Writing about literature is not a new idea by any means. By the time Ovid was writing (between 43 BCE and 17-18 AD), referential literature and what we might call “meta works” were already in existence. Ovid (of Metamorphoses fame) references multiple authors, poems and literary traditions in his didactic poem Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love). One of my personal favourite instances: he, in a fit of daring, instructs women on how to find love, and even lists all the poets a proper lady should know—a list culminating, of course, in himself (Ars Amatoria, 3.329-346). In referencing the poetic genre as a source of inspiration and information, and in appealing to the authority of poets as experts on the subject, Ovid’s poem becomes not just about the art of love, but about poetry itself. [Note: If anyone is interested in reading more about Ovid’s use of referentiality I recommend Ovidian Intertextuality by Sergio Casaili (2009).]
We call this type of literature metaliterature. For those that may not be familiar with the term, metaliterature refers to literature that discusses, studies or responds to other literature, or to its conventions—literature that is self-referential. In short, “books about books” are simply one form of metaliterature.
My academically inclined brain naturally enters into the topic by thinking about scholarly books, especially as a large portion of humanities research obviously results in books about books (although my professors would reprimand me for such a gross simplification of the field). The purpose of this post, though, is not to discuss ancient literature and scholarly tomes, but to introduce you, to some more modern texts that fall into the books-about-books sphere.
Below you will find a list of fiction and non-fiction titles that fall into the realm of metaliterature, and which we here at the Porcupine’s Quill have enjoyed. Alongside each title, I have included a little plot synopsis (spoiler-free of course), and a brief rationale as to why I have included it on this list. I hope you enjoy!
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The novel follows the life of Liesel, a young woman living in Germany during World War II, as well as her adoptive parents Hans and Rosa. As the family struggles to resist the Nazi regime and protect Max, a Jewish boy, Liesel steals a variety of books. These books help her develop meaningful relationships with Hans and Max as she learns not only to read but also to appreciate the value of words.
I included The Book Thief in this list due to its central themes celebrating the power of the written word, and the important role books can play in one’s life. With a unique narrator (whom I will not spoil here) Zusak manages to impart the ways in which words can be devastatingly cruel, or endlessly kind. The backdrop of Nazi Germany, known for its destruction of books, provides the perfect setting for these themes to hit home.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A.J. Fikry is a bookstore owner on the fictional Alice Island in New England, who finds himself in a downward spiral following the death of his wife. His bookstore is underperforming and his prized rare collection of poems by Edgar Allan Poe has been stolen. A.J. slowly isolates himself from his friends and loses interest in even the books that used to bring him so much joy … until one day an unexpected package arrives at his bookstore and gives A.J. a second chance at life.
I chose to include The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in this list for the way it conveys A.J.’s sheer love of reading and deep appreciation of novels. The bookstore setting helps communicate this of course, and each character has a unique relationship not only to the store, but also to reading. This novel reminds me of the connections that books provide us. Gabrielle Zevin delivers a perfect love letter to reading, bookstores, authors and even sales reps with this book.
Shady Characters by Keith Houston
Shady Characters is a non-fiction title that investigates the history of the typographic symbols that make up the books we know and love. Houston takes us through the life cycle and invention of symbols that are obscure (such as the dagger [†]) or common (such as the ampersand [&]), and introduces an eclectic group of people and places throughout his study. With striking illustrations, stories and facts, this work will delight anyone who has ever been interested in grammar, words, language, and the punctuation marks we often take for granted.
Shady Characters fits this list due to its unique look at the elements that make up books. With its detailed investigation across over two thousand years, it stands apart as a systematic investigation that is both educating and charismatic. The other inclusions on this list may center around books as a whole, but this entry tackles the minutiae in glorious detail.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
This non-fiction book takes as its subject the tragic fire that took place at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Branch in 1986. Orlean investigates whether the fire was accident or arson, and if the second, who set the fire? Weaving together a life-long love of libraries and reading, the story not only investigates the mystery of the largest library fire in United States history, but also delves into the history of libraries as an institution, providing insight into the people who run them and those who depend upon them.
I chose to include The Library Book because of the way it conveys the author’s passion for an institution not only instrumental to Orlean’s childhood, but also crucial to the accessibility of free knowledge for all of us. Her insistence that libraries are more than just repositories for books, that they are needed now more than ever is poignant and indicative of the wide range of services modern libraries have evolved to provide. Just as Shady Characters highlights an often unnoticed detail in books, so, too, does The Library Book highlight an often overlooked institution in our society.
And there you have it—four recommended books about book and reading for those of us who can’t get enough bookish content in our lives.
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James Bader has a Masters of Arts in Classics from McMaster University.
Thank you, James, for giving us a few bookish books to add to our reading lists. And if Porcupette Steph could weigh in with a few additional favourites… The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan are both personal favourites and entertaining additions to the list. Plus, you could also check out any issue of the Devil’s Artisan, our journal of the printing arts, for additional bookish content!