Blog, Book Reviews

Books about Bibliophiles

books about bibliophiles

I’ve been on the search for books about bibliophiles–booksellers and bookmakers and bookbinders and collectors. I’ve read so many books about writers–across time and space and genre. And this makes sense. We’ve all heard the adage, “write what you know.” And, increasingly, as autofiction has dominated literature, the focus of even many fiction writers’ works has been primarily themselves.

But writers aren’t the only ones who bring a book into being and ultimately into the reader’s hands. There are many others who love books enough to try to make a life out of them and spend their days among them. I’ve compiled a list of new and recent books that highlight other kinds of bibliophiles, featuring casts of characters who live in the stacks or help bring writers’ words into the world in a variety of ways.

The Rachel Incident by Caroline O’Donoghue

At the start of The Rachel Incident, the titular character’s life and much of the driving action are firmly rooted in the book store where she works, O’Connor Books. It is where she meets her best friend, roommate and the platonic lover of her life: James Devlin. It is also where she and James hatch an ill-fated plan to bring her and her English Professor together by throwing his academic tome on the Irish famine a book release party, much to the surprise of everyone–including the author himself.

The Rachel Incident is full of love stories–platonic love, illicit love, gay love, and love that can be painful and hard won. It is also about the romance of youth, of struggling to make ideas into something tangible and real. O’Donoghue does a striking job of portraying the possibility of that time in life, coupled with the cringey and sometimes desperate moments that make up what is to be young and without means in a city while trying to create a life.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue crosses continents and epochs as it follows Addie from the moment she makes a deal with a dark god in 1770s rural France. Addie sells her soul for the promise of a life beyond a forced marriage. But Luc, the god she sells it to, complicates the bargain by cursing Addie to be forgotten by everyone she encounters as soon as she leaves their sight.

Everyone, that is, until Henry Strauss, a bookseller, remembers her the day after she walks out of his shop without paying in near-present day New York. And slowly they form a relationship and she begins to share the story of her life with him, one that is sweeping–full of loss, love, and redemption. In Addie’s quest to be remembered, she has influenced art throughout time, finding ways to make her mark upon the world.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a book lover’s book, clearly written by a bibliophile. It is full of ideas about art and its impact and the power a story can hold when wielded by the right hands.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Yasi has written at length about this book, a fictionalized account of the life of Bella da Costa Green, the personal librarian to J.P. Morgan. Green, a Black woman, passed as white in order to secure her place as the curator of Morgan’s massive and rich collection of books, manuscripts, and art and objects related to writing. She held the position for decades. And it was at her urging that Morgan’s son donated the collection the New York City, establishing the library we know as the Morgan.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of Green’s extraordinary life compellingly as she rose to prominence in her field, while grappling with the complexities of her existence as a Black woman passing as white in a prejudiced society. It is an inspirational and thought-provoking story about the love of books and of knowledge in the face of great odds.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

When Tookie, a middle-aged Native woman in The Sentence, spends ten years in jail for an outrageously bumbled attempt to help a friend, she is rescued by books. Upon her release, she becomes a bookseller at a store in Minneapolis. Full of wit and humor and guided by love, Tookie is one of my favorite protagonists of all time. I’ve written about how I laughed out loud on the street reading this book.

Haunted by its most annoying customer as the world descends into the COVID pandemic and Minneapolis becomes the center of a global movement for justice, the bookstore is a refuge in need of an exorcism. And the books it houses contain not only the salvation that Tookie found within them but all kinds of powers. They give life, but maybe, Tookie discovers, they might also have the ability to take it.

Endpapers by Jennifer Savran Kelly

In a recently post-9/11 New York, Dawn is a young artist who is struggling to make art. She is also struggling to express herself as a genderqueer person in a relationship and society that don’t fully understand her. She makes her living as a book binder at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, she finds a love letter written in german hidden in a book she is preserving. The letter, written by a woman named Gertrude to another named Marta, reveals the writer’s own grappling with their sexuality. Dawn embarks on a mission to find them and to uncover their story.

Endpapers is like a mystery in more ways than one. Dawn works to track Gertrude down and learn about her past while also trying to uncover the truth about herself and the way she wants to show up in the world. My heart ached for Dawn so many times as she grappled with others’ expectations of her and delighted with her in the moments she found comfort in her own skin.

The Bookbinder by Pip Williams

In The Bookbinder, Peggy and Maude are twins who work at a bookbindery at Oxford University in the midst of World War I. Curious and intellectual, Peggy steals glimpses at the books she is binding, wishing she was able to study and read instead, like a woman of a higher social class. The boat she goes home to is bursting with her books. She dreams of a life spent reading and learning instead of toiling and folding.

When the war brings people from other places with different experiences, Peggy’s own world is expanded and she begins to see the potential for something more.

These novels are vastly different, but they share a deep held love for art, knowledge, ideas, and books themselves. For many of these characters, books are foundational in their lives–offering new perspectives and possibilities. These book lovers often find inspiration in the words and stories within them. It is also the books themselves–as objects to be made and held and stored–and the places that house them that allow for deep transformations.

Sam is a writer based in Brooklyn. An ex-bicycle messenger and a marathoner, she is a lover of adventure. She is an avid reader of literary fiction and nonfiction in all forms–but has a special love for the weird and the dystopian.

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