For those who love to read, books that reference other books give an added dimension to any plot or setting. We’re joined by Kate Storey, who explains their appeal, and she asks fellow authors for their recommendations for great reads that celebrate books and reading…
Kate Storey explains why “books about books” are double the fun
In adulthood, reading is something we usually do alone, but despite its solitary mainspring, I’ve found my love of books to be one of the things that most connects me to other people. The popularity of book clubs, and the huge online bookish community suggests I’m not alone. And one thing my fellow bookworms seem to agree on is that a book about books is double the fun.
One reason is that we find ourselves reflected between the pages of these novels. They celebrate our love of fiction, but also help us to explore and understand why we read, whether that’s simple escapism, education or a desire to live many lives by climbing into someone else’s head and viewing the world through their eyes.
Books about books are often poignant and uplifting. They honour the edifying nature of reading, the capacity for personal growth and the many ways our lives can be improved by the addition of a good novel. In The Memory Library, the estranged mother and daughter are brought back together by the lessons they learn from the novels they share. I believe literature can be unifying and healing. We may all read the same print on the page, but the meaning gleaned from those words will be unique to every reader. A novel can speak directly to our hearts, and if we read that another person has been moved in the same way, we know we are less alone in this world.
In addition, if I’ve read a book mentioned in a novel, I have the bonus of feeling smug and well-read, plus there’s an added layer of understanding. If I haven’t read the text, then I have a new recommendation for my towering “to be read” pile. I’ve been thrilled to hear early reviewers say they’re adding some of the twenty-one books mentioned in The Memory Library to their lists!
It’s no surprise, perhaps, that authors pour their passion for books into their own novels – we are, of course, readers first and foremost! In case you are looking for inspiration for what to read next, and want something that really celebrates books and reading, four other authors and I share our favourite books about books.
5 authors pick their favourite books about books
Kate Storey, author of The Memory Library (out now, Avon)
Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars, set in the Kentucky mountains in the 1930s, includes all the elements I adore in a book about books. The main protagonist, Alice, goes on a journey of significant self-discovery. She finds herself in a new country with an unsatisfactory new husband, and becomes involved in the Packhorse Library Scheme. Through their mission to provide books to the poor and the lost, she and her fellow sisters of the trail develop a wonderful community. They discover friendship, freedom and inner strength while fighting against injustice and bigotry.
The importance of everyone having access to books, whatever their background, financial or social standing, is front and centre in this novel. I have to give a special mention to the use of Little Women in this book. Genius! It’s a beautiful story, packed with books and themes that stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
Annie Lyons, author of The Air Raid Book Club (published February 29, 2024, Headline Review)
There are many wonderful books about books to choose from, but in the end I had to plump for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because books and stories form the backbone of this beautiful, heartbreaking Second World War story. I also love that it’s told entirely in the form of letters written firstly between writer Juliet Ashton and the sublimely named Dawsey Adams, and then via the correspondence with other members of the society.
What follows is a moving tale of life on Guernsey during the war and the tragedy which haunts the society. It’s also a story of their friendships and the strength they gain from one another through a shared love of books and reading. This served as an inspiration for me as I wrote The Air Raid Book Club, telling the story of bookseller Gertie Bingham who takes in fifteen-year-old Hedy Fischer after she is forced to flee Nazi Germany and their air raid book club, which supports the local community during the war.
I firmly believe that books and stories have the power to transport, comfort and reassure us when the world is dark and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is a shining example of this.
Sally Page, author of The Book Of Beginnings (out now, HarperCollins)
I think as writers we cannot help but love books about books. And sometimes books, or the idea of writing a novel, finds its way into our stories too. In my latest novel, The Book of Beginnings, septuagenarian Malcolm is constantly researching a book that he never gets around to writing (until he makes friends with a runaway vicar). And in my debut novel The Keeper of Stories, irascible Mrs B uses Janice’s love of Vanity Fair by Thackeray to hook her into revealing more than she intends.
I also think it’s not surprising that I am naturally drawn to characters who are linked to books: Hercule Poirot’s friend and author, the apple-chomping Ariadne Oliver; Flora Poste from Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm, who muses on the flowery descriptors she will use in her opus dei. More recently, I tore through R.F. Kuang’s bestseller, Yellowface to discover if Juniper Song would get her comeuppance when she steals her friend’s novel and tries to pass it off as her own.
However, I think by far my favourite book about books has to be 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. This book records the letters between two book lovers either side of the Atlantic: Helena Hanff who is trying to source some obscure titles that she cannot find in her home city of New York, and Frank Doel a British bookseller based at a shop at 84 Charing Cross Road who is trying to help her. A friendship develops between Helena, Doel and the other members of staff, told through their letters. The correspondence that blossoms covers everything from John Donne to how to make Yorkshire puddings. First published in 1971, time has done nothing to diminish this book’s charm.
Evie Woods, author of The Lost Bookshop (out now, One More Chapter)
A book I always recommend is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (translated by Lucia Graves). It is a beguiling literary mystery and begins in a bookshop in Barcelona. We are introduced to a young boy named Daniel who lives with his father above their enchanting little bookshop. He is grieving the loss of his mother, who died when he was four, and at the tender age of eleven, his father decides he is old enough to visit The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. What a delicious opening chapter! The writing is beautiful and rich with Gothic romance, and we are charmed from the outset by the idea that books can offer solace as well as adventure.
“I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day.”
We all remember that first moment when the magic of stories captured our hearts and so right away, we are invested in Daniel’s story, because it is our story too.
Our relationship with books is very personal. Our bookshelves are curated to reflect our taste, our style and our aspirations. We use books to find hidden parts of ourselves lurking on the page and in the characters we love. So, a story with books at its heart is always going to offer the reader a powerful sense of nostalgia. There have always been books written about books, but I think that during the global pandemic, many of us rediscovered the true value of books and storytelling. The stories are endless, as is our love for them.
Louise Fein, author of The London Bookshop Affair (published February 29, 2024, William Morrow)
I think there is always an attraction to novels which feature books, bookshops or libraries, or stories within stories. Books transport us to other worlds, they entertain and make us think, but they also provide far more than that. There is a community around books, friendships forged at book groups, or through connections made with other people around stories.
As a child, the library was my happy place, and I think I am drawn towards books that feature libraries for that reason. The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson is an uplifting novel based on the true story of a librarian who created an underground library in Bethnal Green tube station while WWII raged above. The sense of community and the power of books to save us during the worst of times comes through strongly in this novel, just as it did in the wonderful The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows, another favourite of mine.
I also love books which feature stories within stories and form the thread around which the whole narrative of the novel is woven. The extraordinary novel by Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land, is a triumphant example of this, melding myth, classical literature, history and philosophical thought told through five disparate time periods, all woven together around an ancient fictional manuscript. I absolutely adored that book.
The setting for my latest novel, The London Bookshop Affair is an antiquarian bookshop in 1960’s London. This is based partially and loosely on a true story. When I first began researching for this novel and read that story, it felt like a gift. What better setting could there be for a novel than a quaint and dusty bookshop, filled with the aroma of old leather and beeswax, hidden first-edition gems and, of course, secrets?