It wasn’t a plan particularly, but then that’s part of the joy of books – I never have a plan for what I’m going to sink my teeth into next. It is usually just a matter of wanting something different from the one before.
But a couple of books recently have done that self-referential thing: they’re books about books (a bit like U2’s recent self-referential album, I suppose). And it got me thinking about the other books I’ve loved that have done this. For you learn so much both about others through the books they love, as well as about the authors and characters of the books themselves. It is a double whammy of grasping ‘otherness’. As one of my literary heroes William Styron wrote:
A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.
So in no particular order, here are my 5 favourites autobiographical books about reading books.
Francis Spufford: The Child that Books Built
As an adult, Francis Spufford revisits (in order of reading) all the books he remembers being transfixed by as he grew up. This is an absolute joy of a book – which prompted me to write 4 different posts on it. There are some wonderful reflections on the magic of childhood imaginations being sparked – and how books sustain us through really tough times in life (especially if too young really to grasp what is going on).
Azar Nafisi: Reading Lolita in Tehran
This is such a beautifully written book, and Azar Nafisi‘s thought world so compelling and fascinating in itself that she would beworth readingfor that alone. But this is a book that also stimulates so much in the reader in so many areas that I found it hard to put down: it is about otherness and connection in literature, culture, gender, religion, revolution. She also ponders memory and identity, home and exile, causes and passions. In particular, she made me think about Nabokov and Jane Austen in ways I’d never considered before. And I posted a very brief and random lateral thought last week from it.
Harry Eyres: Horace and Me
I only finished this last week – and there are many things about Harry Eyres‘ experiences that I can resonate with – though I’m not remotely on the same intellectual playing field as him. I’ve often read his essays and articles in various journals over the years (and he did a spell teaching at my old school, but I was never in one of his classes). But he did rekindle in me one of the reasons I did (in my better moments) love Classics (despite being an absolutely useless classicist, by the time I did it at Uni anyway). Lots of lovely reflections on life and upbringing – distilled and refined, focused through the lens of the Roman poet Horace. Wonderful.
Pico Iyer: The Man Within My Head
Graham Greene has been one of my go-to writers for years. And I’ve loved Pico Iyer’s writing for almost as long (his 2001 The Global Soul was unputdownable). He truly is a global citizen: his parents were Indian philosophers who taught at Oxford and sent their son to Eton; Iyer then went to study in the US and now lives in Japan with his Japanese wife as a regular writer for Time Magazine. But there are so many surprising resonances with Greene’s life and writing, that this unusual book shows how he finds some sort of lodestar in the writer. And as one who has found the same thing with Greene, Iyer’s book both helped to articulate my experience of reading and moved me deeply.
Eugene Peterson: Eat this Book
The Bible is of course many books – and of the writing of books about this book of books there seems no end at all. I slightly groan at the sight or sound of yet another, radical, alternative or just plan trad commentary series. But Eugene Peterson is a special theologian and writer precisely because he can’t easily be pigeonholed – and his approach is the antithesis of dry academia, and yet also a powerful dismissal of all that is shallow, populist and commercial about far too much Christian writing. This is about the art of spiritual reading – and while some might assume that leads to an avoidance of the difficulties of the text, Peterson is having none of it. It is as challenging as he is deeply refreshing and nourishing. And so while it is the least autobiographical of the 5 here, it definitely deserves its place. (A few gems here)