1. The Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith (novel)
2. The Library Book by Susan Orlean (nonfiction narrative)
3. 1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich (nonfiction, guide, reference)
4. The Literature Book, multiple authors (nonfiction, reference)
5. When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped US Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning (nonfiction, history)
This is my all-time favorite trashy novel because someone thought to write a trashy novel about the world of book publishing.
Olivia Goldsmith had her moment in the late 90’s with a stream of bestsellers: most famously, The First Wives Club, which was later made into a movie starring Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler. The novel tells the story of five different books that are published during a given season: how they came to be written, sold, marketed, and which one is ultimately “the bestseller”. Now, you have to approach it more as historical fiction than current fiction because of the advent of digital and social media, but it’s still a fun beach read for bibliophiles.
Orlean has been well known for her work in what is knows as “new journalism” for decades. Before now, her most well known and celebrated book is The Orchard Thief. I enjoy a detailed study of many topics, even if it’s not one I’m particularly interested in, if the book is well written. I especially enjoy nonfiction books that focus on a narrow topic and then go DEEP, which to many readers can appear that the reader is running off on many tangents. For these reasons, even though I am not really interested in plants, I had considered reading The Orchid Thief several times. It’s just that my lack of interest in the subject made me never quite open the book. But when I saw there was a new nonfiction book about libraries, and it is also by Orlean, I had to read it as soon as it was released.
On one level, this book is the story of the 1986 catastrophic fire in the Los Angeles Public Library, but this story is also the story of one of the largest public library systems in the United States, and by extension, public library as an institution.
Note: Books like this usually start with an exciting event in the story and then go deeeep into detail on every conceivable aspect of the background. That’s the style. Personally, I enjoy going along for the ride, but I also know what I’m getting into. If you don’t like the “birdwalking”, just skip those sections. There is no rule that says you have to read them at all or in the order they appear in the book. If you feel like you are missing something later and want to go back, or prefer to read the whole book in a different order, do it your way. You don’t have to write an exam on this book, so who cares? Some people have problems remembering the main narrative thread when the story diverges too much. Just be aware that this is a typical style for this type of book and, if you want to read one, find a way to make the style work for you. One of the most famous examples you may know is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which is also sometimes called (especially by Capote) “the first nonfiction novel”.
The big problem with this book is that you might spend so much time reading it that you might not ever have a chance to read any of the books in it. The print version comes in at just under 1000 pages, and from the sample pages online, they look engagingly laid out. I was living overseas when this book was published, so I have the e-book version. After looking at the sample pages online, I may be acquiring a print copy as well!
You have to be intuitive to get any particular direction from this book. Mustich just puts all of his recommendations into straight alphabetical order by author’s last name, so you will find yourself reading about an ancient Muslim king’s memoirs on one page, then a 21st Century graphic novel a couple of pages later. He subtley lets the reader know which authors are significant for their body of work by beginning those entries with a general discussion of the author’s work and its relevance. Entries for less significant or often living authors start with a discussion of the author’s most important published work. This book was published in late 2018, so it’s still relatively up to date.
I like this structure because I get annoyed with book lists that include the same author over and over in multiple entries. To handle this issue, some book guides choose to address only one book by each author, but that decision creates a different set of inequalities, if that makes sense. In short, this layout gives the reader…or should I say browser…a sense of which authors are important to read in relation to the individual titles.
I’m also a fan of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (I actually have several books in the series), but I favor Mutich’s book a bit more because it’s one person’s individual point of view and because of the emphasis on authors I describe above. 1001 Books (and the series) are in chronological order, which give the reader a completely different, if equally valuable, browsing experience. You can definitely justify having both.
When my daughter was young, we had a whole collection of DK Eyewitness books. I think I loved them as much as she did for their clear explanations and photographic illustrations. The Literature Book is a part of the DK series Big Ideas Simply Explained, or, as I think of them, Eyewitness Books for Grownups. The significant difference between these books and Eyewitness books are, of course, that this series is about things that we mostly cannot see.
The value of The Literature Book is that it is designed for the reader to dip in and out of randomly rather than necessarily read straight through. The book is roughly organized in chronological format, but articles are a two-page spread at maximum, and there are also info graphics and sidebars that briefly explain related information. You will get a lot of ideas for books that you want to read or reread, but this book is best at helping you understand how different books you know fit with different time periods and the larger world of ideas.
The other advantage of this book is that it does a good job of integrating literature from a wide range of cultures, especially important works in English that were written outside of the United States and the UK. Many students who followed the traditional American high school English curriculum encounter these texts little, if at all.
In fact, my trying to figure out if the book addresses literature translated into English led me to a significant flaw: the book is not always clear about the original language of the text, and in the case of folk literature (such as mythology) and other translated texts, the book does not list specific editions or translations. If you want to read those, find another source for recommendations. Translations you find online for free can use outdated language or just be poorly done. This book will simply explain to you why these texts are important and how they fit into the world of ideas.
This book is an intriguing read whether you are a history buff or a fiction reader. The text tells the story of the development of the Armed Services Editions of books meant for reading material for the troops during World War 2. Because of the rise of e-books, the book as a physical object is something we hear a lot about right now…and even casual readers discuss. This book takes a whole new perspective in that the collections of used books for the troops were abandoned in favor of producing books published especially for the troops. Among other things, the books needed to be small for easy shipment and also easy transport by individual soldiers. The ASE’s were specifically designed to be light and to easily fit into uniform pockets…and to be easy to read with one hand. On the home front, ASE’s helped create a market for paperback books that widely expanded access to books for Americans back home both during and after the war.
This book is also the story of the value and importance of attitudes and beliefs that affected the outcome of the war. The variety of titles available served both to remind the service members of the home for which they fought and to address specific concerns they might have.
Finally, this book includes a list of all the titles that were published. I find browsing this list an interesting activity by itself. There are many titles you might recognize, and many more you won’t…some you might be interested in finding copies of yourself and reading. Classics were included along with bestsellers of the day. There were some minimal parameters regarding content that might cause a problem for the war effort, but by and large the texts were uncensored and chosen to address the interests of the deployed troops.