The best books about books (and the authors who write them)

Who am I?

In the wake of her father’s death, Katharine Smyth turned to her favorite novel, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief. Her book about the experience, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, was published by Crown in 2019 and named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Smyth’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Elle, The New York Times, Literary Hub, Poets & Writers, and The Point.


I wrote...

All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf

By Katharine Smyth,

Book cover of All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf

What is my book about?

Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf's modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death--a calamity that claimed her favorite person--she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief.

Smyth's story moves between the New England of her childhood and Woolf's Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploring universal questions about family, loss, and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of To the Lighthouse, and her artful adaptation of its groundbreaking structure, Smyth guides us toward a new vision of Woolf's most demanding and rewarding novel--and crafts an elegant reminder of literature's ability to clarify and console.

The books I picked & why

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Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

By Geoff Dyer,

Book cover of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence

Why this book?

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence is Geoff Dyer’s sprawling, hilarious account of trying to write a book about the writer who made him want to write. As Dyer tracks Lawrence across the globe—from Greece to Italy to England to Mexico to New Mexico—he delights in the unexpected parallels he discovers between himself and his literary idol (“We are skinny, narrow-shouldered men, Lawrence and I”) and suggests that we follow in the footsteps of our favorite writers “to claim kin with them, to be guided by them.”


My Life in Middlemarch: A Memoir

By Rebecca Mead,

Book cover of My Life in Middlemarch: A Memoir

Why this book?

Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch tells the story of Mead’s lifelong relationship with George Eliot and that writer’s greatest novel. As well as tracing the arc of Eliot’s biography and exploring its uncanny reverberations in Mead’s own life, Mead investigates the way in which her understanding of Middlemarch changed as she did. In a passage I might have written of my own evolving grasp of To the Lighthouse, she writes, “There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows… This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before.”


The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

By Elif Batuman,

Book cover of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

Why this book?

This is a compilation of essays about Batuman’s experience of studying Russian literature at Stanford. Wondering about “possible methods for bringing one’s life closer to one’s favorite books,” Batuman traces the literal and figurative path of writers such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Babel, finding answers in their life and work while at the same time exploring their influence upon a motley group of Slavic scholars and readers.


U and I: A True Story

By Nicholson Baker,

Book cover of U and I: A True Story

Why this book?

In U and I: A True Story, the death of Donald Barthelme inspires Nicholson Baker to write a book about his obsession with John Updike while his muse is still alive. Coining the term “memory criticism,” which he defines as “a form of commentary that relies entirely on what has survived in a reader’s mind from a particular writer over at least ten years of spotty perusal,” Baker embarks upon a wildly entertaining meditation that reveals as much about the writing process as it does about Updike (and Baker) himself.


Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels

By Rachel Cohen,

Book cover of Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels

Why this book?

“About seven years ago,” Rachel Cohen writes at the beginning of Austen Years, “not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author.” Weaving together memoir, biography, history, and literary criticism, Cohen draws upon five of Austen’s novels to make sense of her own life and work as she raises young children, moves across the country, and grapples with her father’s death. The result is a brilliant and beautiful reflection upon family and loss, isolation and transcendence, and reading and rereading.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the creative process, travel, and mourning?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the creative process, travel, and mourning.

The Creative Process Explore 24 books about the creative process
Travel Explore 149 books about travel
Mourning Explore 76 books about mourning

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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