Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Books about Books

I am no great scholar, but I do like a nice non-fiction tome to open my eyes about something. I'm pretty catholic in my tastes: I've enjoyed titles ranging from Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach to Flower Confidential by Amy Stewart to The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy by Sasha Issenberg. Right now I have at home Elizabeth's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London by Liza Picard, a recommendation from a friend who knows I like to read about history.

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?


J'Andrea said...

I enjoy reading books about books. With Anne Frank it seems the more you know about her the more you will understand her diary. Learning about the impact the book has had is interesting in the way culture and literature interact, especially with older books (the classics).

If there was book about the impact Harry Potter or Twilight has had that I would put down to commodification, not because it wouldn't be interesting, but because they are still part of the current culture. If the same thing came out about these books in 20 or thirty years that would be interesting in seeing its lasting effects.

Susan said...

Well said, J'Andrea!
My two cents: The backstory enhances enjoyment of the book.

shalulah said...

I've also found this book, which seems to be along the same lines, in the catalog- Becoming Shakespeare: the unlikely afterlife that turned a provincial playwright into the bard.