Ex-Libris by Michiko Kakutani (illustrated by Dana Tanamachi): A life in books

Cover image for Ex-Libris by Michiko KakutaniYou might be forgiven for thinking that’s a self-referential subtitle but the life it refers to is Michiko Kakutani’s, the New York Times’ book critic from 1983 to her retirement in 2017, renowned for her incisive criticism and knowledge. The beautifully presented Ex-Libris is a testament to her consuming passion for literature, listing over one hundred books that mean the most to her. It would have made a wonderful Christmas present for the bookish but I’ve chosen to kick off the New Year with it in case any readers might be wondering about spending their book tokens on something rather special.

The characters in some novels felt so real to me, when I was a child, that I worried they might leap out of the pages at night, if I left the cover of the book open

Many readers are likely to find themselves nodding along to Kakutani’s brief introduction which begins by extolling the virtues of libraries before describing her childhood experiences of reading. It felt like listening to a like-minded, much-valued friend to me. Despite her illustrious career there’s no cataloguing of past achievements here: it’s all about the books, beginning with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, prefaced with one of Dana Tanamachi’s gorgeous illustrations which are scattered throughout like little treats, glowing with colour.

At its best, literature can surprise and move us, challenge our certainties, and goad us into reexamining our default settings

This is a book to dip into and savour. Kakutani’s neatly crafted essays are short, articulate and engaging, recommendations rather than reviews. They range over a wide area, reflecting Kakutani’s interests, and, like all of us who find it well nigh impossible to cut our favourites back, she slips in rather more than the hundred billed with brief sections devoted to a single author – Dr Seuss rubs shoulders with Joan Didion – or a particular topic. Lots of titles new to me that I’m looking forward to exploring while a few old favourites such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake were pleasing to see. Inevitably, Kakutani’s selection has a strongly North American bent, but if you fancy having your horizons widened a little, I’d recommend this one as a New Year treat to yourself.

William Collins: London 9780008421953 301 pages Hardback

19 thoughts on “Ex-Libris by Michiko Kakutani (illustrated by Dana Tanamachi): A life in books”

  1. By the strangest of coincidences, I’ve been dipping into this beautiful little book since last November, after I found it when browsing on that massive online platform that we all love to hate. I’ve been a big Kakutani fan for many years. Athough I don’t always agree with her, in such instances her reviews, like the literature she loves, always make me “challenge” my certainities and frequently goad me into reexamining “my default settings.” In other words, she’s a great critic.
    As you note, the book is lovely and the short essays/discussions are great. I don’t disagree with your assessment that it has a slight North American tilt (I’m North American, so I didn’t notice this particularly — we all have our blind spots!). My slight reservation is that it includes a fair amount of non-fiction, which I don’t read much of these days (“Books by Joseph Ellis;” “Books About Democracy and Tyranny;” “Books About 9/11 and the War on Terror”). Still, these are more than balanced by lots of fiction & memoir reviews (Marilynne Robinson, T.S. Eliott, J.K. Rowling, Borges to name only a few, in addition to those you mention). I love these kind of books for many reasons, not least of which is the sometimes idiosyncratic glimpse they give into the reading habits of someone who reads really, really well. And, again as you note, they’re great for widening those reading horizons!

    1. Because I boycott that massive online platform I think I may find it a bit frustrating when trying to buy some of her recommendations but I won’t let that deter me from trying. The non-fiction titles might help me expand my reading in that direction, something I’m not good at – too prone to succumbing to the lure of fiction. Hope you continue to enjoy dipping in!

  2. I always loved Kakutani reviews in the NYTimes. Or almost all of them I should say. And I enjoy following her on Twitter. Thanks for this review – the lines you have pulled out are enticing.

    1. You’re welcome. I knew her name by reputation but hadn’t read her reviews. The pieces in her book are very much recommendations rather than critical essays which allows her obvious passion to shine through.

  3. Pingback: Ex Libris x 2: Who Wears It Better, Anne Fadiman or Michiko Kakutani? | Bookish Beck

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