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All Literature Coverage

For the bibliophile on your shopping list, we've rounded up the year's best books about books.

The Madman's Library

The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities From History by Edward Brooke-Hitching is a must-have for any bibliomaniac. Over the course of this splendidly illustrated volume, Brooke-Hitching reviews the history of the book, investigating a variety of forms and a wide range of media but always emphasizing the extraordinary. 

Along with a number of wonderful one-offs (a book composed of Kraft American cheese slices), there are giant books (the 6-foot-tall Klencke Atlas) and tiny books (a biography of Thomas Jefferson that literally fits inside a nutshell), books that are sinister (a volume with a cabinet of poisons concealed inside) and books that are sublime (the medieval Stowe Missal with its ornate reliquary case). Astonishing from start to finish, The Madman's Library stands as a testament to the abiding power and adaptability of the book.

Unearthing the Secret Garden

Marta McDowell looks at the life of a treasured author in Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett. Born in 1849, British novelist Burnett published more than 50 novels, including The Secret Garden. McDowell delivers an intriguing account of Burnett's botanical and literary pursuits and the ways in which they were intertwined. She highlights Burnett's enduring love of plants, tours the gardens the author maintained in Europe and America and even dedicates an entire chapter to the plants that appear in The Secret Garden.

McDowell, who teaches horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, has also written about how plants influenced the work of Emily Dickinson, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beatrix Potter. Filled with marvelous illustrations and historical photographs, her new book is a stirring exploration of the natural world and its impact on a literary favorite.

The Annotated Arabian Nights

The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales From 1001 Nights, edited by scholar and author Paulo Lemos Horta, provides new perspectives on a beloved classic. Rooted in the ancient literary traditions of Persia and India, the collection of folktales known as The Arabian Nights features familiar figures such as Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin and Shahrazad, the female narrator who spins the stories.

This new volume offers a fresh translation of the stories by Yasmine Seale, along with stunning illustrations and informative notes and analysis. The tales, Horta says, deliver "the most pleasurable sensation a reader can encounter—that feeling of being nestled in the lap of a story, fully removed from the surrounding world and concerned only with a need to know what happens next." This lavish edition of an essential title is perfect for devotees of the tales and an ideal introduction for first-time readers.

We Are the Baby-Sitters Club

We Are the Baby-Sitters Club: Essays and Artwork From Grown-Up Readersis a delightful tribute to author Ann M. Martin and the much-loved Baby-Sitters Club series she introduced in 1986. Propelled by memorable characters, primarily tween club members Kristy, Stacey, Claudia and Mary Anne, who run a babysitting service, the series tackles delicate family matters like adoption and divorce, as well as broader topics such as race, class and gender.

In We Are the Baby-Sitters Club, Kelly Blewett, Kristen Arnett, Myriam Gurba and other notable contributors take stock of the popular books and their lasting appeal. With essays focusing on friendship, culture, identity and—yes—the babysitting business, this anthology showcases the multifaceted impact of the series. Nifty illustrations and comic strips lend extra charm to the proceedings. Edited by authors Marisa Crawford and Megan Milks, the volume is a first-rate celebration of the BSC.

Bibliophile

It's almost impossible to peruse Jane Mount's colorful sketches of book jackets and book stacks without being possessed by the impulse to dive into a new novel or compile a reading list. For her new book, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines, Mount teamed up with author Jamise Harper to create a thoughtful guide to the work of marginalized writers that can help readers bring diversity to their personal libraries.

With picks for lovers of historical fiction, short stories, poetry, mystery and more, Bibliophile: Diverse Spinesbrims with inspired reading recommendations. The book also spotlights literary icons (Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison) and treasured illustrators (Bryan Collier, Luisa Uribe, Kadir Nelson). Standout bookstores from across the country and people who are making a difference in the publishing industry are also recognized. With Mount's fabulous illustrations adding dazzle to every chapter, Bibliophile: Diverse Spines will gladden the heart of any book lover.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

The universe of words is steadily expanding thanks to author John Koenig. In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Koenig catalogs newly minted terms for hard-to-articulate emotional states: conditions of the heart or mind that seem to defy definition. Ledsome, for instance, is his term for feeling lonely in a crowd, while povism means the frustration of being stuck inside your own head.

Drawing upon verbal scraps from the past and oddments from different languages, Koenig created all of the words in this dictionary. He started this etymological project in 2009 as a website and has since given TED talks and launched a YouTube channel based on his work. "It's a calming thing, to learn there's a word for something you've felt all your life but didn't know was shared by anyone else," he writes in Obscure Sorrows. Koenig's remarkable volume is the perfect purchase for the logophile in your life.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Stumped on what to buy for the reader who’s read everything? We’ve got six picks for the book obsessed.

There is little question that Amazon has radically changed publishing—in both the way readers read and writers deliver their work. But has Amazon's digital platform changed literature itself? Stanford professor Mark McGurl believes it has. His probing new book, Everything and Less, offers an intriguing examination of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) as a tentacle of the larger megabeast that is Amazon and how the digital platform has been shaped by the business ethos of the Everything Store.

An award-winning literary critic scrutinizes how the novel may be forever changed by the age of Amazon.

Amazon, of course, started as an online bookstore, and while it's now responsible for more than half of all book sales, those sales are a shrinking piece of the company's ever-expanding pie of profits. But with KDP, which McGurl is careful to label as a platform rather than a publisher, the company has "partnered" with hundreds of thousands of writers, further increasing its stranglehold on the reading public.

Unlike a traditionally published writer, those who self-publish on KDP need to be entrepreneurs as much as, or perhaps even more than, artists. Their work, at least as assessed by Amazon, is a product. Readers are customers. The same principles that make customers click on a suggested product have been transferred to the selling of digital books. The result is a proliferation of series and a tilt toward genre fiction, which best accommodates serial storytelling. Literary fiction, McGurl finds, is not the bailiwick of the successful KDP writer-entrepreneur. Indeed, nowadays, the saga-inspired territory once confined to the fantasy and science fiction genres has taken root in unlikely places, especially romance novels and their kinkier erotica siblings. (One of McGurl's most engaging sections looks at Fifty Shades of Grey and its seemingly millions of KDP imitators as heirs to the marriage plot novels of Jane Austen and Henry James.)

McGurl delivers the occasional sharp quip, but overall he is evenhanded in his assessment of the unimaginable amount of self-published KDP "product" he presumably had to slog through to write this book. He equitably includes examples of the reverse flow of KDP's influence, as well, as when "serious" writers such as Colson Whitehead and Viet Thanh Nguyen infuse their work with genre tropes.

But the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It neither predicts nor condemns the future. The scholarly McGurl does not always wear his erudition lightly, and portions of the book require some heavy lifting on the part of the general reader. Still, Everything and Less will speak to those who submerge themselves—whether as writers or readers, entrepreneurs or customers—into the KDP landscape, while offering much to think about, a fair bit of it dire, for those who cherish traditional publishing and still place some value in the role that gatekeepers have long played in the book industry.

An award-winning literary critic scrutinizes how the novel may be forever changed by the age of Amazon.

On the strength of the short story “The Lottery” alone, Shirley Jackson endures as one of our most important American writers. More devoted fans also cherish her novels, such as The Haunting at Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, or the inspired domestic comedy of Life Among the Savages. Yet because she wrote in such wildly different modes—gothic, comic, stark realism—it can be hard to pin Jackson down, and the woman behind the work has remained something of an enigma. The Letters of Shirley Jackson, edited by her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, makes some headway into our understanding of what made this one-of-a-kind writer tick.

A capacious collection of never-before-published letters from one of America’s most enigmatic writers

Hyman reports that his mother loved writing letters as much as she loved writing fiction and essays and that she fully expected her correspondence to be published one day. (She implored her parents to save everything she wrote to them.) Despite this forward glance toward posterity, the letters are never ponderous or myth-building. Indeed, Hyman attests that they perfectly convey his mother’s natural voice, which seems a congenial mix of insouciance, sardonic wit and exasperation. Jackson wrote these letters on her trusty manual typewriter in a kind of conversational stream of consciousness, mostly in lowercase (which requires some adjustment by the reader).

Of the 500 or so extant letters Hyman could locate, he chose about 300 for this collection, written to some 20 recipients. He has made a bit of a miscalculation, perhaps, by including so many of the early love letters Shirley wrote to her future husband (Hyman’s father, New Yorker writer and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman); the kooky, unconventional tone of their courtship could have been equally well captured in fewer pages. Once the Hymans are married and settled into their own brand of domestic and professional chaos, however, the letters become more engaging.

While the letters are largely quotidian in their concerns (Jackson learns to drive or frets about the household bills or enjoys a martini lunch with her editor), her take on life is generally entertaining and occasionally hilarious. She adroitly expresses the frustrations of trying to write amid the exigencies of motherhood and midcentury housewifery, although her prolific talents seem to win out in the end. On another, obviously unintentional level, the letters beautifully capture a bygone era when one could make a solid living writing short stories—solid enough to raise four children in a rambling house with a domestic attendant or two in ever-changing rotation.

Jackson, who died at 48, never wrote an autobiography, so her letters must stand in for a more polished view. While one feels suspicious of this collection’s elusiveness around revealing certain difficult truths about her personal life, the rough spontaneity of the letters nonetheless make this view into Jackson’s simultaneously conventional and unconventional life extremely intriguing.

A capacious collection of never-before-published letters from one of America’s most enigmatic writers makes its debut 56 years after Shirley Jackson’s death.

The concept behind Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books is nothing short of brilliant, and journalist Jess McHugh delivers on her inspired premise with insight and aplomb. As the book’s subtitle explains, she looks at the history of America through the success of 13 bestselling books, but the curveball is that these are not the sort of titles that immediately come to mind when we think of bestsellers. There’s no Gone With the Wind here, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Roots. The bestsellers McHugh explores are true megasuccesses, to be certain, each having sold tens of millions of copies. They’re even books many of us have on our shelves. But they’re probably not titles we’ve given much thought—such as Webster’s Dictionary, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book and Emily Post’s Etiquette. But according to McHugh, these books have both reflected and shaped society and the American character in ways that far surpass any novel.

This refreshing dive into American social history uses the unexpected lens of reference books, primers and how-to guides that shaped our national identity.

McHugh recounts the origins of these books as she investigates their content and influence, beginning with The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which published during our country’s infancy, and ending with two New Age self-help books that are still influential: Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life and Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Along the way she delves into Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). She also looks at books that we in the 21st century may not remember but that played seminal roles in molding many generations, including the McGuffey Readers that educated children for decades and Catharine Beecher’s 19th-century domestic guides, which defined a particular ideal of womanhood and launched many imitators.

McHugh’s well-supported argument is that while these books grew out of the particular needs and mindsets of their times, they were all built on societal underpinnings that support our national mythology: that self-reliance, self-sacrifice and self-improvement pave the road to success and to becoming a “good” American. Of course, this is a white-, Protestant- and male-centric mythology. Even something as seemingly benign as a dictionary is complicit. As Hugh reveals, Noah Webster’s impetus for his speller and dictionary was to codify the way “proper” Americans speak and write, with no room for immigrants and outsiders to dilute the language with regional or cultural variants. Historically, even sex manuals, despite their titillating aspects, generally hewed to conventional, heterosexual norms. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* was blatantly homophobic and racist, despite being published and gaining popularity on the cusp of the sexual revolution in the late 1960s.

Some of the most astute observations in this penetrating history are about how these books’ creators did not always live by the same rules they imposed upon their rank-and-file readers. McHugh’s book is essential reading—illuminating, engaging and absorbing. You’ll never look at the dictionary or cookbook on your shelf in quite the same way.

Jess McHugh’s book is essential reading—illuminating, engaging and absorbing. You’ll never look at the dictionary or cookbook on your shelf the same way.

Though their poetry, personalities and lives were vastly different, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are inextricably bound in the public imagination. Just a few years apart in age and hailing from the same Massachusetts town, these two poets pushed boundaries in their highly confessional work. Additionally, the fact that both women died by suicide fuels their legacies.

Plath and Sexton did know each other, though not well. In 1959, shortly before Plath moved to England, the two women attended a Boston writing workshop led by Robert Lowell. After class, they would convene at the bar of the Ritz-Carlton to talk poetry and, one presumes, share some intimate details from their lives. These undocumented, informal gabfests provide the thin thread with which Plath scholar Gail Crowther connects the pair in Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, her thoroughly engrossing examination of these two disparate, talented and troubled poetic geniuses.

The casual acquaintance of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton takes on a greater significance in an engrossing new study.

Crowther synthesizes Plath’s and Sexton’s individual stories into a seamless narrative. Many details will be familiar to die-hard acolytes of either or both poets—the bouts of mental illness and failure of psychiatric treatments, the turbulent marriages and sexual indiscretions, the unyielding resistance they encountered when they dared to play by their own rules—but Crowther’s clever integration of these two lives reveals the strong connections between them in new and surprising ways. For example, she rightly identifies both women as rebels who fearlessly pushed against social constraints before second-wave feminism made it more acceptable for women to bare the truth about their inner conflicts, contradictions and sexuality.

Crowther also searches for the differences between how Plath and Sexton conducted their lives—as daughters, wives, mothers and poets. Although the contrast between the orderly Plath and the wild-spirited Sexton could at times be dramatic (a difference that plays out in their poetic voices as well), there is a shared poignancy in the personal struggles these women experienced.

Since there was no fly on the wall during those martini-soaked afternoons at the Ritz, we, like Crowther, can only surmise what was said. And with little evidence to draw on beyond a few passing comments in diaries and letters, and one poem Sexton wrote after Plath’s death, Crowther perhaps speculates a bit too much about what each of these women may or may not have thought of the other. Despite this leap, she makes a convincing case that the ripple effects of Plath’s and Sexton’s not-so-quiet rebellions are still being felt. “Plath and Sexton are still with us,” she writes near the end of this passionate and affecting study, “agitating with their voices, exposing all those wrongs that still exist, and all those universal themes that will never go away: love, death, sex, pain, joy.”

In an engrossing new study, Crowther reveals the parallels between Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—two disparate, talented and troubled poetic geniuses.

Although Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel The Yearling is well known—it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939—its author has yet to receive the same level of attention. A contemporary and friend of Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Hemingway (with whom she fished) and Thomas Wolfe (with whom she shared the celebrated editor Maxwell Perkins), Rawlings captured the raw beauty and untamed wilderness of north central Florida and its denizens long before the area cut down its orange groves to make way for unbridled commercial development. Ann McCutchan offers an absorbing, affectionate and long overdue portrait of Rawlings and her writings in The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of The Yearling.

Drawing deeply on Rawlings’ archives, McCutchan chronicles the details of Rawlings’ life, from her childhood in Washington, D.C., where she won a prize in a writing contest for her story “The Reincarnation of Miss Hetty”; to her college years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she edited the literary magazine and met Charles Rawlings, who would become her first husband; to her early years as a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky, and Rochester, New York; to her eventual move to Cross Creek, Florida. There, she established herself as a writer, creating enduring, memorable portraits of rural Florida and its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman.

McCutchan looks closely at Rawlings’ letters, stories, novels and memoirs and mines the ways they reveal Rawlings’ writerly mind, her desire to probe the relationship between men and women, families and individuals, and her ability to evoke a sense of place, especially the paradise of her corner of Florida. Rawlings was also, according to McCutchan, cosmically conscious, which led her to write about the interconnections between all living things. The Life She Wished to Live is the biography that Rawlings has long deserved.

The Life She Wished to Live is the biography that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has long deserved.

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