to live ever since she was a pre-teen diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Friendless and hopeless, Hazel’s main interest is rereading her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten, which frustratingly ends without a conclusion. When Augustus, an unexpected friend from her cancer support group, makes a way for them both to visit Van Houten and find out the ending, Hazel embarks on her first and possibly last adventure.

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This book isn’t real. geekynews.com

Selling 150,000 copies on its pre-orders (all of which Green signed) and making $266 million at the box office for its movie release, TFiOS is probably the most well-known book here. Its most prominent theme is obviously cancer, but the book is more than contrived tragedy or “sick-lit”, it is a book about two thoughtful and complex teenagers who are engaging deeply with a book that no adult made them read. A major criticism of the novel is that Hazel and Augustus are “too smart” to be realistic teenagers. Anyone who spends considerable time with teens of course knows what garbage that is–teenagers are capable of great depth and emotion and surprising insight, as well as the naïve idealism that makes Hazel and Augustus think that Van Houten’s ending will provide closure for their own tragic lives.

We as readers never get more than summaries and quotes from Van Houten’s novel (a David Foster Wallace-type of literary fiction), but we don’t need much more. The point of the The Fault in Our Stars is that it is our job as readers to fill in the gaps. We all have that unforgettable book that affected us drastically and changed us, and we only need to remember that to know what Hazel and Augustus are so invested in. Without spoiling too much, that theme comes out even more in the many questions Green doesn’t answer, and he has said himself that he doesn’t have the answers. The readers do. It’s our story as much as it is Green’s.

The Great Good Thing” by Roderick Townley

Sylvie is a twelve-year-old princess and the heroine of her own story, the book in which she lives. However, Sylvie’s book is a rare one and is hardly ever read, except by one special girl  (the Reader) who loves the story and its characters. As Sylvie’s world is forgotten and her book is damaged, she must make sure she lives on in that Reader’s memory, or she and the other book characters will disappear forever.

I read this book as a child and never forgot it. It perfectly captures the fascination a reader has with the characters that populate a story. The comfort we have with a familiar book and the feeling that every reread is somehow different is explained in the characters occasionally making mistakes like actors in a play. Logically, it’s hard to make sense of this story when it tries to describe the reader looking down from above or characters running from one scene to the next. But it hits home in a certain way by trying to explain the way that stories and characters stay in our minds and can last longer than any physical book.

It also pays tribute in a lovely way to how writers are inspired by bits and pieces of things they’ve read and subconsciously borrow from other works, as the Reader becomes a writer and can’t get her childhood favorite out of her mind.

Fire & Hemlock” by Diana Wynne Jones

In late 20th century England, college student Polly Whittaker, a normal girl with normal friends and boyfriend, rediscovers a book from her childhood while cleaning out her old bedroom, but is struck by the idea that everything in the book is different from what she remembered. As she struggles to remember where she got the book and why she has two separate sets of memories, she realizes she can’t trust her own mind or those around her.

This novel is perhaps best known in its fanbase as having an ending that makes little sense to anyone. This is typical of the surreal fantasy Jones wrote (her Hexwood is one of the strangest fantasy/sci-fi novels ever written), but this book is especially confusing. The narrative is layered with the stories Polly writes as a child and the books she reads, all at the recommendation of the mysterious Tom Lynn. The story itself is based on the fairytale of Tam Lin, and assumes the reader has a base knowledge of fairytales and fantasy literature like Lord of the Rings or Arthurian legends, all of which it plays tribute to.

Like others on this list, Fire & Hemlock is very much about the expectations we have for books we loved as children, and how our memories are tied into every story we’ve read. Everytime I reread it, I remember devouring it in the dull setting of a Brooklyn laundromat, and feeling my own sense of reality blur just as Polly’s does. It’s also more than a book about books, as it incorporates visual arts and music into the narrative–almost everything in the book is a clue to the mystery of Polly’s memory and the identity of Tom Lynn. Overall, the story has a dreamlike quality to it, with the same kind of logic dreams have, drawing from various features or events in one’s consciousness.

Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell

Growing up in 21st century Nebraska, Cath is a fan-fiction writer, obsessed with the magical novels of Simon Snow. In everything, she and her twin, Wren, have been the same, even going to the same college. But when Wren refuses to dorm with her and would rather go to parties than discuss Simon Snow, Cath is alone, with only her popular online fanbase to support her–and two oddball classmates who want her to come out of her shell and live in the real world, even as the awkward geek she is.

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Cover art by Noelle Stevenson! amazon.com

Those of us who were Harry Potter geeks, in the heyday of the original book releases, speculating about R.A.B. and whether Snape was a villain or a hero, can recognize ourselves in Cath. Everyone around her knows the Simon Snow movies better, but Cath is a book superfan. The author tackles the negative of being a superfan with tact–Cath has to learn to live in the real world and not just Simon Snow’s–while showing how being a homebody and a geek doesn’t mean you aren’t having fun. It also deals with issues of parental abandonment and mental illness in a sympathetic and unusually accurate way, as did Rowell’s previous novel, Eleanor and Park.

We do get snippets of the Simon Snow novels, as well as Cath’s fanfic (those of us who used to haunt fanfiction.net will recognize the nod to slash fanfic fixation on lovers gazing into each other’s eyes), but we mostly know the Simon fandom from Cath’s love for it. We never find out if her speculations on the final Simon book come true, but we don’t need to. The Simon Snow series is more than a read to pass the time for Cath. It is part of her identity. Cath is inspired by the stories she reads and the characters she connects with to be strong, brave, value friendship, and take risks in love.

Are there any other books about books that should be on this list? I had one more, but decided to maybe save it for another time (and till I could reread it!). Comment with your own favorite books about books, thoughts on my choices, and maybe even your favorite movies about books!

Brittany Ann Zayas

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