Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on November 25, 2000
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
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Anne Fadiman is--by her own admission--the sort of person who learned about sex from her father's copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate's 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice.
This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father's 22-volume set of Trollope ("My Ancestral Castles") and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections ("Marrying Libraries"), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony--Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners. Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.
I really like the design choices for this book. The simplicity of the cover design is really attractive, and I adore the illustration. A girl sitting on a stack of books pretty much defines my childhood (though I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever sat on a stack of books).
I originally heard about Ex Libris from Tania (who wrote the fashion blog What Would a Nerd Wear from 2009 to 2012, which I love), here and here. Her reviews are glowing, so I was really excited to pick up Ex Libris. It’s a book about loving books, so I couldn’t resist when I accidentally came across it in Chapters one day.
I loved Ex Libris. As I said, it’s a book about books, but what I like about this one is that Fadiman talks about so many different aspects of reading. Ex Libris is comprised of eighteen essays, each on a different aspect of reading; for example, there are essays on “marrying libraries,” or the process of integrating one’s library with one’s significant other; categorizing and organizing libraries; the joy of words; writing in books; etc. Fadiman writing reveals her as a lifelong, passionate lover of books; she describes growing up surrounded by books, and in doing so, she writes, “My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.” To me, this sentiment encapsulates so much of what I love about Ex Libris. It’s a book about loving books, but it’s also about how books shape people, and the power they have once they have infiltrated our lives.
One of my favourite essays was the first one, “Marrying Libraries.” I’ve never gone through this process myself, but I’ll be honest – it’s definitely something I’ve thought about before! Fadiman talks about a number of dilemmas readers face when consolidating libraries, like whose copy of the same book to keep, and whose organizational system to use. I have to share one exchange Fadiman writes about from this process, because I laughed out loud:
“You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?” he gasped. “But no one even knows for sure when Shakespeare wrote his plays!”
“Well,” I blustered, “we know he wrote Romeo and Juliet before The Tempest. I’d like to see that reflected on our shelves.”
George says that was one of the few times he has seriously contemplated divorce.
This small example of Fadiman’s dry, wry humour is one of the reasons I love the book so much. We have a similar taste in humour, so I found many parts of the book hilarious. Fadiman’s tales about coming from a well-read family are hilarious. I thought the stories she recounted about reading-related mishaps were so true to life, and the way Fadiman reports them really makes her memories come to life in an entertaining way.
I also loved her essay “The Odd Shelf,” because it introduced an idea to me I’d never considered before. “It has long been my belief that everyone’s library contains an Odd Shelf,” she writes. “On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner. George Orwell’s Odd Shelf held a collection of bound sets of ladies’ magazines from the 1860s, which he liked to read in his bathtub. Philip Larkin had an especially capacious Odd Shelf crammed with pornography, with an emphasis on spanking. Vice Admiral James Stockdale, having heard that Frederick the Great had never embarked on a campaign without his copy of The Encheiridion, brought to Vietnam the complete works of Epictetus, whose Stoic philosophy was to sustain him through eight years as a prisoner of war. My own Odd Shelf holds sixty-four books about polar exploration: expedition narratives, journals, collections of photographs, works of natural history, and naval manuals.” Isn’t it fascinating to think about 1) your own Odd Shelf contains, and 2) what everyone else’s does? I had never thought about my own book collection in this way, and I’m not quite sure yet how I’d characterize my Odd Shelf, but it seems like a really fun way to get to know someone, or to think about other people’s libraries critically as an extension of their person.
I think a lot of readers will empathize with Fadiman’s “Never Do That to a Book,” in one way or another. The essay explores the idea of two types of readers, characterized as lovers: courtly lovers and carnal lovers. Fadiman opens the discussion by recounting a family trip in which the hotel chambermaid left a note on Fadiman’s brother’s book, saying he should never leave a book facedown on a table. Fadiman writes, “I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, there is more than one way to love a book. The chambermaid believed in courtly love. A book’s physical self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.” I feel like book lovers can be strictly divided on this subject, and I myself have undergone quite a change in perspective on the matter. Throughout my childhood I was a courtly lover of literature, but after studying English literature at university, I have become more of a carnal lover of literature: I no longer cringe at writing in books, or bending the pages, or the covers fraying. I still hate the thought of dog-earing pages, but I am pretty lax about everything else these days.
One of my other favourite essays was “The P.M.’s Empire of Books,” which is all about how to organize and catalogue one’s personal library. In it Fadiman talks quite extensively about Gladstone’s On Books and the Housing of Them, which presents a really detailed mathematical model for building a library that maximizes space most efficiently. Fadiman writes, “As I contemplate the vista of my own book-choked apartment, I sometimes wonder whether the only thing that could prevent my library from extruding me onto the streets of Manhattan would be a visit from Gladstone and a few rolling shelves.” I think we can all relate to that, no? I have books coming out of my ears in my room.
One thing that is very clear is Fadiman’s extensive literary knowledge. The fact that she is so well-read shines through in her writing, and I love the way she writes: with variety and vivacity. One thing that continually struck me is how exciting her sentence structure is – I realize that may be an odd thing to notice, but I feel like that can often be the mark of a really great writer. Fadiman clearly knows how to write well, and her essays read like sharply edited snippets with relevant recollections and humorous anecdotes thrown in.
Ultimately, I recommend this 100%, to any book lover. In one of Tania’s reviews, she wrote that “my family likes to joke that we are single-handedly keeping food on the Fadiman family table, because we’ve bought this collection of essays for any friend who’s had a birthday in the past ten years.” I can definitely see myself contributing to the sales of this book in a similar way in the future, because it has become an automatic gift idea for every reader in my life!
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Do you enjoy reading books about books? Have you ever read Ex Libris, or any of Anne Fadiman’s other work? If so, I would love to hear your thoughts (or any others) in the comments below!