Common Readers

As of late, I’ve been fascinated with books about books, and essays by readers of books. A few years ago, I read and loved Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf, where she reads through a particular library shelf and documents her reading experience. It’s a great book, partially because her past reading experiences as a scholar and feminist provide an engaging background for this experiment. It is also fantastic because it is such a departure from a typical scholarly work–there’s a sense of personality and adventure to it. It almost, at times, touches that fine line between fact and fiction, a sort of magical experimental work.

A year or so ago, a friend gifted me a copy of Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine, which is a biographical exploration of her own life through the lens of her favorite fictional heroines. It was such a good read that I promptly gifted it to a fellow bookworm, and plan on doing the same for all my female book-loving friends (if ya’ll are reading this, at least pretend to be surprised by your holiday/birthday gift, okay?). Although Ellis and I have very different backgrounds, I too could relate to identifying with Anne of Green Gables, or Elizabeth Bennett. I could, in fact, write my own autobiography just based off of female heroines that shaped me, which shows, I think, how universally we are all formed by those who we spend the most time with (fictional or not). A recent exercise based on Ellis’ book is to identify my own list of heroines (I highly recommend trying it… after you read Ellis, of course).

This morning I started a collection of essays by Anne Fadiman (a journalist, and famed author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) called Ex Libris. I’m only halfway through, but I’m pretty sure that everyone in the tea shop was giving me strange looks because of my constant laughter. It is snarky, and as a bookworm, her reflections on books and being a common reader resonate with me.

Fadiman’s subtitle about the common reader also reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s work in this area. She is the author of two volumes on The Common Reader, about both readers, and writers and a variety of other subjects. Off the top of my head, both Fadiman and Rose talk about Woolf in their works, and even if Ellis doesn’t talk about Woolf, it is not difficult to see the latter’s influence. It is, after all, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own that argues in favor of female authorship, and her works paved the way for these contemporary female authors to be able to write about their experiences as readers in the first place.

I have just purchased a copy of Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories, which sounds like it runs in this vein of writers writing about reading and books. I’m excited to continue this very-specific and also possibly-overly-nerdy reading streak, so if you have any additional recommendations, you should tell me via the comments!

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