A flatlay of book covers

How many have you read? Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

So, you like books. Possibly many different kinds: crime, romance, classics in translation or non-fiction. But do you like books enough to want to read about reading? Books about books, friends, are where the real bookworms go to party. And we’ve a handful of the best right here.

The Bookseller's Tale by Martin Latham (2021)

Ah, bookshops. Rows of stories, shelves of possibility. From the bestsellers to the bargain bin, that comforting smell of paper and ideas has lured us all in at one time or another. Imagine, though, what it is to be a bookseller. Author Martin Latham knows all too well: he’s Waterstone’s longest-serving manager and has, under his stewardship, turned a number of rookie booksellers into authors. The first chapter is on comfort reading: need we say more?

 

In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens by Alice Walker (1983)

This collection of Alice Walker’s essays is a fairly exhaustive gathering of the reviews, journalism, essays and speeches she wrote in the previous two decades – from her very first – and prize-winning – essay. While feminism and the Civil Rights movement filter through much of her writing, I always think of In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens as a collection of literary essays. Walker is occupied with oft-overlooked writers such as Rebecca Jackson, Jean Toomer and – especially – Zora Neale Hurston. Her writing about them does what the best books about books can do: encourage you to pick up several others.

The Liar's Dictionary by Eley Williams (2020)

Books about books don’t have to be serious, as demonstrated by Eley Williams riotous and playful jaunt around the digitisation of an obscure dictionary. Lovelorn characters and a quiet, but persistent, undertone of sexual politics make The Liar’s Dictionary a worthwhile read for several reasons. But if you’re here for the words, it will delight. Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, first published in 1899, included mountweazels, invented words to protect against forgery. So there’s plenty of those, as well as pertinent quips such as “Onomatoepia is onomatopoeia for mashing your hands unthinkingly but hopefully on a keyboard.”

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (2021)

Still after more dictionary books? You’re our kind of person. Pip Williams’ bestselling novel tells of a history almost too unbelievable to be true: the Oxford English Dictionary began in an elaborate shed in a back garden, called the Scriptorium. And yet, this is exactly what happens. Inspired by Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (another dictionary book worth reading if you’re after the hat-trick), Williams builds a beautiful decade-spanning story of love, loss and legacy from the beginnings of the OED.

Read more: What the dictionary can tell us about feminism

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005)

If you’re already familiar with this international, multi-lingual bestseller (or, indeed, the film it inspired), then consider this a reminder to re-read it. Set in Nazi Germany in the midst of the Second World War, The Book Thief shows the power of reading in the most trying of circumstances as heroine Liesel learns to read, and then steals books to protect them from Fascist clutches. This is a book not only about books but the life-changing capabilities of them.

 

White Spines: Confessions of A Book Collector by Nicholas Royle (2021)

This most recent of additions to bookish non-fiction nerdery has nevertheless made quite the impact. If you’re the kind of person who likes to line up your orange Penguin Classic paperbacks, we recommend it. Royle is an academic, a publisher and a writer; but before he was any of those things, he was a book collector. White Spines is a memoir through his years of obsessively tracking down those books published by Picador between 1972 and the end of the 20th century, all of which had white spines, by literary criticism: Royle speaks to former Picador designers and folds in thoughts on the books themselves.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins (2021)

As the author of nine books, Paula Hawkins is no stranger to the publishing industry. No wonder, then, that her latest thriller delves so deliciously into the world of books. Storytelling – and the power that those who tell stories have – fuels this gripping murder mystery, with mid-career novelist Theo and batty bookseller Miriam at loggerheads over a story both claim to be their own. Hawkins is also an avid reader, and you can tell that from the dozens of reading recommendations that are cleverly folded into the text.

White Girls by Hilton Als (2018)

Hilton Als’ essay collection covers a lot of ground – from Michael Jackson to porn, via Brooklyn and the Aids crisis – but offers a particularly novel take on certain writers, among them Truman Capote, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. The New Yorker writer examines these authors, and their books, through a prism of race, gender and sexuality that will leave you wanting to read these titans of American literature in a whole new light.

Possession by A. S. Byatt (1990)

This Booker Prize-winning wonder splits its time between the Victorian era, from where fictional poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte hail, and the late 20th century, where two (also fictional) scholars attempt to unravel the paper trail around their poetic subjects. A love story told through letters, poetry and journal entries, across two centuries, this is the kind of romance that English Literature students (current, alumnus or aspiring) think about.

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