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Books That Belong Together

I'm a big believer that books, like people, can have partners: there are pairs of books that complement each other and belong together. With some books, as soon as you mention one, someone is bound to mention the other. Obviously, this applies to sequels and prequels. If you say you like Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, someone is likely to ask you if you've yet read Bring Up the Bodies. And vice versa. But other pairings are more subtle or oblique.

When my mother was dying of pancreatic cancer, she and I formed a very small book club, one with only the two of us. I wrote about this club in The End of Your Life Book Club. Our reading selections were often determined somewhat arbitrarily. One of us would hear or read about a book and suggest it to the other. Or we would choose to read some book we'd always intended to read. Or we would read a book simply because someone gave one of us a copy. But often, one book led to another. This got me thinking about these literary pairs, and so I decided to try to list here a few of the types of relationships that one book can have with another.

1) Whenever I'm reading a great work of historical fiction, I try to find a compelling book of history that covers the same period to read right after it. Kevin Baker's phenomenal Paradise Alley is a work of historical fiction, written in 2002 and set against the background of the New York Civil War draft riots. Eager to learn more about this period, I eventually read a book that Baker would go on to praise, Barnet Schecter's 2005 history, The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America. In my mind, these books are now forever linked.

Similarly, Meyer Levin's Compulsion, a 1956 novel which is loosely based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb case, becomes even more fascinating after you read a work of history like the 2008 For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago.

2) When a great literary biography appears, it becomes forever linked to the works by the author whose life it portrays. I've heard from so many friends that if you love Hemingway, you have to read Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, a 2011 work of nonfiction by Paul Hendrickson. This is next on my reading list and will, I suspect, lead to much rereading of Hemingway.

An interesting spin on this kind of pairing is provided by a book like Amanda Vaill's fascinating 1999 Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story. This is a biography of the real-life couple who were portrayed in some of the century's great works of fiction. Once I found out that Nicole and Dick Diver in Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night were based on the Murphys, I had to read Vaill's book. Like Gerald and Sara, these two books now live together in my head.

3) Sometimes, it's a subject that links books. I have friends who, after reading Patrick Suskind's 1986 novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, became obsessed with the topic. They discovered Chandler Burr's 2004 work of nonfiction about a modern "nose," The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession, which helped satisfy their craving to learn more.

Or sometimes it's a city. After reading a very satisfying novel set in, say, Hong Kong, I want to find another novel set in that city.

4) Word associations can be weirdly powerful. I always think of Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt and Monique Truong's The Book of Salt together, even though they have nothing to do with each other, save the fact that they are both remarkable novels with the word "salt" in the title. Taking procrastination to an entirely new height, I've even started a Pinterest board to feature books with the word "salt" in the title.

5) I find it fascinating when an author revisits the same territory he or she has visited before, particularly when the author writes a work of nonfiction or a memoir about a period already covered in a novel, or vice versa. It's fascinating to read Christopher and His Kind, a 1976 memoir by Christopher Isherwood, right after you've read his Berlin Stories, which was published in 1945. In the later book he gives a more complete picture, for example, of why "Christopher" moved to Berlin in the early 1930s and of his life there.

Another pairing I love is provided by Esther Forbes, who wrote two of my other favorite books: Johnny Tremain, a 1943 young-adult novel about an apprentice to Paul Revere, and Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, which was published the year before.

6) One day, when I was in high school, I read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, starting early in the morning while it was still dark and finishing midafternoon. I then took a brief pause and dove into Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down, which I finished late that night.

I'd be very curious to hear from others about which books are forever associated in their minds and why. And if anyone wants to add to my Pinterest "Salt" board, all contributions are welcome!

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Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club and coauthor of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. He has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in digital media, as the founder and CEO of; and as a journalist.

Books mentioned in this post

Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club 1st Edition

3 Responses to "Books That Belong Together"

    Kurt October 2nd, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    "Salt" by Mark Kurlansky and "The Years of Rice and Salt" by Kim Stanley Robinson are connected in my mind for no other reason than the word Salt in the titles.

    Barbara October 3rd, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Reading your blog, I find myself eagerly meandering Powell's website to view & think about books I've coincidentally read together, or need to!

    Will October 5th, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Love the additions to the "Salt" board, Kurt. I've just added them to my Pinterest board. And I would love to know what pairs you found, Barbara.

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