This list of books on historical books was originally published in our historical fiction newsletter, Past Tense. Sign up for it here to get historical fiction recs straight to your inbox!
If there’s anything a bookworm loves more than books, it’s books on books. After all, we love talking about books and reading books, so why wouldn’t we want to read about books, too? I’m charmed by books like The Cat Who Saved Books and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore set in bookshops. And few books have hit closer to my heart than The Sentence, set in a fictionalized version of author Louise Erdrich’s bookstore, or The Book Thief, about a girl who saves books from being burned in Nazi Germany. It probably has something to do with the fact that few things are closer than a bibliophiles heart than books, so stories that look into the sacred space that books hold in our hearts will of course hit a little harder.
And those books focused on the subject of books, libraries, and bookstores aren’t confined to the world of fantasy, romance, or contemporary fiction, either. There are plenty of historical fiction books that explore the importance of words and literature, too. These four are just a few of my favorite.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
False dictionary entries plague a digitization effort for the two employee’s of Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary in present day London. Between trying to sort out the fake words, Mallory has to contend with threatening phone calls and bomb threats. More than one hundred years before, in Swansby’s heyday, a lexicographer named Peter Winceworth adds words of his own invention to the dictionary, finding creative freedom and purpose in the small rebellion. Getting to see the creation of the dictionary–and the false entries–alongside the modern day efforts to keep it going make this book particularly engaging.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Divorced, childless, and godless, Aaliya Sohbi is merely tolerated by her family. She lives alone in a Beruit apartment, surrounded by books. But Aaliya has a secret: every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic and stockpiles it away. No one else has ever read them. An Unnecessary Woman is equal parts portrait of an aging, reclusive woman with incredible talent and a love letter to literature.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Esme, the only daughter of a lexicographer working on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, grew up alongside words and definitions. She loves and treasures them as other children might fallen trinkets. And as she becomes a woman alongside the fight for women’s suffrage in England and the First World War, she begins to see the bias of a dictionary written by white, middle- and upper-class men. But Esme has been collecting and transcribing her own words–the ones deemed too crass or unimportant for the OED–and she knows they are just as worthy of documentation as all the rest.
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
In 1660s London, an immigrant from Amsterdam is permitted to scribe for a blind Rabbi just before the plague overwhelms the city. In present day, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history attempts to solve one last mystery: the identity of a mysterious scribe from a cache of newly discovered seventeenth-century Jewish documents. The lives of these two women of incredible intellect intertwine, despite existing hundreds of years apart.