January 30, 2023

Save the Net Books

Blogazine on Books, Arts, and Music

10 non-fiction books about the stories behind books

This content contains affiliate links. If you shop through these links, we may receive an affiliate commission.

For those of us who love both fiction and nonfiction, there’s a specific category of books that conflates these loves: nonfiction about books. Although I sometimes read literary biography, history, and criticism, there is one particular category that governs them all. I love the books that delve into the fascinating stories behind literary phenomena. Because books, even uniquely odd fiction that looks like it must have sprung from an author’s fully formed brain, don’t really come out of nowhere. They reflect the time around them. Authors inevitably get their ideas from somewhere. A book’s impact can extend beyond those who have read it or even people who have ever heard of it.

These are the stories I long for. Having more context for books I love, like my troubled favorite Little House on the Prairie, enriches my understanding of the series as an adult without distracting from my childhood memories. Then there are books that I hate, like Go Ask Alice. Reading about the horrors this book contributed to, such as the so-called War on Drugs, fuels my righteous anger. It is very exciting to share this niche collection of books with you. I know if this category of books appeals to you, you will eagerly peruse this list. So let’s get meta with these books on books.

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman

This absolutely gripping book is a mixture of true crime thriller and literary criticism. The author makes a very compelling argument for how much Vladimir Nabokov borrowed from the true story of Sally Horner’s kidnapping by a serial child molester in writing his best-known novel, Lolita. The story is obviously heartbreaking. It’s sad to see how many people, none of whom are keen readers, think that Lolita is a love story and not a horror novel. It’s even sadder to see the real exploitation behind the inspiration.

Cover of the Phillis Wheatley trials

The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

This lyrical book traces the Black American literary tradition back to one author. Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved woman in Massachusetts originally born in West Africa. She achieved her emancipation after the publication of her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Wheatley was famous in her day and deserves to be better known today. She rubbed elbows with many influential figures of the time and was quite famous herself. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. unearths the narratives and discourses that have formed around Wheatley’s work, and particularly Thomas Jefferson’s views on it.

Coverage of prairie fires

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams by Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

For anyone like me trying to keep my childhood fondness for the Little House on the Prairie series alongside the very valid criticism of it, this book is a must. Honestly, it’s a must-read for anyone who could use a well-researched history of the pioneer days. Pa’s famously rugged individualism as portrayed in the books is slightly countered by the historical record, as Caroline Fraser carefully points out. The book also chronicles the strained and complex relationship between Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose. This book relates to the Phillis Wheatley book above by showing how narratives of the past that are held to be common beliefs often merit a more critical look.

True Story Newsletter

Subscribe to True Story for nonfiction news, new releases and upcoming must-read titles.

Thanks for signing up! Keep an eye on your inbox.

By registering, you agree to our terms of use

Cover of The Wonderful Thieves

Marvelous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights by Paulo Lemos Horta

When I first read Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, I was entranced and enjoyed each of Scheherazade’s intricate stories. Folk tales have no clear authors, but this book has passed through many different languages ​​and editions on its way to immortality. Because of this, many different people are connected. With a story similar to Scheherazade’s, the author weaves a tale of truth and fabrication, authorship and plagiarism that will enchant you too.

Debunk Alice cover

Debunk Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Impostor Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson

Did you read Go Ask Alice as an adult? How could anyone ever believe it was written by someone who really lived through the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the 1960s and 1970s? Nonetheless, the book contributed to the moral panic that led to the War on Drugs. Its sequel, Jay’s Journal, helped start the satanic panic. This captivating book is ideal for those of us who love to hate a scam story. It details the lies upon lies that have made the career of Beatrice Sparks, author of Go Ask Alice and Jay’s Journal.

Blockbuster cover

Blockbuster! Fergus Hume & The Mystery of a Hansom Cab by Lucy Sussex

How about some Australian literary history? Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was a book written to promote the author’s name on the Melbourne theater scene. But it became Australia’s first literary hit and a worldwide success. But Hume sold the copyright for £50 and missed out on the fortune his book made for other people. Dive into the history of crime fiction, publishing, the book trade and collecting, this book is lively and even garrulous.

cover of in search of the color purple

In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece by Salamishah Tillet

One of the things I love about the books behind the books is how genre-bending they can be. This book tells the story behind Alice Walker’s masterpiece The Color Purple. Combining cultural criticism, literary history, biography, and even memoir, it delves deep into a novel that was so important to the intersectional understanding of so many people of race and gender. Fans of the book, as well as the film and the Broadway musical, will appreciate this intimate and comprehensive book.

Covering a dice roll

One Toss of the Dice: The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern by R. Howard Bloch

While I don’t always buy what they sell, I’ve always been fascinated by books that aim to distill an entire historical era or cultural phenomenon to a specific point of origin. Here is one of those books. It lays the entire modernist movement at the feet of a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. Could it be true that an 1897 poem about a shipwreck that can somehow be finished influenced contemporary web design? You have to read to find out.

Cover of the beautiful cigar girl

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Fiction of the Murder by Daniel Stashower

Here’s another entry exploring the intersection between true crime and literary history that I find so fascinating. Edgar Allan Poe is often credited with creating detective fiction through his character C. Auguste Dupin. One of his Dupin stories, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, was based on the real murder of Mary Rogers. This murder was one of the first to become a true media spectacle in the United States. The crime was unsolved when Poe began fitting it. You know, he would have started a podcast about it if he had the ability. Instead, he attempted to solve the mystery through his own fiction. Read this to find out how that went for him.

Black ink cover

Black Ink: Literary Legends of the Danger, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver

This book does not present the story behind any single book. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful book that traces black literary history as treated by notable black writers today. Reading and writing are recreational pursuits for many of us, but historically this has not been the case for African Americans. Drawing from the works of writers who are no longer with us, such as Frederick Douglass and Maya Angelou, as well as contemporary writers such as Roxane Gay and Colson Whitehead, this book offers many perspectives on literature and literacy.

If you also love books about books, you will never run out of this special category. We have summarized 10 current novels about books. And if you want more nonfiction, this list of 100 must-read books is more than half nonfiction!