Twice this year I have found my non-fiction reading involving books about books (& their authors), a phenomenon I hadn't experienced before. I've read biographies of authors before, & I've seen those books of critical essays about books (& the ubiquitous CliffNotes), but I don't think I've ever read 2 books that go more in-depth about the books, their history & their impact on society than Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife by Francine Prose & Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman.
Of course, I can see how you could have a whole book about Anne Frank's diary-the library catalog, after all, boasts the critical & definitive editions alongside the standard Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Prose's book talks about the difference between the editions, the role on Anne's father Otto in the editing, & goes on to take on the writing of the play & the movie. You might think this is overkill, but it actually was a very interesting read for those curious about Anne Frank. What I did not know before was about the "internecine, nasty struggle to bring Diary to the stage", as Kirkus Reviews terms it, & "Meyer Levin's descent into near madness as he sought, unsuccessfully, to be the diary's playwright". Prose also discusses how Anne Frank's message has been dumbed down by stage & screen versions of her writings. Publishers Weekly asks if "Prose contributes to a queasy-making idolization and commodification of Anne Frank", but admits "the author lucidly collates material from a wide range of sources, and her work would be valuable as a teaching guide". I would agree with the latter.
Jane's Fame is similar but different. Like Anne Frank, Jane Austen's posthumous fame is huge. For someone who wrote very few books & who we know very little about, Austen looms large in literary history these days-& her life & fiction have become the springboard for other authors to dive into related topics. The latest Jane-related books in the catalog include: A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen; Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters; The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen bySyrie James; & Jane and the Barque of Frailty ("Being a Jane Austen Mystery") by Stephanie Barron.
Jane's Fame is about Jane Austen's short life-which I have read about before, but Claire Harman's take is still interesting-&, borrowing from Francine Prose, her afterlife. Harman explores topics ranging from famous fans (or "Janeites")-George IV was a fan, Mark Twain was not-to Edith Head's incorrect costume design for one of the first films of Austen's work (Pride & Prejudice, starring Laurence Olivier & Greer Garson) to a discussion of the accuracy of portraits of Austen. I found there was much I did not yet know about Jane Austen & her works, &, even though I have watched the films & read some of the Jane-related fiction, there was still more to talk about on that front as well.
I enjoyed both these books & learned from both, but I did get an odd feeling, reading books about books. Am I just supporting the further commodification of both these authors? What's more important, the books themselves or the backstory?