SUNDAY MAGAZINE

The year yielded a rich haul of books about books

The yeargone by has been rich in books about books; some years yield little, just three or four exemplary titles in the the genre, but 2016 saw an unusually high outpouring. From Keith Houston’s The Book, which showed us the ‘bookishness of books’ by producing a finely designed typographic trade edition to Footnotes to the World’s Greatest Bookstores , an artful series of bookshop portraits to Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts , an up-close and personal look at a clutch of illuminated manuscripts by a master paleographer and raconteur.

Then there was another new instalment on Shakespeare and Company, this one a photographic scrapbook of the much written and talked about English bookshop in Paris, while Women Who Read Are Dangerous was a fetching compilation of images — paintings, sketches, photographs — over the ages of women reading, and The Untold Story of Talking Books dealt with a little examined phenomenon about how some readers read – by listening to an audio book.

So many more — where to start? Perhaps with the one that got the least attention, Browse: The World in Bookshops , in which writers from around the globe talk about the bookshops that influenced or intrigued them. Pankaj Mishra picks The Fact and Fiction Bookshop in Delhi that closed recently; others invite you to Cairo, Istanbul, London, Bogota, Berlin, Nairobi, as they trawl through a maze of bookstores and their eccentric, passionate, and bold owners.

Ali Smith steps away from profiling a bookshop to inspecting second-hand books and the tell-tale marks in them – inscriptions, marginalia, bookmarks, tickets, stubs, and things we leave in our copies – to draw a picture of the reader who once owned the book. My personal favourite is Iain Sinclair’s piece on his bookshop haunt, and his riffs on the book runner, Driff.

I can’t resist books about literary feuds, so I rushed to read The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson and the End of a Beautiful Friendship , and it didn’t disappoint. I don’t care for Wilson but Nabokov is always a draw — and to see Nabokov spar with a fellow critic was a double draw. Basically, what happens is that Wilson, who ushered Nabokov into the literary world while he was still an unknown, is shaken by Lolita’s success. When Nabokov steps into Wilson’s territory by publishing a book of literary criticism, the famous polemic and man of letters goes after the author. The fun begins when both drop any pretence of a friendly literary exchange and begin trading barbs.

Track Changes by Mathew Kirschenbaum is a literary history of word processing — how did writers feel about this tool when they first began using it? “The story of writing in the digital age,” notes the book’s jacket blurb, “is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that littered the floor of Gutenberg’s print shop…”

In Literary Wonderlands , edited by Laura Miller, we travel through some of the most successful fictional worlds conjured up in literature and pop fiction. All the usual — and great — suspects are there: Homer, Dante, Orwell, Tolkien, Carroll, Borges, Saint-Exupery, Bradbury, Murakami and so on. Also in the mix are some nice surprises from contemporary literature such as Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months Anne Trubeck’s The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting surprises by revealing that some of the most prized books today are handwritten books.

I’m going to cheat a little to sneak in this last one. Strictly speaking, A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers isn’t a book about books but since it looks at the world of collectors and dealers who are on a hunt to preserve analog film formats before they perish, this title can sidle up there with the rest. It is a fascinating, engrossing book. Whether you are a film aficionado or not, you will be sucked into this obsessive, heroic, movie-mad subculture, a surreal, underground network of collectors and dealers fighting to keep alive the magic of cinema as we once experienced it.

There are still at least a dozen interesting titles I’m leaving out — either I haven’t gotten around to reading them or I don’t have them yet. There’s also a cache from my personal collecting focus that I haven’t been able to afford. One a book on the type-fount Centaur, another a dictionary and glossary for collectors, both a little out of my budget just now.

If the New Year can offer even half the number of such engaging forays, I’ll be quite satisfied.

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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