Books About Books: Andy Miller, Phyllis Rose, and Anne Fadiman

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

I know of so many people who have read this, and I wanted to be one of them. I kept seeing it at the library and one day I brought it home – reading it would kick off my new ‘books about books’ project.

Admittedly, I was a little disappointed. I love the idea of the author’s “list of betterment”, and it was funny in places, but at times, I felt bored – and, in fact, skimmed through the last couple of chapters. I wondered if it was because I hadn’t read most of the books he wrote about? But the same was the case for the next book I read, The Shelf, and I loved that one. So, it’s a mystery. But I’m happy to have read it. It will no longer be calling to me and tempting me on its shelf at the library.

Miller includes three delightful lists at the end of the book: “The List of Betterment”, “The Hundred Books Which Influenced Me Most”, and “Books I still Intend To Read”. I wonder if he’s read them by now?

A couple of good lines:

This was not reading for pleasure, it was reading for dear life.

A book is like a guest you have invited into your home, except you don’t have to play Pictionary with it or supply it with biscuits and stollen.


The Shelf by Phyllis Rose

I chose this book next, because a friend from work lent it to me and I should probably return it soon. I kind of wish it was mine – the cover is so pretty. I love what’s between the covers, too. Even though I haven’t read any of the books she covers in The Shelf, I found it intensely interesting and felt like I learned so much.

Phyliis Rose chose  – using a set of strict rules and limitations – a shelf at the library to read through (LEQ to LES). She hoped it would provide her with a more random sample of reading than what she was used to, her reading usually so driven by study or work. It was a joy to discover along with her the surprises and disappointments, the page-turners and the slogs. Not only do we get to hear about each book but we also learn about the authors and the circumstances surrounding the writing of their books. A few books in particular inspired her to reach out to the authors, and me to the google bar. (I’ve also spent a lot of time since reading her book thinking about which shelf at the library I would choose for a project like this.)

In her essays, Rose covers more books and authors that are present on her shelf; authors like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Cather; and V.S. Naipaul, Jonathan Franzen, and Jodi Picoult. Especially interesting to me were her essays: “Libraries: Making Space” and “Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege”. And the question: how do you judge/define “literary merit”?

We give the name “reading” to many different activities, and the only one that matters to me is the one in which attention is fiercely focused, each word has weight, and each sentence makes me more aware of the world I am reading about than the one in which I actually live. In this sense every successful reading experience for me is escapist.

… if you feel strongly about a book, you should go to every library you have access to and check out the volume you care about. Take it home awhile. Read it or don’t… Let it breathe the air of your home, and then take it back to the library, knowing you have fought the guerrilla war for physical books.

The merit doesn’t lie in the genre. It lies in an author’s approach to the work.

Detective fiction is so popular that the New York Society Library, in order to give its members what they want to read, routinely buys as many copies of this genre as it does all other fiction combined.

Emotions are like muscles. They like to be used and are strengthened by use.

I am grateful to all writers for the research they do and for fictionalizing matters that otherwise I wouldn’t know enough about.

Every time you read a work of fiction, you are committing an ‘acte gratuit’, a gratuitous act that proves your freedom.


Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

As much as I loved The Shelf, Ex Libris is my favourite of this bunch. Less intellectual, more personal. Like a conversation with a bookish friend.

Fadiman is able to seamlessly connect books and reading with her personal life – the family she grew up with and the family she has now. Her father introduced Anne and her brother to “Wally the Wordworm” and let her make castles with his collection of Trollope books. (“I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, and get her fingerprints all over them.“) And she writes an entire essay about the process of combining her books with her husband’s, rather than keeping them on separate shelves.

Promising to love each other for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health–even promising to forsake all others–had been no problem, but it was a good thing the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ didn’t say anything about marrying our libraries and throwing out the duplicates.

Fadiman writes about book inscriptions (“a book and its inscription are permanently wedded“), the comfort of books, the historical value of books, the power of food in literature (“sometimes a single word is enough to detonate a chain reaction of associative memories“), and her love of secondhand book shops.

In a secondhand bookstore, each volume is one-of-a-kind, neither replaceable from a publisher’s warehouse nor visually identical to its original siblings, which have accreted individuality with every change of ownership. If I don’t buy the book now, I may never have another chance. And therefor, like Beecher, who believed the temptations of drink were paltry compared with the temptation of books, I am weak.

Some favourite lines (besides just the whole book)…

… just as there is more than one way to love a person, so is there more than one way to love a book.

Marriage is a long-distance course, and reading aloud is a kind of romantic Gatorade formulated to invigorate the occasionally exhausted racers.

Pen bereavement is a serious matter.

The more I’ve read about plagiarism, the more I’ve come to think that literature is one big recycling bin.

I’d rather have a book, but in a pinch I’ll settle for a set of Water Pik instructions.

Have you read any books about books lately? Do you have a favourite?


34 thoughts on “Books About Books: Andy Miller, Phyllis Rose, and Anne Fadiman

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Lovely post, Naomi. I loved Ex Libris, too, an unusual birthday present a few years back. I’m rarely bought books. I think most people I know are either convinced I have enough or that they’ll buy me something I already have, I like the idea of extreme reading!

    • Naomi says:

      The same thing happens to me. My mother used to buy me books a lot, but now she’s too afraid of getting me something I already have. I do get book money, though – which is almost as good. 🙂
      Ex Libris would be a lovely gift for a reader – thanks for the idea!

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    I used to love books about books, such as the one by Frances Spufford, and then I got sick of them (probably because I read blogs about books all the time, and *they* are written by my friends), and then I read The Innocent Reader by Debra Adelaide, and fell in love with the genre all over again!

    • Naomi says:

      I can see how one could get tired of reading them, especially if read too close together. Luckily for me, I’m likely to spread them over several years! I also find it fun to read a bunch of similar books and see which ones blow me away and which don’t.
      I’m glad to hear you came back to the genre! And thanks for the suggestions – those two weren’t on my radar yet!

  3. whatsnonfiction says:

    This was such a wonderful idea for a post, I loved it! I hadn’t heard of The Shelf or Ex Libris but both sound fantastic, and I loved Anne Fadiman’s Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Thanks for sharing this!

  4. wadholloway says:

    I was thinking the point of choosing a shelf is to choose it completely at random, but then thinking of my own library, some shelves are all Nora Roberts, or James Patterson, or Agatha Christie, and I think you could exclude those. My audiobook listening is nearly random though constrained by the limited selections libraries choose to spend their money on. Nevertheless I get to ‘read’ many authors I wouldn’t otherwise (even if they are mostly English and American).

    • Naomi says:

      I was surprised by how many rules she had about choosing her shelf – it was quite a process. Which is why I can endlessly wonder about my own shelf at the library. If I ever did choose one, it would no doubt completely change by the time I was done reading it – books would be added or removed – but maybe that would just add to the fun!

    • Naomi says:

      I didn’t know he had a podcast! I am very out of the podcast loop. But I think I’ve heard of Backlisted… I will have to check it out!

  5. Jane says:

    I haven’t read any of these but Ex Libris does sound wonderful. I love second hand books with inscriptions, it’s as if you’re being passed a really personal gift.

  6. annelogan17 says:

    I love the sounds of these! Right now I’m reading How To Raise a Reader, written by the book editors of the New York Times, and it’s all about adding more reading into your own (and your child’s) life. I bet you’d like it to Naomi, all though it’s for parents of younger kids mainly…it does have a whole section on teenagers

  7. Rebecca Foster says:

    Books about books are such a cosy delight, aren’t they? I’ve read (or, in the case of The Shelf, skimmed) all of these, and would agree with you and other commenters that Ex Libris was the best of the bunch. One thing that I think is really difficult to get right is the level of detail about specific books: if you haven’t read these books and think you might want to, details seem like spoilers; if you’ve already read these books, it’s just boring recap. The best bibliophiles’ books manage to give a flavour of their reading and entice you into wanting to read more.

    I had a similar experience with the Miller: I thought his was a very odd selection of books, and he and I didn’t really have enough reading taste in common. Although I only skimmed The Shelf from the library many years back, it inspired a new challenge of mine: 4 in a Row, where I pick four books that are next to each other on the shelf to read and review all together. It’s taking me much longer than I expected to get through just my first set of Ma-Mc!

    Does that photo show the other books about books you plan to read soon? I loved the Ellis, Hanff and Mangan, and a different collection of Wachtel interviews. Some of my other favourites are The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, By the Book by Ramona Koval, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, Rebecca! I just added a bunch to my list!
      Yes, the photo shows most of the books I own and am hoping to read soon. But I know of others that are hanging out at the library – like the Annie Spence book. Who knows how long it will take me to read them all, but that’s okay! 🙂

  8. Laura says:

    I LOVED Ex Libris and The Shelf also sounds great. It’s interesting which writers can make you care about books you haven’t read and which can’t – because inevitably there’ll only be a certain amount of overlap in your reading tastes.

    • Naomi says:

      I still have trouble putting my finger on it, but it probably comes down to writing style.
      I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read Ex Libris!

  9. Liz Dexter says:

    I enjoyed Ex Libris years ago and also enjoyed The Year of Reading Dangerously – his Twitter feed is really good. I do like a book about a book. The Shelf one sounds great, too. I tried to read the fiction in our town library in alphabetical order but then you get stuck with a million books by the same author or just read the first one or, or …

    • Naomi says:

      I often fantasize about that while browsing at the library, but then I think about all the new books that will be added as I read along (and miss) – my sense of orderliness is bothered by that. Ha! But, yes, there would also be a lot of repeat authors. We have three whole shelves at our library that are just James Patterson! I would have to come up with a lot of rules for myself…

  10. buriedinprint says:

    Like you, I wasn’t expecting The Shelf to be that interesting because I knew that the books and authors she chose weren’t of immediate interest, but I loved the way that she brought each item to life and how she adjusted and amended her plan as she read along. I liked her balance between stretching herself to try harder and allowing herself to settle into an easier option occasionally. Ex Libris is a favourite of mine though…I’m not sure if another book-book can ever be quite so special to me as that one because it was also the first book-about-books that I read and loved. I echo the rec’s above and I add Old Books, Rare Friends to your list, which is part old-book-hunting and part womens-friendship and part scholarship.

    • Naomi says:

      What a cute cover that book has! It’s on my list!

      As I was reading Ex Libris, I was thinking it would be a hard one to top. Luckily, they all seem so different that I don’t think it’ll ruin me completely for the rest of my stack. 🙂

      • buriedinprint says:

        Hah! Your phrasing makes me think of another one, Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Ruined by Reading. Back in 2010, there was a challenge online, reading only books about books, which is when I read that book with the cover you like, with the pretty lighthouse…maybe you should start your own challenge?! Nah, challenges are passé now, aren’t they. *giggles*

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