I recently witnessed a spat between two translators of the same author at a conference. Their dynamic was that of divorced people co-parenting a difficult child: each was convinced they knew their author better, knew what was best for her, and that the other was getting everything wrong. Sometimes, it’s really hard to share.
I, too, am possessive of my favorite books—convinced nobody appreciates their brilliance as I do. It’s nonsensical, egotistical, and irresistible; the 19th-century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell is no more mine than any other reader’s, yet the intimacy of reading, the abstract heart-to-heart between writer and reader across time, convinces me otherwise.
These thoughts drove my writing of The Victorian and the Romantic, a book that interweaves the narrative of my life, love, and research with that of Elizabeth Gaskell. I wanted to needle the ways in which love of an author is willfully subjective. Our life experiences inevitably skew the way we understand books; we can’t help but see through the particular tint of our own spectacles. And the reverse is also true: a piece of writing can change your life.
We call books that explore these ideas bibliomemoirs, but love story works just as well. Here’s a roundup of seven that inspired, cajoled, and nudged The Victorian and the Romantic into being.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
H is for Hawk is a meditation on nature, wildness, birds, bereavement, and T. H. White’s The Goshawk. It’s a book about relationships between ostensibly incompatible things: the living and the dead, tameness and wildness, a bereaved academic and a writer of Arthurian novels who died six years before she was born, a woman and a bird of prey. The triumph of the writing is that it shows these diverse components to be inalienably linked.
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Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
This is a memoir in four sections: “Lolita,” “Gatsby,” “James,” and “Austen.” There’s a pleasing clash between our superficial associations with these titles and the autobiographical content of the book—Nafisi’s life in Iran during and after the revolution. Yet Nafisi’s narrative of teaching, reading, and resilience demonstrates what is enduring, vital, and often problematic in the literature she describes.
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
Elif Batuman has mastered the art of being both very funny and very serious in a way I envy, adore, and will always seek to emulate. The Possessed is a book about Russian novelists, but it’s also about learning how to write and learning how to read, in particular learning how to read the way that Batuman reads, which is jubilantly, precisely, tongue-in-cheek—except for when it matters, and it matters often.
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Rebecca Mead’s account of the ways she feels George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, is speaking directly to her speaks directly to me. This is a tender homage to Eliot and draws parallels between Mead’s life and her subject’s that are lightly done and deeply felt. There’s great power in Mead’s presentation of Eliot, Middlemarch, and reading as things that matter.
Spinster by Kate Bolick
Bolick’s exploration of single life is guided by “awakeners”: female writers who, like her, have written about their experience of independence, singleness, aloneness and/or spinsterhood. Spinster presents a vision of intentional, even radical, singleness, but it’s also a carefully drawn depiction of the ways women share wisdom with each other in person, in writing, and across time.
Julie and Julia by Julie Powell
I’m not a frequent reader of food writing, so I admit it took a Nora Ephron movie to alert me to this memoir of cooking, relationships, and Julia Child. But I’m grateful to the movie for leading me to the book because of course it’s not really about food (it never is! food writers tell me). Julie and Julia is a tender, sharp illustration of how profoundly books of all kinds shape our relationships, our lives, and what we choose do with them.
Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
This memoir of Dyer’s that attempts to write a biography of D. H. Lawrence takes its title from a Lawrence letter—”Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid”—which makes it the most meta of all the bibliomemoirs mentioned here: a book about not writing a book about a writer who wrote about not writing about a writer in his book. By the end of Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer has not really written a D. H. Lawrence biography but has produced this brilliant account of all the things he did while trying to write it. The consolation prize is so often better than the real thing.
Featured Image: From L-R: Julia Child: Credit: Lynn Gilbert; D. H. Lawrence: Public Domain; Elizabeth Gaskell: Public Domain; T. H. White: Burns Library, Boston College; George Eliot: Public Domain; Nell Stevens Author Photo: Juliana Johnston