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Bookworm bait

Books | Great writers are great reminders of the joys of reading

Issue: "Question of Faith," April 5, 1997

Recently I have been reading about reading. I have been delving into these books about books in preparation for a class I am currently teaching, but I have found them so entertaining that I may just make a habit of it. Three of them particularly merit revisiting.

Brightest Heaven of Invention by Peter Leithart purports to be a Christian guide to six Shakespearean plays. But it is far more than that. In addition to providing an excellent introduction to Henry V, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and Taming of the Shrew, it also is a bracing tonic of history, theology, literary theory, social criticism, and practical application. I have been a student of Shakespeare for years, but I have never had a more able or enjoyable instructor than Mr. Leithart.

Introduction to Dickens is a splendidly succinct guide to all of the major works by the Victorian literary phenomenon Charles Dickens. Written by the renowned literary biographer Peter Ackroyd, the book follows the great novelist through every stage of his wildly imaginative and astonishingly productive career. But in the process, it also highlights the extraordinary times that colored the speculative masterpieces that make up the Dickensian canon. Indeed, Mr. Ackroyd's vivid prose, historical insights, and critical asides are nearly as pleasurable to read as the novels he describes. I'll never be able to read Oliver Twist, Bleak House, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, or my favorite, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in quite the same way again.

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Bookworms by Laura Furman and Elinore Standard is the quintessential book about books. It is an anthology of letters, essays, reviews, and epigrams by great writers about the joys of literary adventuring. Here Jane Austen extols the pleasures of reading aloud; Eudora Welty recalls the ecstacy of childhood discoveries at the local library; William Faulkner waxes eloquent about lazy belletristic sojourns upon the front porch; Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes the sundry varieties of readers; James Joyce reflects on the importance of reading Shakespeare as opposed to merely attending the theater; and John Keats defends the unmitigated virtue of literary hedonism.

The editors, whose own wide-ranging reading is evident on every page, have collected a celebration of bibliophilia suitable for the inveterate bookworm, those remarkable souls C.S. Lewis called "the euphoric hallucinators."

Reading about reading in books about books may appear to be more than a little esoteric for those not particularly inclined to bookishness, but these three books are manna for the mind.

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