Jenny Davidson's 10 Favorite Books About Reading

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

The following is a post from Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

Since the internet has tipped us into the great age of listicles, I must confess that I have already been prolific in the matter of book-related lists online. Here’s a sampling:

Ten nonfiction books that have stayed with me.

My ideal bookshelf as painted by Jane Mount.

A post I wrote for the late Norm Geras about one writer who means almost everything to me.

Five of my favorite books about swimming!

The list I’ve made for today, though, tallies up ten of my favorite books about reading. Some of these I mention in Reading Style: A Life in Sentences; others are simply books that I read almost in a trance, mesmerized by the way they spoke about reading and writing, its delights and occasional tribulations.

Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
An absolutely delightful collection of essays about reading by the author of the unforgettable A Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures. Both of these books of Fadiman’s are on my list of all-time favorites.

Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading
A book that spoke to me so directly that I sometimes thought I must have written it myself in a dream! Spufford is better than any other writer I know on the spell that childhood reading casts on us and the external factors that may precipitate that kind of immersion in books.

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
Another book that I read with delight and a growing sense of relief—Manguel wrote this book so that I don’t have to!

Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
A witty taxonomy, a playful provocation.

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence
One of the funniest and deepest books I know about the bedevilment of a vocation for reading and writing by procrastination and all the other woes that flesh is heir to.

Elizabeth Young, Pandora’s Handbag
A fantastic book of essays and reviews by a critic who died too young and who is much less well-known than she ought to be. Cultural criticism of a caliber that calls to mind Didion or Gore Vidal; gems of writing by an exceptionally passionate, perceptive and wide-ranging reader.

Mary Ann Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
An illuminating meditation on reading, writing and what goes wrong with both of those processes in some people’s brains. Wolf is interested in what the relatively short history of writing tells us about the human brain’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to words on the page; essential reading for anyone interested in dyslexia and language processing disorders as well as for lovers of reading more generally.

Victor Nell, Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure
Another book, like Young’s, that is much less well-known than it should be. Nell was a psychologist who did some amazing experiments with compulsive readers in the 1970s; this is an academic book, not always an easy read, but the details of his sessions (which involved both extensive questionnaires and various technologies of eye-tracking and other forms of quantitative assessment) are curiously fascinating.

Andrew Biswell, The Real Life of Anthony Burgess
It’s a literary biography, not a book about reading as such, but Anthony Burgess was surely one of the twentieth century’s greatest readers, and Biswell has written a book that does justice to this strange and copious intellect. Burgess’s own 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 was my bible as a teenager, something that I write about in the style book.

Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words
It’s a long time since I read this – I must revisit it this summer! – but this book gives one of the best descriptions I know of how a child may lose himself in reading and writing.

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