Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani – review

Published by William Collins

Publication date – 20 October 2020

Source – review copy

For legendary literary critic Michiko Kakutani, books have always been an escape and a sanctuary, the characters of some novels feeling so real to her childhood self that she worried they might leap out of the pages at night if she left the book cover open. In Ex Libris, she offers a personal selection of over 100 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, with passionate essays on why each has had a profound effect on her life.

From Homer’s The Odyssey to The Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Ex Libris covers a rich and vast range of classics, old and new, that will help build a well-rounded reader and citizen of the world. With gorgeous illustrations by lettering artist Dana Tanamachi that evoke vintage bookplates leafed between Kakutani’s inspiring essays, Ex Libris points us to our next great read – and proves an unmissable reminder of why we fell in love with reading in the first place.

From political speeches to Shakespeare’s plays and all literary roads in between, Ex Libris sees book critic Michiko Kakutani look at over 100 books that have had an effect on her life.

It is inevitable, given the author’s background as chief Book Critic at The New York Times, that these pages read as literary criticism, albeit, each one positively analysed. The page or two dedicated to each book expounds on the delights the title holds or the how the political landscape they discuss can be held up as a mirror to today.

What is also perhaps inevitable, is that the majority of the books chosen are by US authors, emigres or otherwise. This is not a negative, but may mean that for some readers, the books selected are ones they are not familiar with.

Also this is a curated selection of books, not novels. That is an important distinction. Here are selected political works, memoirs, books on science as well as fictional works.

As with all such lists, this is very much a personal selection. One reader’s best book will be another’s most loathed. I find books such as these fascinating, for not only do they help highlight books that may have passed a reader by, they also give an insight into another person’s reading habits, making the a solo hobby more of a group affair.

The book itself is stunning to look at, it’s pages of literary analysis interspersed with beautiful illustrations of the covers of some of the titles discussed. There are even a few pages of notes at the back, so the reader can annotate their thoughts (or perhaps created a shopping list).

There were some books discussed I had never heard of, many I had but hadn’t read, a couple I have copies of waiting to fulfil their purpose and be read, and even one or two that I had actually read.

As with all books about books, book lists and book recommendations, there will be titles included in here that another reader will disagree with. There will also be those books where the inclusion will find the reader nodding furiously in agreement. There will even be details of those books that have passed a reader by, but which will attract the eye and perhaps allow someone to discover a gem of their own.

About the Author

Michiko Kakutani is a Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic and the former chief book critic of The New York Times. She is also the author of the New York Times bestseller The Death of Truth.

About the Illustrator

Dana Tanamachi is a lettering artist and designer who specializes in custom typography and illustration. She has been commissioned by Target, Nike, USPS, Ralph Lauren, Instagram, West Elm, O, The Oprah Magazine and Time.

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