In the course of our research for the articles on this blog, we encounter many great reference works and other informative and engaging non-fiction titles. We’ve included our pick of these below, complete with a link to more information about the book via the Amazon.co.uk site.
Oliver Tearle, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History. This is our own book, written by the founder-editor of Interesting Literature. It’s a whistle-stop tour of 3,000 years of Western history that brings to light forgotten classics and rare gems among the world of books: everything from the first English travel book written by an eccentric explorer (and compulsive walker) to the role Lord Byron played in the writing of the first vampire novel. Along the way the book also takes in Edgar Allan Poe’s surprising bestseller on snails, what really happened at the Chatterley trial, and how an ancient Syrian joker invented the genre of science fiction. This wonderful animated video by Gemma Green-Hope gives a taste of what else can be found in the book. (You can also get a flavour of the book from our Secret Library column here on this blog.)
Oliver Tearle, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape. This is Tearle’s follow-up to The Secret Library, and rather than being a historical tour it’s a geographical one. It explores why the West Country has just as much of a claim to being the birthplace of English Romanticism as the Lake District, how King Arthur’s court was originally at Celliwig rather than Camelot, and how there was a Nando’s in London in 1696, among much else. More information about Britain by the Book can be found here.
Stuart Kelly, The Book of Lost Books. This fascinating history of literature is told through all the books we don’t have – the lost plays of Aeschylus and the missing poems of Sappho, the books which authors burned or lost or which emperors and rulers ordered to be destroyed. It’s absolutely chock-full of interesting trivia about a wide range of writers.
John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives. For those who wish to delve a little deeper into the biographies of famous novelists, the best book we’ve come across here is John Sutherland’s magnificent book. It’s a vast book, covering nearly 300 lives from John Bunyan and Aphra Behn through to Alice Sebold and Ian McEwan. As these names suggest, the emphasis is on novelists writing in English – no Flaubert or Dostoevsky here – but what makes Sutherland’s book so gripping is his willingness to treat fascinating little-known authors alongside the more canonical names. Oh, and his eye for a good anecdote or piece of trivia about the novelist he’s discussing. Highly recommended.
Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. This is an absolutely huge book, but is full of interesting summaries of every type of narrative going: novels, narrative poems, films, operas, plays. As well as being an at times very acute analysis of the ways in which plots are put together (as the title implies, Booker narrows these down to seven: overcoming the monster, voyage and return, tragedy, comedy, etc.), it’s also a fun way to become a lot more knowledgeable about books and films you haven’t read or seen yet (not to mention a great way to get clued up on what goes on in famous operas!).
Terry Eagleton, How to Read Literature. Eagleton is never less than an amusing and knowledgeable guide, and in this recent book he provides a breezy, clear, and incisive introduction to some of the key aspects of reading literary texts. It’s a general book that touches upon fiction, poetry, and drama, and concerns itself with five main themes: ‘openings’, ‘character’, ‘narrative’, ‘interpretation’, and ‘value’. The book is full of insightful close readings (the chapter on ‘openings’, for instance, considers the opening lines of a number of novels and poems) which are then linked to the broader context of the poem or novel being discussed. Eagleton can also be extremely funny, describing Milton’s God in Paradise Lost as someone ‘who speaks like a constipated civil servant’ and summing up D. H. Lawrence’s cursory treatment of the cuckolded Clifford Chatterley in Lady Chatterley’s Lover by saying, ‘Lawrence is not at his most admirable when dealing with people in wheelchairs.’ Acute and also deliciously worded.
James Wood, How Fiction Works. Wood has been called the greatest living literary critic, whose reviews have appeared in the New Yorker and the London Review of Books, among many other places. In this short and gripping book, Wood offers a similar approach to Eagleton’s, in that he treats general aspects – character, plot, narrative, and the like – but with a slightly narrower (though still fairly broad!) focus on fiction. His examples come from everyone from Dostoevsky to John Updike, and Wood is a very helpful cicerone who will make you want to read novels more carefully, following his excellent lead.
Indeed, for those wanting to learn more about William Shakespeare, we’d recommend, in particular, Jonathan Bate’s books, The Genius of Shakespeare, which examines the legacy of Shakespeare’s work, the way it has inspired others and how Shakespeare’s writing is constantly reinvented and recast by each new generation (this has been called ‘the best modern book on Shakespeare’ by RSC founder Sir Peter Hall) and Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare, a sort of ‘intellectual biography’ of Shakespeare which takes a closer look at some of the widely held assumptions about Shakespeare’s life. These two books might be summed up as ‘surprising’: everything we thought we knew about Shakespeare, it turns out, is wrong, or at least wildly inaccurate!
Those wanting to learn more about the history of the novel will find much to enjoy in Steven Moore’s glorious two-volume ‘alternative history’ of the novel. The first volume, The Novel: An Alternative History, questions the idea that the novel was an eighteenth-century phenomenon and instead traces the roots of modern prose fiction to the ancient world. The second volume, The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800, considers the later Renaissance and beyond, bringing us to the age of the ‘modern’ novel of Jane Austen and Henry Fielding. Moore’s books take a truly international (and, indeed, worldly – there’s plenty of sex and scurrility to be had here) approach to the subject, and offers some very entertaining summaries of the texts he discusses. An in-depth and eye-opening study of a fascinating subject.