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What We’re Reading: Help, I’m lost in a maze of books about books

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Titles include "The Sinner and the Saint" by Kevin Birmingham, "The Young H.G. Wells" by Claire Tomalin and others.

Titles include "The Sinner and the Saint" by Kevin Birmingham, "The Young H.G. Wells" by Claire Tomalin and others. (Christopher Borrelli/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

I’ve been reading new books about books.

Even a few books about books about books. Frankly, it got out of hand, got away from me — became a whole thing, as the kids say. Like trying every pizza within a single ZIP code, or watching every episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” in eight days. When I got a PlayStation 20 years ago I played through the night, until the morning glowed behind sad lowered window blinds and I sat, disoriented. Maybe you have a subject you read about over and over. Whales, World War II, witches. Maybe you read anything about Wisconsin. Whatever. Eventually, you raise your head, the sun rises and you wonder how you arrived here. For me, it’s books about books, writers, reading itself.

This latest dive, it was deep.

It began in early October, with Matthew Sturgis’ perfectly sprightly “Oscar Wilde: A Life” (Knopf, $40) which pauses improbably for a few pages in Chicago just after the Great Fire, where Wilde, rising star and quip machine, found his most enthusiastic American audiences. And that was despite describing Water Tower on Michigan Avenue as an “abuse” of Gothic art, then saying of the rebuilt Chicago: “It is a little sad to think of all the millions of money spent on buildings and so little architecture.” Still, he was in love with the locals — and so shocked to learn that the rest of Illinois is not Chicago. (Only 52 people came to see him in Joliet.) A decade later, he would be arrested on charges of sodomy and gross indecency, and face prosecutor Horace Avory — the same guy who, I learned in “Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane” (Holt, $35), prosecuted the wife of writer (and Crane buddy) Harold Frederic for manslaughter after she decided to care for the ailing Frederic with a Christian Science tenet of prayer.

Who cares about the prosector of a wife of a friend of a famous writer?

You do!

“Burning Boy,” a 700-plus page biography of an author best known for a single thin middle-school classic (“The Red Badge of Courage”), is itself a deep, sweaty, infectious dig beneath every upturned rock in the life of Crane, who died at only 29. Paul Auster, fiction writer, literary biographer here, excerpts whole chunks of Crane’s writings, and makes such a convincing case for the guy, it’s almost expected when H.G. Wells arrives late, convinced that Crane may be the best living writer of English in 50 years. It’s a moving final act. The pair are only friends for a year when Crane dies. But it’s plenty for Wells who, presumably, writes enough books to deliver the promise Crane might have fulfilled. Indeed, though it only covers 40 years, “The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World” (Penguin, $28), from the great British literary biographer Claire Tomalin, could have also been titled “The Burning Boy.” After “The Time Machine” cements the author’s fame, Wells proceeds to write 100 more books. Like most artists who outlive their spark, that early stuff (“Invisible Man,” “War of the Worlds,” “Food of the Gods”) burns brightest.

Which brought me to Halloween.

And “The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination” (University of Chicago Press, $30), which made the case for “War of the Worlds” (and Batman, Robinson Crusoe, etc.) as mythology that could only resonate now, drawing on fears of alienation, science, capitalism. Which then led to an often heartbreaking book on how books of myths endure centuries of flood, fire and Philistines, “The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts” (Basic, $30) — which led to “The Taking of Jemima Boone” (Harper, $28), a history of actual legend, the 1776 kidnapping of the daughter of pioneer Daniel Boone by a Cherokee-Shawnee raiding party. Theodore Roosevelt himself would write that Jemima’s story read like something out of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” when, in fact, as journalist Matthew Pearl recounts in “The Taking,” it was the inspiration, likely accepted later by Jemima Boone as “a kind of dramatized Boone family biography.”

Slapping it shut, the next step was “The Sinner and the Saint” (Penguin, $30) by Kevin Birmingham, whose “The Most Dangerous Book,” a 2014 history of “Ulysses,” set a standard for cultural excavations of individual books. “Sinner” is even more of an epic, a snapshot of crime in 19th century Russia, as seen by Dostoevsky. Who would know the subject. He was exiled for nine years to a Siberian prison, which lead to his own obsession with Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, a wealthy ax murderer. Which inspired Dostoevsky to write “Crime and Punishment.” Gruesome fun fact: As Lacenaire waited to be executed, he somehow managed to contort his body to face the guillotine blade.

I know.

By the middle of November, literary history was so harrowing, it was — almost, not quite — a relief to burrow into somewhat fictional histories of writers, one real (Thomas Mann, subject of Colm Toibin’s absorbing “The Magician”), one seemingly more alive. Jason Mott’s “Hell of a Book” (Dutton, $27) — which just won the National Book Award for fiction — tells the story of a successful Black author on a book tour, steadily losing focus and cool as a legacy of racism spreads outward. A (possibly imaginary) Black child begins appearing to him. Recalling a reading in San Francisco, the author notes sobs in the audience, and thinks, whatever his book is about, “it must be something powerful.”

“Hell of a Book” reads breezily enough — though for the record, it’s about grief. As is, in a sense, “A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick” (Norton, $35), a melancholy portrait of the influential critic and fiction writer whose greatest works seem to await her, and await her still, as she struggles to care for, calm down and nurture her troubled husband, poet Robert Lowell, whose bipolar disorder (and history of infidelities) subsumes her own career for decades. As biographer Cathy Curtis writes, “(Hardwick) realized that she couldn’t divorce someone who was not the person she married.”

By Thanksgiving, gorged on literary lives, I just wanted books again.

Hence, the endearing “Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller” (FSG, $27), smug/grating “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon” (Verso, $30), undercooked “Read Until Your Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature” (Norton, $27), and lastly, “Around the World in 80 Books” (Penguin, $30), a wonderful armchair binge in itself. David Damrosch, professor of comparative literature at Harvard, who took a cue from Phileas Fogg, of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” and the solitude brought on by the pandemic, to skip across the planet, via print. The Paris of Marcel Proust lands him in the Poland of Primo Levi.

The Nigeria of Adichie leads eventually to the Brazil of Lispector, who whisks him, in time, to E.B. White puttering around the Maine coastline. He proposes an 81st book, reader’s choice, and thanks, but for the time being, I’m feeling sunny in Philadelphia.



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