Five Books about Books

There are so many books out there that we’ve all got reading lists a mile long. Our shelves groan and overspill, but I bet you’ve got room for a few more. Today I’ve got a list for you of five book written about the subject of books- I’m talking book-binding, ‘biographies’ of publishing houses, and histories of bookish groups and people from throughout time. Definitely gift potential for your bookish friends.

ONE- Simon Winchester, ‘The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary


“Hidden within the rituals of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating mystery. Professor James Murray was the distinguished editor of the OED project. Dr. William Chester Minor, an American surgeon who had served in the Civil War, was one of the most prolific contributors to the dictionary, sending thousands of neat, hand-written quotations from his home … in addition to being a masterly wordsmith, he was also an insane murderer locked up in Broadmoor.”

Take biographical stories, add some sensationalism and a copy of the most famous book in the world, shake it with psychiatric history and garnish with excellent writing and you end up with this book. The OED is not just a dictionary- it traces the etymology of every word it contains: as such, you’ll understand why this centuries-old story is full of its own microhistorical asides. There’s the American Civil War, Broadmoor, Sri Lanka, Irish-Americans and all kinds of other topics touched on, but the main story revolves around Prof James Murray (editing the ‘definitive’ edition of the dictionary) and William Chester Minor (asylum patient, making Murray’s job more complicated). If you read because you literally like the words, the flow and rhythm, then this is the book for you.

TWO- Markus Zusak, ‘The Book Thief’

This is an extraordinary novel set in Nazi-ruled Germany, which tells the personal story of a little girl who understands the value of books as salvation and balm for those who are suffering. She steals the occasional book, her father teaches her to read, and she shares her stories with the Jewish man hiding in her family’s basement. The book is also narrated by Death, whichallows the author a good deal of room to ponder and speculate about the limits of human endurance, and human kindness.

the book thief.jpeg

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

THREE- Robin Dodd, From Gutenberg to OpenType: An Illustrated History of Type from the Earliest Letterforms to the Latest Digital Fonts

Dodd’s work focuses on the peculiar history of typefaces and fonts, with his insight and ideas attached to detailed and comprehensive illustrations. It’s full of information that will interest anyone who works in design, or who has a passionate interest in the changing fashions of font. You’ll never be able to type a simple email again.


FOUR- Alison Hoover Bartlett, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession


In this text, author Bartlett traces the story of rare-book thief John Charles Gilkey; a man unmotivated be greed or money, but purely by his love of books. In telling this story, the author weaves a careful web of details, exploring the history of literary passion, the psychological phenomenon of collecting, and the inherent romance of books and the written word.

“The difference between a person who appreciates books, even loves them, and a collector is not only degrees of affection, I realized. For the former, the bookshelf is a kind of memoir; there are my childhood books, my college books, my favorite novels, my inexplicable choices. Many matchmaking and social networking websites offer a place for members to list what they’re reading for just this reason: books can reveal a lot about a person. This is particularly true of the collector, for whom the bookshelf is a reflection not just of what he has read but profoundly of who he is: ‘Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they can come alive in him; it is he who comes alive in them…”

FIVE-Phil Baines, “Penguin by Design: A Cover Story, 1935 – 2005


Everyone who is interested in books as objects, as art, or as history must learn about Penguin books and Allen Lane. Lane was an avant-garde business man with a socialist edge and wild ideas, occupying a space at the centre of Penguin for decades. Why not read a blog post from the archives about his ‘Penguincubator‘ here? (hint: it’s a vending machine for books).

This clever book charts the history of cover design from the iconic three band covers to today’s high-impact dust jackets with aplomb. It takes in all of the turmoil in the publishing industry and contemporary domestic politics, and gives amazing technical details about the type-setting department and the particular designers who worked with Penguin. It’s the best coffee-table book you could get for someone who loves reading.

If you liked this post, or have a better suggestion for a book about books that should have made this list, then leave a comment below or find The Slow Pulse on all major social media portals- check the ‘contacts‘ page for more information.


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