Erin Blakemore’s The Heroine’s Bookshelf
HarperCollins, 2010

Have a favourite book that you tend to revisit when times get tough? Or maybe at just any ol’ time that you find yourself missing the characters therein?

Perhaps you have a fondness for Jane Eyre, or you can’t help but re-read Little Women over the winter holidays, or you played Anne-and-Diana when you were a girl.

Did I just describe you and all your bookishness? (I’m in the last bit there, myself.)

If you have special literary favourites that offer comfort — or inspiration or joy or solace or an outlet for sorrow — I think you’ll love Erin Blakemore’s new book, The Heroine’s Bookshelf.

For those who do the gift-giving thing this time of year it’s perfectly stocking-sized, but I’d suggest buying it for yourself, now, instead.

Why? Because I just picked up my copy last week thinking (to be honest) that — although I had every good intention of reading it on the sooner side — there are few months as busy as December and it’d probably end up lingering on my shelves for ages.

And I read it in a day. And here’s why that amazed me.

Take December. Make it suddenly cold. The kind of cold that makes you realize that the gloves and scarf you’ve been wearing now require second layers.

Next, take a horribly uncomfortable and noisy day-trip out-of-town (on the bus, even though I hate the bus and would always, always, always choose the train).

And, finally, take a day-trip which I knew was going to hold a dozen kinds of sadness (so there is the dreading of the sadness first, followed by in-your-face sadness, with all-soaked-in sadness afterwards).

And yet, somehow, I managed to read all of The Heroine’s Bookshelf. From start to finish. I really can’t remember the last time that I read so steadily on this kind of trip. (The last time I read 40 pages and spent the rest of the time staring.)

I’m not sure how much of this sense of satisfaction resides with Erin Blakemore’s book itself, and how much resides in my own fondness for so many of the books that she so obviously loves (so you have that sense of knowing someone better than you actually do because you feel that loving and admiring the same characters and stories makes you what Anne Shirley would call ‘kindred spirits’).

But I’m not even sure that matters. I think that’s intended to be part of the appeal, part of what the reader is left with. When she talks about how much re-reading her favourite novels has meant to her at various times in her life, you can’t help but revisit your own fictional re-visits, and that brings you into the reading of The Heroine’s Bookshelf in a unique way that can’t help but feel comfy for us bookish types.

Not that this slim volume is all-about-Erin-Blakemore. You do have a sense of the author, but you get a much clearer picture of the authors of the books discussed therein. (There are pics of the featured authors at the book’s site and if you follow the bookseller links, you can peek inside.)

“These heroines’ messages couldn’t exist without the strife from which they were written, and the power of each story is magnified by the triumphs and failures that followed. Knowing the rest of the story deepens the act of reading itself.”

There is a brief biography of each author that offers highlights that often coincide with the themes of their best known fiction. I enjoyed some of these more than others. For instance, I’ve read a lot about L.M. Montgomery –verging towards obsessiveness — so even though Anne was one of my most treasured literary heroines, a few pages of biographical summary about her author wasn’t a boon for me. But more importantly, the biographies of the writers about whom I knew very little (er, nothing) were fascinating.

I didn’t think I had much of an interest in, for instance, either Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell, but Erin Blakemore’s chapters that took them as their subject whetted my appetite for literary biography in the best way possible.

And as for their masterpieces? Well, I didn’t think ANYthing would EVER make me want to re-read Gone with the Wind… but… and you know what I’m going to say, don’t you.

Because chances are, if you’ve read this far, you’re something of a kindred spirit on that score too.

Chances are that The Heroine’s Bookshelf would make you want to re-read an old favourite too.

Why doncha test that theory?

PS I plan to test it myself tomorrow. Yup, I’m joining my first challenge of 2011.