You 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