18 March 2013
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
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 had previously read Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan (both the original and the new edition supplemented by John Major) so Anne Fadiman had hung around on my periphery. So one rainy day I snuggled up on the couch and the cats and some tea to read Ex Libris.
Anne Fadiman and I must be long-lost relatives. I, too, have compulsively read anything with print (like the back of the cereal box) out of desperation. The small volume is comprise of beautifully written essays and love letters (in a sense) to books and reading in all shapes and forms. The essay describing the trepidation and process of "marrying" her book collection with her husband's (and he also had many books) was very funny. I only wish Ex Libris was a bit longer - I guess I'll just have to pick up her other similarly-sized collections.
Incidentally, I bought my copy at a local used bookstore (I'm sure Fadiman, with her love of secondhand bookstores and books, would approve) - the previous owner had only read through the Preface, the rest of the pages were untouched (Fadiman would not approve).