UN World Book and Copyright Day is this week, on 23 April. Its broader purpose is to promote the enjoyment of books and reading. In honour of that sentiment, below are a few novels that celebrate books, writers, reading, and the transformative powers of literacy.
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (1978)
A little gem that I must get around to re-reading. Set in Suffolk, primarily in the 1950s – with digital books not even a speck on the horizon – widow Florence Green opens a bookshop in an unpromising building, the Old House, within in a town too small to boast a cinema . We follow community outsider Florence as she tries defends her faltering livelihood, her dream, and, perhaps, the very notion of literacy itself, from the machinations and cronyism of the local government, her member of Parliament, and reactionary small-town conservativism. Its messages belie a seemingly cosy tale.
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes (1984)
Like The Bookshop, another Booker Prize short-listed work, this one on the idiosyncratic, subjective nature of literary criticism. Amateur enthusiast and critic-hating narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite travels to Normandy to research the life of his literary idol, Gustave Flaubert, and also to determine the biographical margins between the author’s life and his work. Braithwaite’s hunt for the ‘real’ Flaubert soon becomes tangled in a series of optional ‘truths’ about – or perspectives on – his subject.
Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
Almost an ‘of course’… Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel is set in a totalitarian future state where books are banned and burnt by dedicated ‘firemen’. Here, we meet Montag, a once proud fireman who becomes overtaken by dissatisfaction with his lot and by a questing mind. His life is changed, in some very literal and fundamental ways, by reading. The novel stands as a warning against the mindless – and sometimes sinister – threats of mass media as opposed to the value of intellectual freedom, critical thought, and the role that literacy plays in these.
Wits End by Karen Joy Fowler (2008)
The author is, of course, known for another celebration of literary community, The Jane Austen Book Club. Wit’s End is set in Santa Cruz and follows world-weary and grieving Rima Lanisell as she encounters her eccentric, reclusive godmother Addision Early, a mystery writer, and an accompanying cast of oddball characters. In blending fact and fiction, Wits End is, in some sense, like Flaubert’s Parrot, as it considers the potentially blurred lines between fiction and real life.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
As a book within a book, we discover that The Shadow of the Wind is a novel by little-known author Julián Carax, found by young Daniel in the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’. The (outer) novel contains another literary quest as Daniel seeks to uncover the truth about the book’s obscure author, set against the turbulent backdrop of post-war Catalonia, uncovering, too, the bond between life and art. A complex and multi-layered work about the profound impact a book can have upon a life.
On a personal noted, I find one of the frustrations of ‘books within books’ – Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin, perhaps, or Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, both of which provide tantalising extracts – is that we’ll never get to read the ‘inner book’ from cover to cover…
Do you have any favourite books about books – or even books within books – that you would recommend?