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On Books About Books, Characters Who Read, And The Pros And Cons

Book cover of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, every major character, and some minor characters, read, and a number actively write. But so often in books characters don’t read or aren’t readers, which is interesting: authors are readers, and whilst many books include bookish characters, it’s perhaps surprising that there aren’t even more of them. Lawrence’s use of reading, particularly his extending it to characters of different backgrounds and classes, is compelling.

A point before I continue: I don’t mean to infer that it’s bad when books aren’t about books in any way – all topics make for good reading. Everyone has different hobbies and the variety of characters in the world of literature reflect that. Characters in films don’t often watch films – in fact if they did, given the relative shortness of films, viewers might have something to say about it, particularly as watching a film means quiet whereas people can group together to read books out loud. (TV characters can easily watch TV, though the ‘quiet’ is likely the reason why sports is often used in this respect – it’s acceptable to talk over it, if just to shout at the players on the field. A group of people watching sport is also a very easy way to show friendship in an instant.) A related point: some stories are just not the place for books to be included. Katniss did not have time to read flash fiction, never mind War And Peace, and incidentally her world likely would not have had any copies to offer her.

Book cover of Jo Walton's Among Others

The idea of reading being a solitary pursuit has been widely debunked in recent years, which perhaps explains why more books about books are being published. Shaffers and Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society showed that the solitary is easy to get around; Jo Walton’s Among Others showed that the solitary could be an active part of it. Other books such as Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P which use literary culture rather than specific books, offer a different means as well. It’s perhaps easy to look on the surface and think that reading about someone else reading – which is exactly what Among Others is all about – would be dull, however such books continue to be successful.

I cite Walton’s book in particular because it showed how interesting reading about reading can be1. It showed that discussion – even if in the form of one person’s reflections on what they are reading – is what makes it work. The author explains the reading in her book thus:

“This isn’t a book about reading one book, it’s a book about the reading [sic] the way teenagers do, indiscriminately, developing taste as they go along. She reads a lot, and some of it is tosh.” (Walton, n.d.)

This process of development requires a lot of thought – Walton’s character, Mori, reflects on what she reads constantly (the book is written in the form of a diary) – and whilst a lot of the book is autobiographical, particularly in regards to reading (the books are those Walton read in the years in which the book is set), in situations that are not so related to an author’s life, discussion might take a while to complete.

Walton also says the following:

“However, reading reviews and especially what I call ‘naive reviews’ – people on Goodreads and so on who are just burbling adorably about what they like – it seems clear that people who’ve read very little of what Mori has read can still enjoy it because they identify with a love of reading. I do think, though, that the more overlap you have the more you’ll get out of it: in so far as it’s a coming of age story, it’s about coming of age through reading science fiction.” (Walton, 2012)

Book cover of Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P

People may – do? – expect to have some discussion of the books referred to in the book they’re actively reading. If there are a lot of books referred to that they haven’t read, it might put them off – knowing about a book referred to most often leads to a deeper understanding of the book you’re actively reading, and knowing that you might be missing something, even if it’s more nuance than big point, could have an impact. (And of course encountering a referred book you’ve not read can also lead you wanting to read it.) The love of reading itself is of general understanding, but that’s not always enough.

When I made a list of the most bookish books I’d read, I noted how many ‘types’ were involved; most often multiple categories applied. There are books that discuss in detail, books that simply note titles, books that are somewhere between the two. There are books that use literary culture, or that use book groups or similar. There are academic professions and professors and students, and bookshops. And there are characters who write, and characters who write about other writers. (In the spirit of this post, I’ve added my list to the end.)

One more category deserves question: bookish books that are classics. On my list this category is served by Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote. Whilst Lennox discusses the books her heroine reads, both her book and Austen’s (which in itself was partly inspired by Lennox’s novel) largely look at the books included as a place for comedy. Notably, they use books not of their own era, which we could consider down to the idea that poking fun at contemporary novels might not have been acceptable. Certainly it’s interesting that the books made fun of are also in the main by women or naturally of semi-comedic value, and that the heroes of both work to tamp down their lover’s thoughts on their fiction. Austen’s Henry Tilney calms Catherine Morley’s scares (that have been created by her avid reading of Gothic fiction), and Lennox’s Glanville works to teach Arabella that everything she has learned (through epic romances that were, by Lennox’s day, considered ridiculous) is wrong. (Lennox also includes an extra male teacher, the person who actually teaches Arabella about reality when Glanville and company fail2.)

Book cover of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote

Modern books might laugh at other books sometimes – certainly Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word parodies another writer, and a contemporary at that – but we don’t dismiss them so readily.

Looking at my list, and considering Walton’s book and her words, one thing stands out – the majority of these books about books/book culture are excellent, often lauded by their readers. The books include a lot of detail and thought. They help broaden your knowledge whether by adding new knowledge or adding to what you already knew. They bring that literary thrill. They leave you with a whole new list of books to read, that might lead to another list when you pick up the first one referenced, and so forth.

As such, they’re not likely to be good candidates for readers who are looking to escape to another world and to relax. They depend upon references to books that have been around for centuries or are very likely to be in future, or else risk accessibility. And knowledge requires your time.

To end, going back to Lawrence, the writer seeps his book in literature yet never goes beyond the surface of the culture. But the class-no-barrier-to-entry is something in itself. Even now reading is seen as somewhat of an activity for those with time and money; books are expensive and can be viewed as unproductive to spend time with, and right now libraries are closing. Looking at the sorts of books that include bookish characters, a great number involve people with time and money, often status. On my list, only a few do not conform. It is an unfortunate reflection of reality.

My List Of Books

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote (1752)
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey (1818)
D H Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
Dodie Smith: I Capture The Castle (1949)
Bernhard Schlink: The Reader (1995)
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2006)
Mikhail Elizarov: The Librarian (2007)
Mary Ann Shaffers and Annie Barrows: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)
Jo Walton: Among Others (2011)
Valeria Luiselli: Faces In The Crowd (2011)
Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P (2013)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah (2013)
Hanif Kureishi: The Last Word (2013)
Max Porter: Grief Is The Thing With Feathers (2015)
Sarah Ladipo Manyika: Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun (2016)
Claire Fuller: Swimming Lessons (2017)
Phillip Lewis: The Barrowfields (2017)
Laura Pearson: Missing Pieces (2018)

Footnotes

1 I have somewhat changed my views on Walton’s book recently. At the time of reading I found it veered towards name-dropping but having read about it further I see how different interpretations and prior knowledge alter that. I intend to update my thoughts in depth soon.
2 It has been noted that Samuel Johnson most likely wrote the penultimate chapters of Lennox’s book wherein a doctor – a thinly-veiled Johnson himself – goes through Arabella’s bookish problems with her. I wrote about this in my post about the book in regards to the value of reading.

References

Walton, Jo (n.d.) Among Others, Jo Walton.com, accessed 12th March 2019
Walton, Jo (2012) Jo Walton’s Among Others: ‘It’s a mythologisation of part of my life’, The Guardian, accessed 12th March 2019

 
 

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