Five Novels I’ve Read About Books

This one’s inevitable, isn’t it. What reader can resist a novel about other readers, or if you’re an old bookseller like me, about booksellers? They’re an anorak’s delight.  There’s a librarian in the mix, too, albeit it a rather eccentric one. Here are five books about books, then, the first two with links to a longer review.

Cover imageSet in the near future, Robin Sloan’s  Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore playfully meshes the old reading world with new technology in a quirky edge-of-your-seat story of bookish folk. Clay Jannon works the night shift at the eponymous book store, logging its few customers, most of them oddly attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Curiosity aroused, Clay sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, in a story that encompasses a fifteenth-century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour. I loved it.

Charlie Hill’s Books lampoons everyone in the book trade, adding a swipe at performance artists for good measure. It begins in Corfu where Lauren, a professor of neurology, and Richard, an independent bookseller, both witness the sudden death of a woman reading a manuscript by bestselling author Gary Sayles. As Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome spreads, Lauren seeks Richard’s help in investigating it. Meanwhile, preparing for the launch of his new novel, Sayles is suckered by two performance artists and the Cover imagePeople’s Literature Tour is born. Liberally scattered with book titles, authors’ names and in-jokes, Books combines the humour and pace of Jasper Fforde’s fiction with the satire of Channel 4’s Black Books.

I’m sure some of you will remember Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a bestseller set in Barcelona’s ‘cemetery for lost books’ where, aged ten, Daniel finds the book that will intrigue him, bedevil him and ultimately shape his life – The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carfax. On his sixteenth birthday, Daniel sees a stranger smoking a cigarette from his balcony, instantly recognising a scene from Carfax’s novel. I read this for work expecting to grit my teeth as it was a much-hyped flavour of that particular month but I loved it. Both gripping and very atmospheric.

Delving back into reading past, Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things is a booky highlight. It’s set in the Arcade, a rambling New York bookshop – suspiciously like the legendary Strand – staffed by a bunch of eccentrics who are joined by eighteen-year-old Rosemary, fresh from Tasmania. When she opens a letter offering a ‘lost’ Melville manuscript the fun begins. Hay’s novel is an appealing, enjoyable yarn of thwarted love and literary detection. Not a literary Cover imagetriumph, but it had me engrossed.

And now to that librarian. She’s the protagonist of Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love who finds a young man locked in the library overnight – surely a bibliophile’s dream – and treats him to a passionate, if slightly scolding, soliloquy about her colleagues, the Dewey Decimal system and bookish conspiracies while unwittingly spilling the beans about her yearning for a young researcher. A thoroughly entertaining, if quirky, read which led me to Divry’s much more conventional Madame Bovary of the Suburbs.

Any novels about books you’d like to recommend?

20 thoughts on “Five Novels I’ve Read About Books

  1. April Munday

    Thank you for reminding me about Black Books, even though it makes me wish that there had been more episodes.

    The obvious novels about books are Fahrenheit 451 and The Name of the Rose, both of which I enjoyed.

    Reply
  2. Christine Whittemore

    Great piece! These are my kind of books (as you’ll recall, my novel ‘Inscription,’ reviewed by you, is a love letter to books, reading, and the physical form of the codex book); I thoroughly enjoyed Mr Penumbra, Shadow of the Wind, and Secret of Lost Things. Will look out for the other two. Another very popular book about books is Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale.
    One of my favourite novels ever, far too little known, is BOOK by Robert Grudin (1992). The New Yorker said it’s a “satirical comedy, whose sendup of literary practice is itself a lesson in how to write, read, and love books.” Yes, but even more: it has a great story, has a sympathetic protagonist, vivid characters, is a send-up of academe, and provides huge fun. There are quotations about the history of the book, footnotes that take on a life of their own, found texts, texts within texts….it is brilliant and funny and anyone who enjoys books, bookishness, reading, and writing will enjoy this book.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      I do remember, Christine. I enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, too, but had not come across the Grudin which sounds very appealing, particularly as my partner’s an academic. Thanks for the tip.

      Reply
  3. Rebecca Foster

    I remember enjoying the Divry novella. It definitely rang true for this former library assistant! I should read Mr Penumbra, having enjoyed Sloan’s novel Sourdough earlier in the year. My library has an e-book loan I’ll look into soon.

    Reply
  4. fayecheeseman

    So true. There probably aren’t many book lovers out there who can resist a book about books. I’m intrigued by your Sloan and Hill tips as I haven’t read either of those yet. Divry was brilliantly quirky – I read it in one sitting IN a library. And I’ve read The Shadow of the Wind more than once. Some more good tips in the comments section too. I’d add Paul Magrs ‘Exchange’, Annie Spence’s ‘Dear Fahrenheit 451’ and John Connelly’s ‘The Book of Lost Things’. May there always be books about books about books…!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Such a fitting setting in which to read the Divry. Coincidentally, I ordered Dear Farenheit 451 last week and it turned up at the weekend! I’ll look out for the Magrs and Connelly. Thanks for the tips, Faye.

      Reply
  5. JacquiWine

    Thank you for reminding me about the Sophie Divry. I do recall seeing quite a few positive reviews of it when it came out, especially from members of the blogging community. It sounds just the right type of quirky if you know what I mean – not always an easy thing to pull off effectively!

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      You’re asbolutely right – it is the right sort of quirky which is a tricky act to pull off. It’s a very quick read, Jacqui. I think you’d enjoy it.

      Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Me, too. It’s very funny but also lovely on friendship – made me quite tearful at one point. I haven’t come across Goodnight June but it sounds best avoided.

      Reply
  6. alison41

    I’m a pushover for books about books. I’ve enjoyed all the books in your post, but the Divry one was new to me. How about Walter Moers ‘The City of Dreaming books’? one of my favourite writers on books is Alberto Manguel. , he writes non-fiction.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Thanks for the Moers tip, Alison. The jacket alone sells it to me! I have wondered about another post on non-fiction about books but that, of course, could stretch to umpteen rather than five books!

      Reply

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