What makes a book nerd? Reading a lot of books — and liking to talk about said books — is a major requirement, of course, but there’s often something a little more nebulous involved: book nerds are the kinds of people who get a little thrill when walking into a bookstore, who press volumes into their friends’ hands with serious promises of life changing moments, who are fascinated by following the many tangled threads through authors and literature, happily wandering wherever they might lead. Robin Sloan’s recently published Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book for such people — if you can’t already tell from the title. If you count yourself among them (or are looking for a gift for the same), we’ve put together a list of books you might want to consider taking a look at. Click through to read through our list of essential books for book nerds — and since you’re probably not a true book nerd if you’re satisfying with ten, add your own picks to our list in the comments!
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore , Robin Sloan
Man, is this book fun — especially for any book nerd who isn’t in denial about living in the modern age. If you love physical books (the smell! the feel!) but wouldn’t give up your iPhone for any reason, if you like puzzles and geeky allusions and bookish cults and quests, then this book is for you. It also glows in the dark.
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much , Allison Hoover Bartlett
This book is, as its subtitle suggests, “the true story of a thief, a detective, and a world of literary obsession.” In the early 2000s, John Gilkey used appropriated credit card numbers to steal over $100,000 worth of rare books before he was caught. Using Gilkey as a starting point, Bartlett explores bibliomania in its many forms, treating us to vignettes about those who have let their love of books overtake them, in an attempt to deconstruct the truth behind “people’s intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous relationship to books.” If you can imagine yourself sleeping in the kitchen because your library has consumed the rest of your house (or think that idea is terrifying but charming), you may enjoy this book. Just hopefully not too much.
The Book Thief , Markus Zusak
Now here’s a thief of a different color. This novel, which The New York Times dubbed Harry Potter and the Holocaust, follows a young foster child in Munich with a penchant for stealing books — even before she knows how to read. Somehow managing to be irrepressibly whimsical and dark at once (yes, like Harry), the books in this novel are precious treasures — sort of like this novel itself.
Books: A Memoir, Larry McMurtry
We’re pretty confident crowning McMurtry — legendary bookseller, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and collector of rare books — the king of book nerds. We hope he’d take that as a compliment. In this memoir, he describes a life built around pursuing books, relating some 50-odd years of books, book selling and book culture in America, so we’re betting he wouldn’t mind the title.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler , Italo Calvino
For the meta-book nerd in us all. Take a breath: Calvino’s classic is a book about reading a book called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, in which the main character is at once you, the reader, and the proverbial you, and you, some other reader. But don’t worry, you’re in good hands. The novel starts with a few calming phrases: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade…” And fade it will.
Nick Hornby is famed not only for his novels but also for Stuff I’ve Been Reading, his column on books and yes, reading in The Believer. In this, the first collection of said columns, he writes, “Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go 15 rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. The Magic Flute v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. The Last Supper v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on point And every now and again you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature 29 times out of 30.” Now that, folks, is a man after our own hearts. Note: we also recommend More Baths, Less Talking , Hornby’s most recent collection of columns.
Phantoms On the Bookshelves , Jacques Bonnet
Bonnet takes books pretty seriously. After all, he has more than forty thousand of them, acquired over four decades of reading, fueled by constant collecting and a perhaps greater than average disinclination to give up or give away a book. This memoir is a tribute to a library, yes, but also a treatise on the joys of reading, the way one incorporates books into oneself, the way books can be partners, or at least agreeable companions, on the rollicking journey through life.
Reading Lolita in Tehran , Azar Nafisi
Once a week for two years, Azar Nafisi would gather a group of students to read Western classics, forbidden in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Accordingly, Nafisi’s “memoir in books” is divided into four sections: “Lolita,” “Gatsby,” “James,” and “Austen,” each allowing her to view a different time in her life through a literary classic, interspersing the discussions she had with her book club with her expulsion from her job, the Iran-Iraq war, and her decision to leave. Touching and inspired, book nerds should not be put off by the fact that their mothers have all read this book in their own book clubs.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader , Anne Fadiman
In this slim but excellent book of essays gleaned from the column Fadiman wrote for Civilization magazine, the anything-but-common writer describes a life with books, from a childhood where “not only did my family walk around spouting sesquipedalians, but we viewed all forms of intellectual competition as a sacrament, a kind of holy water as it were, to be slathered on at every opportunity” to the difficult decision to merge her library with her husband’s after a mere five years of marriage. We can totally relate.
How can you impress your fellow book nerds at literary cocktail parties? Why, with a bit of literary trivia, which Bibliotopia has in spades — everything from milestones to parts of the book to “Some Horror Writers’ Offcial Websites.” For serious geeks only.