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January 12, 2011

Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book ed. Sean Manning

For two days this week, I was swept up in the pleasure of Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book, which is edited by Sean Manning. A celebration of the book as object, of general bookishness which is a catch-all term including, “the tactile sensation of turning a page, the sight of my bookmark inching closer to the finish, then finally closing the book, hearing the whomp… the sense of accomplishment that brings” (from Manning’s introduction). I was certainly this book’s idea reader, but I loved it for more reasons than that I was simply predestined to do so.

This anthology was made by its diversity. The effect of this, however, was that it always took a few paragraphs to settle into each essay, each one so distinct from whatever had come before. These jarring entrances aside, it was always a pleasure to discover something new– writers male and female, old and young, an ex-solider and an ex-mobster, and even two essays in translation (yes, yes, yes! In particular because these are from China and Iran, and books as objects in these places have their own kind of stories to tell). Each essayist approaching their subject matter different, where the book itself had come from, how they brought their essay around to its point. Some of these were books lost to time or history, or books still cherished; books that had been read to death or books never read at all. Many essays begin with a portrait of the essayist as a young reader, perusing her parents’ bookshelves, and the books come to delineate family relationships, broken or otherwise. For some writers, the book in question is the only one they’ve ever kept, or else it’s just one in a vast library that fills entire houses (or two, in the case of Francine Prose).

I hadn’t heard of most of the 30 contributors to this anthology, and I knew of about as many of the books they’d brought, and yet this did not diminish my reading experience one bit. The essays were that good, and the subject matter so universal that it all resonated with me, familiar or otherwise. Some of the more notable contributors included Ray Bradbury, of course (whose piece, truthfully, was one of the weaker in the bunch), Francine Prose, Joyce Maynard, Elissa Schappell, Karen Green (who is the widow of David Foster Wallace, which I wouldn’t mention, except that it’s what her essay is about), and Karen Joy Fowler (who wrote the Jane Austen Book Club).

I loved Francine Prose’s “Andersen’s Fairy Tales”, which is about tracking down a disappeared book from childhood, about “the real book” as opposed to its impostors (which are available for sale on the internet, of course). Joyce Maynard’s “The Bible” tells her father’s story via a book she never read and doesn’t have now. And oh, I could go on and on about Julia Glass’s “Roar and More”, which is decades long– the first book she ever asked her parents to buy because she saw it read on Captain Kangaroo, and it so stayed with her that she wrote it into her own novel, and her quest for permission to quote the material introduces her to the book’s author, but only for a fleeting moment. Glorious, Anne Fadiman-esque, which is the highest compliment to be bestowed to this sort of thing.

And yes, “The Portable Dorothy Parker” by J. Courtney Sullivan, about all the girls just like her who show up in New York wanting to write like Dorothy Parker but have a different kind of life. And oh my, Rabih Alameddine and “The Carpet Baggers”, which was a novel he had in his childhood home in Lebanon– the book is lost when the house is destroyed by war, but he connects with it a few more times in a brilliant case of book fatedness. Finally, Jonathan Miles’ “Ship of Fools”, which had belonged to the mother he did everything to break away from, and then she was lost to him for good through Alzheimer’s Disease.

Books as objects are never just about the books, of course, and so this anthology encompasses the whole wide world. My only criticism of it would be the essays that plead their cases too hard against e-books and e-readers– such defensiveness is unnecessary, because the essays make the point without even trying. A book is a book, and there’s nothing else quite like it.

One thought on “Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book ed. Sean Manning”

  1. Melwyk says:

    I loved this book as well. I spread out the reading of it so that I was reading each essay separately and I agree that the diversity of voices really made this volume stand out. And of course, I love to read about how other people love their books!

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