How novel: books about books and the joy of reading

Books goes meta-fictional and multi-story with our list of mega tales about telling tales

Tue, May 13, 2014, 01:19

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1818)

Austen’s first novel, published posthumously, may not have as much finesse as her later more famous works but Northanger Abbey is an archetype of contemporary teenage fan fiction, a book that lays out the trials and tribulations of its heroine Catherine Morland as she grows up, branches out and learns from her mistakes. Influenced by her love of Gothic romance fiction, Catherine is given to wild fantasies and imaginations, until some hard real-life truths bring her to her senses. Austen uses her heroine’s escapades to poke fun at the self-importance of her contemporary literary critics and their pejorative views of the novel. “It is only a novel ... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

The Princess Bride, William Goldman (1973)

Presented as an abridgement to a fictional book, The Princess Bride by S Morgenstern, Goldman’s fantasy romance novel takes the adventure stories told to him as a child by his father and repackages the “good parts” in his comic tale of adventure and revenge. Set in the country of Florin, the beautiful Buttercup and her farmhand lover Westley battle against princes and thieves in a picaresque epic that subverts its fairytale origins. Hit with middle-age disillusionment, Goldman’s retelling of the stories that inspired him as a child are also an appraisal on his own performance as husband and writer, and his desire to rekindle the spark. One of the most memorable characters in the book is Spanish fencer Inigo, who helps Westley fight the prince. Fans of the book, and of the 1987 film adaptation starring Mandy Patinkin, will be familiar with his battle cry: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (1980)

Cited by some as the intellectual reader’s Da Vinci Code, Umberto Eco’s postmodernist debut is about murder in a 14th-century monastery. Taking place in northern Italy, The Name of the Rose combines historical murder mystery with literary criticism, medieval studies and semiotics. Travelling north to a monastery to attend a lecture on theological disputation, Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his novice Adso learn of an alleged suicide when they arrive at their destination. As more monks die in mysterious circumstances, William is tasked by the abbot to find the culprit. With a huge medieval library on hand to help him, in addition to fresh clues following each murder, the hero of the Italian philosopher and semiotician’s novel sets about unravelling the mysteries, using the very postmodern view that all texts refer to other texts as a basis for deduction.

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