Tag Archives: Books About Books

Cover – Peter Mendelsund

I was very, very lucky this Christmas as Santa brought me not one but two books imported all the way from America, and to note not via a certain evil website, both of which were by book jacket designer extraordinaire Peter Mendelsund. I was told about both Cover  and What We See When We Read by many, many people (indeed the later was in the Yankee book swap but I wasn’t mean enough to swap it for Gone Girl) when I was at Booktopia Asheville, indeed Ann and Michael have sung their praises on Books on the Nightstand. Having read Cover I can completely understand why; it is such a wonderful ode to books and a book which safe to say will be riding very high on my books of the year tomorrow.

powerHouse Books, 2014, hardback, nonfiction, 256 pages, brought by Santa for Christmas

Peter Mendelsund was initially a classical pianist, or a recovering one as his bio says, who after the birth of his first child realised he needed a more stable job with a regular income. But what? Well, as it happened he liked design and then his mother knew someone who knew someone at Knopf Books and after a chat, a viewing of his portfolio (which Knopf being pretty bowled over by what Mendelsund calls “shockingly wince-inducing” self taught designs) and some interviews he then became a junior designer. Now he is Associate Art Director there and his book covers are world famous, though you might admittedly not know they were by him. He is one of those wonderful people who make us want to pick up ALL the books, from Lolita to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literally. Well, if you live in America, though some have come here too. Cover is his story of how he came to cover books and what doing so means.

During those years at the piano, I was completely unaware that book cover design, as they say, “was a thing.” Though I’d read plenty of books over this period, it had not occurred to me that a book’s cover was consciously composed and assembled by a human agent. Not that I assumed book jackets were made by machines, or committees (it turns out they can be made by either), I had simply never given book jackets a passing thought.

What did I see then when looking at the front of the book if not the cover? The title and the author’s name. Which is to say, I saw past the cover to the book.

However Cover is not just Mendelsund’s thoughts on what makes a book cover so important. As we go through the sections Classics, Vertical (which is all about Manga), Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Non Fiction & Poetry we hear from the writers who Mendelsund has made covers for, well apart from in Classics then Jane Mendelsohn discusses Kafka whose reissues were one of the first works that made everyone really sit up and pay attention to Mendelsund’s work. (No I am not popping pictures of those in, you will have to go and buy the book to see them, and they are stunning.) Here is Ben Marcus discussing the importance of the cover for the author and what the power of a cover can do…

The missing jacket is the final piece to by which nearly everyone will come to know the book. The writer wants the jacket to stand up for the book, serve as the most perfect flag. The jacket should celebrate the strengths of the book and conceal the flaws. It should perhaps rouse dormant chemicals in the body of and cause a sharp kind of lust in the buyer, that might only be satisfied by actually eating the book.

Of course it is Mendelsund and his work, and the process of it, that links this book. Throughout you really get a fantastic insight into how the idea’s for covers are initially formed and then how the process carries on. I don’t want to spoil any of this for you but I thought I would give you a sneaky peak, for example here is the final design for Steig Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which Mendelsund jokes, in one of his many brilliant footnotes on some of his designs, thankfully lost the title of The Man Who Hated Women which he had to have as one of his design’s titles) the he created…

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Here are many of the ones that didn’t make the cut, these are marked throughout with red X’s…

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You therefore get the mental process and the design process which I found completely fascinating, as I am sure any book lover would. And this is a book for book lovers. Did I mention that? I have come away with an epic list of books; obviously Mendelsund reads all these books and was an avid reader and book lover before, and I have now an urge to read many he has covered and clearly loved. (He even almost convinced me about Kafka at one point!) I am particularly keen to read Lolita as Mendelsund has some interesting thoughts on it. I know, I know I should have read it already. Also added to the list are now in particular Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, which Mendlesund has a fascinating relationship with, and these two books by Imre Kertesz. I don’t care what they are about (Mendelsund has done his job as he does) I just want to read them for their covers…

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On top of these are The Woman Destroyed by Simone De Beauvoir, the aforementioned Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Something is Out There by Richard Bausch, Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu and both Never Fuck Up and Easy Money by Jens Lapidus. (You can find these again on my new To Get My Mitts On page here with some others.) Oh and the whole of the Pantheon Folktales and Fairytale Library. Though I couldn’t work out if these had been commissioned or not. I will do some digging; if they have they will be mine.

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You might have possibly had the merest hint that I bloody loved Cover. It was a book I thought I would dip in and out of over time, I sat with it and lost several sittings perusing the covers, taking in peoples thoughts on reading and books – it is rather like a book version of having a relaxed mooch through a book shop perusing the covers and eavesdropping on the other book lovers, no higher praise can be bestowed really. As I mentioned before Cover will easily be in my best books of the year and I am now very excited to read What We See When We Read, though I think I might just spend some more time revisiting and staring at Mendelsund’s collection of books and their covers, again and again and again.

Oh and if you want to hear more about book covers then do listen to this edition of Front Row, which I had the joy of whilst getting home in a snow blizzard (I exaggerate not) on Boxing Day on the way home from my mothers. Have you had the joy of reading either of Mendelsund’s books? Do you own some of his covered books in your collection? Which other wonderful books about books would you recommend? I have a new fancy for a selection of my new shelves (yes I have been shopping for more today) being dedicated to books about books of all shapes and sizes.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2014, Peter Mendelsund, powerHouse Books, Review

The Book Boy – Joanna Trollope

I wonder if I can explain why I have not read any Joanna Trollope before without implying that I am some kind of book snob. I suppose it’s simply fair enough, and true enough, to say that I have never really fancied them. In my head, with a mixture of the covers and things I have heard along the way, I have imagined she is rather twee and upper class and I just wouldn’t like them. Sometimes though the title of a book will make you give an author a try and when I saw ‘The Book Boy’ at the library, and saw it was one of the ‘quick reads’ initiative title I thought ‘oh why not?’

Bloomsbury Books, paperback, 2006, fiction, 95 pages, borrowed from the library

Alice is a thirty-eight year old woman stuck in a rut. She is her entire families doormat. Her husband Ed domineers over her with a certain edge of the dark and fearful in anything he does, her son Craig seems to be following his example (and has started hanging out with an unsavoury new friend) and Becky, her daughter and possible ally, thinks she is stupid. All this seems to emanate from the fact that Alice cannot read, something she has always wanted to do, and its something that no one speaks of and yet everyone knows. It also seems to be what people, including Alice herself, us to hold her back.

I feel forgotten, Alice though. Forgotten.
 ‘Mum!’ Craig yelled.
Like, Alice thought, something that fell down the back of the sofa. And got lost. That’s what I feel like.

Of course from the premise of the book we know that this is about to change, what we don’t know is how. I will say that help comes in the least expected guise; I will leave it at that. Through the relationships she has outside the house, mainly with her friend Liz (who has a very funny moment when she becomes a spy) and the Chandra family whose corner shops she cleans, we learn just how closed a life she leads and one which is clearly making her deeply unhappy. This is not a melancholy novella however, in fact it is very much one of hope.

This is a piece of fiction of less than 100 pages which gives a very clear insight into the life of its main character. Alice and her situation are fully fleshed out and though the other characters, including her family, aren’t fleshed out so well they are really there in order to act awfully and show us just how dreary Alice’s life is. Its how she got there and the fact that she initially seems to simply accept that this is her lot in life which proves deeply affecting and through provoking.

How much of the world do we miss if we are unable to read? How do people judge those who can’t? How would our lives be hindered by it and in what ways? These are all the questions that Joanna Trollope looks at, and I was impressed by how much I felt in so little pages. It reminded me just how lucky I am to be able to read and how much it benefits my life, not only in the fact I can read little gems like this, but in the everyday things which we completely forget about and take for granted.

It’s interesting that whilst I enjoyed this example of Joanna Trollope’s work I am not sure if I would read any more. I liked this book because of the story it was telling rather than who was telling it if that makes sense? It was a book you could read for an hour and pop away, would I fare so well with something longer? Is there some underlying subconscious snobbery in me? Maybe I am wrong, maybe another Joanna Trollope would be right up my street, or maybe it was nice to read her once and that’s enough? We all have an encounter with an author like this now and again don’t we? Anyone got any thoughts?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books About Books, Joanna Trollope, Review

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

I have heard so much praise for ’84 Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff it’s a book that I have been meaning to read for ages. It is also one of those books where because I had heard so much praise for it I hadn’t picked it up because I was worried it wouldn’t have the effect on me that it did on everyone else. We all have books like that don’t we, it’s not just me? Anyway I was lucky enough to receive as a Christmas present from the lovely Paul Magrs who thought it would be a perfect read for me, and he was spot on.

’84 Charing Cross Road’ is a series of very real letters, for some reason until I actually had the book in my hand I thought that it was a work of fiction, between writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel a bookseller of Messrs Marks & Co a second-hand book shop in the heart of London. What initially starts as very much a business correspondence, between the rather outspoken Hanff and the more reserved Doel, from October 1949 becomes a friendship through letters and a love of books that lasts over twenty years.

“I just happen to have a peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. And I’m about as smart-looking as a Broadway pan-handler.”

If that hasn’t already had you running to a book shop to buy it, as it is a most perfect book about books and reading really, there is so much more. As Hanff and Doel’s friendship blossoms she starts to send packages of food to him and the other workers in the store during the war, getting friends to visit with nylons etc, thus she creates further friendships all by the power of the pen. Initially (and I wondered if Frank himself might have felt this) Hanff’s lust for life, over familiarity and demanding directness almost pushed me to annoyance until her humour and her passion for books becomes more and more apparent along with her thoughtfulness during the war years as mentioned. I was soon wishing I had become Hanff’s correspondent myself.

“You’ll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got round to Jane Austen and went out of my mind for Pride and Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.”

There is a bittersweet twist in the tale, and I don’t think it spoils anything to give this away but skip this paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers, is that sadly Frank died before Helene could ever go and finally visit the shop. There are several times that she endeavours to get herself to London but due to finances, teeth and other circumstances it never happens. That all changes after the publication of ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which being a huge success means she flies to London to visit the shop, some of the people and the city she has always dreamed of visiting. She keeps a diary during this trip which is now included in every edition of this novel/la named ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’ which makes for additional fascinating reading.

“I got out of bed, had hysterics, a martini and two cigarettes, got back into bed, and whiled away the rest of the night composing cables saying I wasn’t coming.”

It’s hard to say anything further about these two novels, or are they technically novellas, because they simply need to be read. I can’t say anything other than go out and get a copy if you haven’t already. It was certainly a book that was right up my street! 9.5/10

This book was bought for me for Christmas by a very kind friend.

Who else has had the pleasure of reading ’84 Charing Cross Road’? Has anyone seen the movie, and if so what did you make of it? Which books about books and book lovers should I look out for next? Has anyone read any of Hanff’s other novels? Which books have been sat on your TBR and have you been putting off as everyone else loved them so much you fear you might not?

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2011, Helene Hanff, Review, Virago Books

The Bookshop – Penelope Fitzgerald

One of the things that lead me to wanting to have a little break from the blogging recently was that I had got myself into the habit of reading to write about the books on here. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing apart from the fact I was beginning to rush read in my enthusiasm and putting pressure on my reading and suddenly I just didn’t want to read. A lovely parcel then arrived in the post, from another very kind reader, containing ‘The Bookshop’ by Penelope Fitzgerald and I felt fate was sending me a sign and it turns out that I think it was because it was not only a book I wanted to read there and then because of the title, which I think would appeal to any book lover, it was also a book that made me read slower (that doesn’t mean it was boring) and sometimes you need good books that do that too.

‘The Bookshop’ centres around Florence Green and her desire to do something with her life after having been widowed. For several nights, as the book opens in the year of 1959, Florence has slept yet has felt she has been wide awake and the reason is she thinks she needs to open a bookshop in the seaside town of Hardborough. Something which she decides to do by converting the town’s ‘Old House’ which has been left derelict for several years so taking out a loan that’s what she does. Like all good smaller communities word spreads and as it does people start to ask her whether maybe she has chosen the right venue and before she knows it she is being subtly threatened by the towns self important and self elected honorary leader Violet Gamart who seems to have always wanted to make The Old House an arts centre but has never quite gotten around to it. Florence carries on with determination little knowing she will need courage as many an obstacle will be thrown in her way.

If I am honest I should have been slightly disappointed by this book. I was sort of demanding, in my head, a book about a book shop in a small town and all the crazy characters that pass through its doors. You do get that to a degree for example when Florence orders in copies of ‘Lolita’ causing a surge of gossip and huge crowds outside the shop causing traffic issues on the street. Some of it though seems slightly culled for the bigger picture which is that of a tale of a town wanting change and then being rather unsure it’s what the wanted at all and also of someone having the courage to do something different in the face of adversity. In the end for having all these strands I liked it all the better once I got my head around it.

Its not a book you can rush read (though its 156 pages so you could manage it in an evening or an afternoon) because its pace is meandering, rather like when you find your self in a book shelf slowly and enjoyably perusing the shelves you find yourself doing the same with Penelope’s prose and paragraphs. You get the feeling every word matters and every paragraph has been plotted, though there isn’t a massive plot in this novel, and placed where it is for a reason. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t quite yet you still enjoy reading it regardless. An example would be the rather bizarre and unexplained haunting by the poltergeist in The Old House which the townsfolk are always talking about and when we endure it with Florence actually proved quite chilling, perfect for this time of year, which I loved and yet I am sure Fitzgerald had thrown in for a reason I didn’t pick up on my first read.

It’s a book I want to return to eventually though as it has all the right ingredients, it makes you laugh, its quite touching and frustrating as you get to know the town and its people and it actually made me incredibly upset towards the end – not by the ending itself but by something that happens about three quarters of the way through and which of course I am not going to tell you anymore about.  It’s not a book that will shout out its accomplishments and wry storytelling so you jump out of your seat with its brilliance; instead it quietly and unassumingly tells you a story that will stay with you a good while after the final page is turned. 9/10

Savidge Reads suggests perfect prose partners;

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald – I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s Man Booker winning novel when I read it last year (I actually didn’t realise it was that long ago so gave myself a shock, how does time whizz by so?) and said I wanted to read more Penelope Fitzgerald, now I am even more eager too.

Any of the works of Muriel Spark – I don’t want to compare specific books because there aren’t any I can think of and nor do I think Spark and Fitzgerald are of quite the same ilk, its just there is something that makes me think if you like Spark you would enjoy Fitzgerald too.

I don’t know if others will agree about my Spark comparison, is that helpful at all or true? Actually it’s less a comparison more a ‘maybe if you liked this, then you might like those’. Anyway regardless Fitzgerald is an author who I will endeavour to read even more of, and if you haven’t tried her do, I am just not sure where I should go next. There were lots of blurbs to her other books in the back of this one and they all sounded good. I thought I had some more of her books in the TBR but they are Penelope Lively, who I haven’t read any always confuse the two, is Lively any cop? Any advice?

This book was kindly sent to me by a reader of Savidge Reads just a week and a bit ago – a big thank you.

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Filed under Books About Books, Flamingo Books, Harper Collins, Penelope Fitzgerald, Review

Ex Libris – Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman is a book that I have been looking out for, as well as many others, for absolutely ages. If you are a fan of ‘books about books’ then many say that this is the holy grail of books about books. After having read a few this year like The Paper House (though that was fiction) and of course one of the most blogged about books of the year Howard’s End is on the Landing it’s a genre of books I like. So imagine my utter joy when last weekend one of my closest friends, the lovely Michelle, bought me a copy of this very book.

Anne Fadiman is a journalist and writer who comes from strong literary genes. Her father Clifton Fadiman is a literary critic and personality, her mother Annalee Jacoby Fadiman is an author. She is even married to an author (the first essay in this collection is a funny piece about the merging or marrying of two peoples book collections as it appears they are both book hoarders – I liked them instantly) the author George Howe Colt, so she is definitely about the books and about words. Ex Libris is a collection of essays which mingle memories and book thoughts from her life in the past and current perspective.

When I know a book is meant to be a book about books, I want it to be just that. Plain and simply I want book thoughts, book thoughts and more book thoughts. This doesn’t quite happen as much as you would think with this novel. In fact I would say the book is more a celebration of words both written and writing. There’s an essay on sonnets, some feminist essays and a few on writing, grammar and words. The thing is though I didn’t mind these slightly of the book subject essays because through her words I liked Anne Fadiman so much and wanted to read more about her. There are some great essays on books inside such as the marrying of books I mentioned before. She looks at reading in the places books are set, second-hand book buying joy (I am all for that) and you do leave with a list of books you want to read so all in all job accomplished.

It is her likeability that definitely sells this book and the bookish essays that are thrown in and make it such a little gem and if you are a fan of books then you really should have this on your shelves. You also need to read it to find out just what a ‘sesquipedalian’ is… its one of my new favourite words, I will see how many conversations I can throw that into today.

It has made me wonder, apart from the aforementioned Susan Hill book, just what books there are actually out there that are solidly about just books and reading and books. I don’t mind the And I don’t mean highbrow books where you sit and feel alienated because you haven’t read the entire works of Chekhov, Tolstoy or Dumas. I mean books where people read a gambit of material. I know there must be some out there I just seem to be missing them somehow. Any clues?

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Filed under Anne Fadiman, Books About Books, Penguin Books, Review

Books On Books, Book People on Book People and Writers on Writing

I had a hunt through my blog and as far I could see (at first) I’d never done a post on ‘Books About Books’ even though I have read a few. Way, way back someone delightfully sent me a copy of So Many Books So Little Time by Sara Nelson which you can’t get too easily in stores (though possibly on some certain sites) and more recently So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid and then of course there was Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill earlier in the week. The latter is possibly what initially made this subject hover on my horizon.

Then there was a post by Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book fame who wrote about a book (and also mentioned in HEiotL) which I simply had to get hold of once I had finished reading his review. This book was The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominiguez which I discussed with you yesterday. I know this is a fictional book about books rather than a proper non-fiction book about book but isn’t that just as delightful? Now instead of rushing of to a certain shopping site or a certain High Street chain I went and had a look on Read It Swap It as why not swap some of my cast off’s for something I really want, plus something that at 102 pages is nice and small so wouldn’t take up too much space. What do you know there it was (plus a copy of another book or three I really wanted) and today it arrived, but not alone as you can see.

Books on Books

Along with The Paper House the lovely sender Caroline had sent me another book called Reflections From A Bookshop Window by Clive Linklater. Not a book I had heard of at all though one that seems very me as the card inside mentioned “Hi Simon, I thought you might like another book on a bookish theme.” Isn’t that just so lovely, it keeps your faith in the book loving community! It was just what I needed after I have been getting a panning in some circles, which we will quickly gloss over, and so this looks a total and utter joy. I also didn’t think that anyone on Read It Swap It would know I have a blog or am such a book obsessive she must be psychic. It’s utterly made my week, naturally Caroline has received a thank you email and low and behold in the response she does indeed read my blog! How very random.

As for Reflections From A Bookshop Window I can’t find any blurbs for it anywhere, though some very good reviews which lead me to believe it’s the tales of a bookseller, and these are all genuine tales, of books and possibly more interestingly in a way the book buying and bookselling public. I opened one page and I was hooked and had to stop myself from turning another page and another and another. This is being reserved for after No Name and a lovely Sunday lie in.

“Booksellers hate Christmas. Booksellers hate the winter when it’s too cold for customers to come into freezing secondhand book shops. Booksellers hate summer when it’s too hot for customers to come into stuffy secondhand bookshops.”

So then I had a meander through my books to see what else fell into this category. I also then found my post on books about books (typical!) that I knew I must have written, and saw I had a few more. Out of the corner of my eye my wonderful old first edition of Daphne Du Maurier’s memoir/autobiography Growing Pains held my attention, and I thought what about books by writers on writing? I loved Stephen King’s book On Writing so maybe I should read more? I have since accidentally, I don’t know how it happened honestly, purchased a copy of Negotiating With The Dead which is Margaret Atwood’s book on writing and writers, so I am thinking one or two of these a month will make for some interesting reading.

Are there any more, I am sure there are, that I have missed? What’s best writers autobiography that you have read? Which author are you desperate to see write their own autobiography? What books on books, be they fictional or not, really shouldn’t be missed by a reader?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books About Books

The Paper House – Carlos Maria Dominguez

There will be a bigger post on ‘books about books’ and also on how this book and a surprising little bonus came into my hands tomorrow… but for now I will, if you will indulge me, give you my thoughts on a book that both reading HEiotL and a post that the lovely Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book lead me to which is a fictional book all about books called The Paper House and is one that starts with someone being killed by a secondhand book, can you imagine such a thing?

One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickenson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on the first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.

It is with this very death that the novel, though I would say it was a novella though I do get them confused I will admit, starts. Though it is in fact the events after the death of Bluma Lennon that the book is in fact about, for not long after her death a parcel is delivered for her containing a cement covered copy of The Shadow Line by Conrad. The person who picks this up on her behalf is her Cambridge colleague. It is also he who then goes on a mission, to Uruguay, to find the person who sent the book a Mr Carlos Brauer, a man who in local book circles is renowned as one of the great bibliophiles. It was when the book collecting is discussed that I found myself thinking ‘oh I so agree’ which happened a lot.

It is often much harder to get rid of books than it is to aquire them. They stick to us in that pact of need and oblivion we make with them, witnesses to a moment in our lives we will never see again. While they are still there, it is part of us… Nobody wants to mislay a book. We prefer to loose a ring. a watch, our umbrella, rather than a book we will never read again, but which retains, just in the sound of its title, a remote and perhaps long-lost emotion. The truth is that in the end, the size of a library does matter.

Not only is this a quirky unusual mystery it is a book about books and one that any book lover will happily devour in a sitting or two as I did. It looks at how different people collect books and what makes collection books such a joy to each individual as well as the pleasure gained from reading. However it does in some cases give a forewarning of the costs a serious book addiction and not money something much darker indeed. Though there is no real depth to any character, apart from Carlos into whos obsession we very deeply go, it is beautifully written and you go on an unusual bookish and mysterious journey with the narrator.

I thought this was a very clever book which managed to pack in a huge amount in just over 100 pages. It seems to genuinely get into the mind of a true book lover which I can only assume is a quality that the author has within himself. I thought that the start of the book was quite a darkly comic way to start the book as the narrator tells of his grandmothers thoughts on books and reading “stop that, books are dangerous”. Also with the dark sting in the tail of the tale it covers all peoples attitudes to books from the unimpressed to the obsessed and that makes for a very intriguing and unusual read one that I am very glad to now have on my shelves. It has also left me with a list of more books that I really want to read, and what more could you want from a book about books even if its fictional?

To build up a library is to create a life.

I am amazed that this book hasn’t been more heard of, though as the book itself goes on to illustrate (ooh which reminds me there are lovely slightly fable like illustrations in the book the whole way through) with the world be so full of books how can we know all of them let alone read them all? I think anyone who likes books should while away an hour or two with this, it certainly did the trick of cheering me up after a fairly rubbish Thursday. Oh for the weekend, back to Sensation reading and catching up on rest and all your blogs. Do you like the idea of The Paper House? What could be the pitfalls of having too many books or can there not be one?

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Filed under Books About Books, Carlos Maria Dominguez, Harvill Secker Books, Random House Publishing, Review