Books on Books

A couple of weeks ago, on 23 April, it was World Book Night. Distinct from World Book Day, which mostly seems to involve harassed parents having to dress their child as Harry Potter or Mr Tumnus or the twitching corpse of a slaughtered teenager from The Hunger Games, World Book Night is when people get to give away free copies of a book from a selection chosen by a panel, from nominees provided by a public vote. A lot of these books weren’t actually very good, but that’s what happens when you let the public vote for things: Nick Clegg in government, Olly Murs in the charts, and Sophie Kinsella novels dished out on World Book Night.

One thing I did notice was that two of the books on the list that are very good are, fittingly, about books. So I thought I’d use the opportunity to recommend them, and a few more books about books too.

Stephen King is one of the world’s bestselling writers, and I can see why: he’s a great storyteller and enviably prolific. His later books can be self-indulgent and need a damn good edit, but Misery, the one chosen for World Book Night, is a taut, terrifying, modern American gothic thriller about a helpless, kidnapped author forced to write a novel by his self-proclaimed ‘number one fan’.

Almost unbearably tense, Misery is not just a grippingly relentless horror story, but also an interesting exploration of a writer’s craft. The hero, a bestselling writer of sugary romances about Victorian heroine Misery Chastain, is desperate to be taken seriously for his new, edgy crime novel, but his captor Annie Wilkes has a special brand of grisly motivation that proves more of an incentive to resurrect Misery than any publisher’s deadline.

Misery may be King’s best book about writing books, but it isn’t his only one: as well as his memoir and how-to guide, On Writing, there’s also The Shining, in which caretaker Jack Torrance finds himself holed up in a snowbound hotel with the world’s creepiest case of writer’s block (‘all work and no play…’), and The Dark Half, about an author who finds himself stalked by the evil personification of his own pulp fiction pseudonym. Even Bill Denborough, terrorised by the unforgettable Pennywise the Clown in It, grows up to be a novelist. I can’t help wondering if the astonishingly successful and prolific Mr King finds something terrifying about his own profession … although whatever that something is, presumably it’s not the salary.

Also appearing on this year’s World Night Book Night list is Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief. Beautiful and heartbreaking, The Book Thief is narrated by a benign Death as he watches over Nazi Germany and in particular, Liesel, a child fostered to distance her from her real parents’ Communist sympathies. Liesel finds herself drawn to books, even before she learns to read, and her occasional thefts of books in peculiar circumstances – by a graveside, or at a public book-burning – punctuate the story, in which books and stories acquire an odd significance. A Jewish fugitive’s train tickets are hidden inside a copy of Mein Kampf. Awkward relationships are formed over reading and writing; stories and blank notebooks are given as gifts.

The Book Thief is about the German people struggling fearfully to make sense of the dark days of the war, full of unbearable cruelties, small but significant kindnesses, and the importance of telling stories. When Death remarks that he is ‘haunted by humans’, it’s hard not to feel ashamed.

On a more cheerful note, 80s kids will surely be familiar with the dubious special effects and Limahl-penned theme tune of the children’s fantasy film The Neverending Story. Think you don’t remember it? Honestly, you do – it’s the one with the poorly-crafted animatronic dragon that looks a bit like a flying spaniel. Put all thoughts of the film aside, though, and consider reading the book, by German author Michael Ende, instead.

The Neverending Story, as the title suggests, begins as a story within a story. Bastian Bux, a lonely young boy whose mother has recently died, is bullied at school and neglected by his grieving father. He’s always taken refuge in his beloved books, and on impulse, he steals The Neverending Story from an antique shop. Initially, we assume Bastian’s story is just a framing narrative for the story within the book he’s reading, in which Fantastica, a fantasy realm populated by strange creatures and peculiar landscapes, is gradually being melted away by The Nothing as its child ruler seems to be slowly dying.

However, the longer Bastian spends reading the book, the more he starts to find himself drawn into the book in a very literal sense, and as the two narratives melt into one, the novel becomes a powerful and sometimes faintly disturbing treatise on the importance of fiction, imagination and stories to the world’s wellbeing. I have wondered as an adult whether the odd, slightly jarring otherness of The Neverending Story stems in part from the translation from the original German, but either way, it gripped me as a child and the bleak, desolate horror of The Nothing and the despair the boy-hero Atreyu feels upon losing his beloved pony have probably left lasting scars on my psyche.

Thomas Wharton’s Salamander is also a fantasy novel, although because it happens to be a particularly literary one, we apparently have to call it magical realism and ignore its similarities to steampunk.

Salamander is about the search for the perfect book, the ultimate book, an infinite book that never comes to an end. Ingenious printer Nicholas Flood is attempting to devise such a book for a grieving aristocrat who lives in a castle he has transformed into what is effectively a giant mechanical puzzle full of moving parts and strange automata. Then, Nicholas is imprisoned and – well, there’s absolutely no point in me trying to explain the rest of the story, because it’s just too damn peculiar, but it’s a novel packed with huge ideas, head-spinning imaginative feats, numerous subplots and a vast historical and geographical scope, all of which is elegantly realised in exquisite prose.

You might imagine that a book that manages to cram in everything that Salamander has to offer might itself be a book without end – or at the very least, a sequence of 800-page doorstop volumes in the style of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. But in fact, it’s relatively short, and is a brilliant reminder in itself of the true miracle of books and their magic gift of enclosing infinite ideas, people and worlds within their pages.

More books about books:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: a modern classic, Fahrenheit 451 imagines a world in which books are illegal, seized as contraband and burned in an anti-intellectual society, while exiles memorise their contents in a desperate bid to preserve knowledge, ideas and stories for future generations.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon: opening with a visit by a boy and his father to the mysterious Cemetery of Lost Books, this worldwide bestseller set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War tells the story of the boy’s quest not only to protect his chosen book at all costs, but also to unravel the mystery of its author and the mysterious man intent on destroying every copy.

The Children’s Book by AS Byatt: An Edwardian children’s author of the E Nesbitt ilk writes whimsical, much-loved stories with characters influenced by her own family, while her generation inflicts appalling, unwitting damage on the one that comes after it. Rarely have I read a book with such a huge cast of characters and still cared so deeply about every one of them.

Joanne Sheppard

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.