A few months ago I came across an engaging piece in the pages of a literary journal, an exhortation to rediscover William Godwin’s 1794 novel Caleb Williams. The writer turned his closest attention to Godwin’s gripping plot and persuaded me that my failure to enjoy (or, as I recall, even comprehend) the book as a student was a stain upon my character.
Surely there could be no better time to scrub out that stain than mid-pandemic? Twitter was full of folks diving into Moby-Dick, sauntering through Dublin’s streets with Mulligan, Dedalus and Bloom, embarking at last upon Lucy Ellmann’s thousand-page epic Ducks, Newburyport. I swiftly ordered a second-hand copy of Godwin’s book. “My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity,” the novel begins, a thrilling first line. And yet in all these months I’ve got no further than that.
Which is why books about reading — indeed, about books themselves — are surely just the ticket, for they can offer not only delight but also the sense of possibility and potential. Perhaps you’re struggling to concentrate because you simply haven’t found the right book. Or you consider books about books as a distraction, a way of avoiding the real work of literary exploration. A good guide to reading offers the presence of a fellow book-lover — something especially important in a time of isolation.
It is fortunate that Michiko Kakutani is around to be such a companion. Kakutani is the former chief book critic for The New York Times, a position of singular import in contemporary American letters: when she stepped down from her post in 2017 Kakutani was called “the most feared woman in publishing”. In the past few years, however, she has been able to reveal a more personal side. Spurred by the results of the American presidential election in 2016, she produced a concise polemic, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump in 2018; now comes Ex Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread.
There is no need to fear her steely analytical gaze here — although this is a book full of wisdom. As she tells us in her introduction, “In these pages, I’m writing less as a critic than as an enthusiast,” and this pretty little hardback (enriched by Dana Tanamachi’s fine illustrations) reveals the range of her enthusiasm. The selections, she admits plainly, are “subjective and decidedly arbitrary”; they are all the better for both those qualities, which make the reader feel like a confidant. But this not a hoary list of the same old classics, and this book too is animated by the impetus behind The Death of Truth. Many recent books are included, she stresses, to shed light on the “political and cultural upheavals . . . bringing tectonic changes to our world.”
Her choices appear in (mostly) alphabetical order by author, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Stefan Zweig; delightful juxtapositions result. It’s fitting that the magical tales of Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones appear alongside The Moth Presents: All These Wonders, a compendium of tales first spoken aloud under the aegis of the storytelling phenomenon The Moth — an organisation founded in 1997 as a home for oral narrative and now, incidentally, a terrific podcast too. Although Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children appears here, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, the book has an American slant. Here are The Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln in the fine Library of America edition; Kakutani reminds us to reflect on what the 16th president called “the unfinished work” of the American Civil War, and what better time to do that than right now?
There are childhood favourites: notably Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), the first novel Kakutani, as a bookish little girl, discovered for herself, and Sendak and Seuss too. Kakutani has always recognised the importance of books published for young people. If we are lucky, it is in childhood that we first discover the sense of kinship that books can bring. She quotes James Baldwin: “You read something which you thought only happened to you and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important.”
After Seuss we move to Kakutani’s next author, a Brit whose whole oeuvre merits two-and-a-half pages: “The Plays of William Shakespeare”, in brief. Thankfully, if you wish to delve deeper you have Robert McCrum to guide you. McCrum is a former editor at Faber & Faber, a former literary editor of the Observer and the author of an acclaimed memoir, My Year Off, an account of the stroke he suffered in 1995. Shakespearean: On Life & Language in Times of Disruption is a book like Kakutani’s, in the sense that it clearly springs from passion and is all the better for it.
McCrum reveals that he is a long-standing member of the “Shakespeare Club”, “a quintessentially English mix of stage-struck, self-improving playgoers with Eng Lit degrees”. None are specialists: and, like most of us might, find themselves tongue-tied when Simon Russell Beale joins them for a drink after delivering his 2014 performance of King Lear. This is the honest love of the amateur and McCrum transmits his groundling’s admiration to the reader. A lively guide to Shakespeare’s life, times and language, this is not a book of revelation, but it does not intend to be. Rather, it attempts a reconnection with Shakespeare’s miraculous work.
It is no cliché to draw attention, as McCrum does, to the fact that the plays arose in times of plague and in an atmosphere of frightening political turmoil. He leads the reader chronologically through Shakespeare’s oeuvre with neat economy; time and again the house-bound reader is reminded of lines that ring with our present circumstance. Shakespeare’s world was one, like ours, “in which a remorseless clock delivers the merciless consequences of history, without interruption,” as McCrum writes in discussing Macbeth. “‘Time, and the hour, runs through the roughest day.’”
McCrum lets us know early on that he has no truck with those who claim that someone else composed Shakespeare’s plays; not for McCrum, then, “The Cipher Wheel”, a thousand-foot-long strip of canvas printed with the playwright’s works and rotated between two giant wheels for inspection. This peculiar device was created by an American physician, Dr Orville Ward Owen (1854-1924) in order to decipher what he believed were hidden messages “proving” Francis Bacon to be the author of the texts. An image of this eccentricity appears in Edward Brooke-Hitching’s fabulously entertaining The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History.
Brooke-Hitching is the son of an antiquarian book dealer who caught the family bug and now is a collector himself; as with Kakutani and McCrum, passion permeates the pages. Here are books bound in human skin, miniature books that range from the “thumb bibles” of the 17th century to a “nano book” created in 2007 by scientists in Vancouver; a scanning electron microscope is required to read its ISBN number.
There is something particularly enticing about this volume right now, when the pandemic has separated us from so much of the physical world. How wondrous to be able to download a book on to an e-reader — yet even more wondrous, somehow, to hold a book in one’s hands, its pages, feel its heft. Several of Brooke-Hitching’s own publications concern maps and atlases: this too is a tour of the world, a cross-cultural paean to literary ingenuity in all its forms. The book itself is a handsome tome, full of extraordinary images: illuminated manuscripts, visions of the Devil, early anatomical texts. It is a strangely hopeful book: humankind in all its wild variety, set down somehow on paper.
And it is this sense of hope that will shepherd me back to the company of Godwin and Caleb Williams. Lists are always entertaining (if you don’t like Kakutani’s choices you can consider what your own might be) but in a real sense all three titles offer a kind of friendship. We’re all in this together, between the pages of these books.
Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread, by Michiko Kakutani, William Collins, RRP£16.99, 304 pages
Shakespearean: On Life & Language in Times of Disruption, by Robert McCrum, Picador, RRP£14.99, 382 pages
The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25, 254 pages
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