10 great books for literature-lovers, from surveys of English literature to treasure-troves of trivia
What are the best books about there about literature – whether trivia books, introductions to English literature, or handy guides to some of the most pressing questions about the study of literature? Well, look no further than this list of ten of the best books about English literature – and other literatures, for that matter.
Oliver Tearle, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History. We’ll admit we’re kicking off with a rather partisan choice, since Tearle is the founder-editor of Interesting Literature. But The Secret Library is a treasure-trove of trivia for the literature-lover. If you want to know about the obscure but fascinating Tudor novel about talking cats, the identity of the woman who was the first American to have a volume of poems published, or what was so funny about the world’s oldest joke book from ancient Greece, this is the book for you: a whistle-stop tour of Western history that takes in 99 books, both obscure and well-known. As if that’s not enough, the book’s design is a work of art, with the die-cut keyhole cover making the book an ideal gift for the book-lover. (A follow-up book by Tearle, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray.)
Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. A monumental, weighty tome that shows how all fictional narratives from folk tales to novels and films follow essentially seven basic plot forms, such as ‘overcoming the monster’ (Beowulf, Jaws). Riddled with typos, but if you can put up with them, this book is illuminating and entertaining.
Gary Dexter, Title Deeds: The Hidden Stories Behind 50 Books. An engaging book full of fascinating information about some of the world’s classic books, and the stories behind how they came to be called what they’re called. (We’d also recommend Why Not Catch-21?: The Stories Behind the Titles, an earlier book on the same theme as Title Deeds and just as much fun.)
B. Ifor Evans, A Short History Of English Literature. Now sadly out of print, this delightful little Pelican paperback from 1950 is available via Amazon from second-hand sellers. It runs through poetry, drama, fiction, and non-fiction prose from the Middle Ages to the present day in chronological chapters. Great if you want to get a brisk overview of English literature in all its many forms. Sadly, owing to its publication date, it stops in the mid-twentieth century; but we can hardly blame Evans for that.
Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: An Introduction. If you’re more specifically interested in the history of the novel and how this form has developed in English literature, this is an engagingly written and frequently very witty introduction to the English novel, from Defoe to James Joyce. Eagleton sticks to the canonical figures of English fiction – Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and so on – but has something illuminating to say about each novelist, and does a good job of summarising often very disparate aspects of the novels he discusses. Eagleton also features in our pick of the best books offering an introduction to literary theory.
Michael Schmidt, The Lives Of The Poets. A vast book, which provides some useful information about most major poets since the Middle Ages. It’s a biography of several hundred individuals, and majestically grand in scale, but very readable. It does have some glaring omissions – no Edward Lear? – and Schmidt is fond of making provocative statements about certain poets, but somehow that makes it all the more fun.
John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives. A huge compendium of miniature biographies about writers of fiction from John Bunyan to the present day, Lives of the Novelists is entertaining, surprising, amusing, and often gripping – as when Sutherland is telling us about the curious and rather disgusting origins of the title of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, or giving us a whistle-stop tour of Stephen King’s career, or telling us about how prolific (and successful) Edgar Rice Burroughs was. Packed full of biographical trivia, this book is a very diverting way to spend a week learning about the lives of some of Anglophone fiction’s most famous names. John Sutherland is one of the best authors of books about literature, so he actually features on this list twice…
John Sutherland, The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction (Oxford World’s Classics). This is Sutherland’s trilogy of ‘puzzle’ books, in which he asks interesting questions about the more troubling aspects of the plots of classic novels, and then proceeds to find solutions to them. The titles of the three books in this original trilogy give a sense of the sort of questions Sutherland likes to ask: Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Great Puzzles in Nineteenth-century Fiction (World’s Classics), Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?: More Puzzles in Classic Fiction (Oxford World’s Classics), and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? (Oxford World’s Classics). Sutherland has since written several more such books – the one on Shakespeare co-authored with Cedric Watts, Oxford World’s Classics: Henry V, War Criminal?: and Other Shakespeare Puzzles, is also worth checking out.
Christopher Fowler, The Book of Forgotten Authors. This recent book introduces us to a range of authors, including many popular novelists, whose names may once have been well-known to the reading public, but are now largely forgotten. Who knew that Thomas Burke, the British author of the collection of short stories Limehouse Nights, also published a book called For Your Convenience (1937), which included a map of London’s public urinals, ‘noting in particular their sexual possibilities’? Or that Keith Waterhouse, who is now remembered solely for Billy Liar, also worked on a doomed musical of Andy Capp? The Book of Forgotten Authors is a mine of interesting and amusing literary trivia of this sort, as the title implies. You’re likely to finish reading Fowler’s entertaining and enlightening jaunt through the bookshelves of yesteryear with a significantly enlarged ‘to read’ list – if you can still track down any of these out-of-print wonders.
James Wood, How Fiction Works. An accessible introduction to key aspects of fiction from one of the most celebrated living critics of the novel. It includes chapters on narrative voice, realism, and character, among others. Wood is particularly good at saying why a piece of fiction is good (and why other pieces of fiction aren’t good), and his gentle but informed focus on the technical details of writing prevents his value-judgments from ever reading too much like ‘This is good because I like it.’ Wood is also a mean finger-drummer, as demonstrated in this video.
If you enjoyed this pick of the best books about books and literature, check out our pick of the best books about Shakespeare and our eight best books about language and words. We’ve also picked our must-have poetry anthologies here.