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.
Fadiman originally wrote these essays for Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. They chronicle her family’s love affair with books and words (the insufferable foursome who . . . still proofread menus together). Her parents (Clifton Fadiman and Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman) were both writers and she and her brother learned a lot about them from perusing their bookcases--their selves were on their shelves.
I enjoyed each and every one of the 18 essays in this collection but my favorites were probably “Never Do That To A Book” (about book abuse) and “Secondhand Prose” (about used books).
Fadiman’s family believed in “carnal,” as opposed to “courtly,” love of books. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy. She gives the example of her father, who, in order to reduce the weight of the paperbacks he read on airplanes, tore off the chapters he had competed and threw them in the trash.
Fadiman’s husband, an “incorrigible book-splayer” was once told by a friend: “George, if you ever break the spine of one of my books, I want you to know you might as well be breaking my own spine.”
At the other extreme, Fadiman writes about her friend Clark who won’t let his wife raise the blinds until sundown, lest the bindings fade. He buys at least two copies of his favorite books, so that only one need be subjected to the stress of having its pages turned.
On used books: When I was young I liked my books young as well. . . . In those days, just as I believed that age would buffet other people’s bodies but not my own, so I believed my paperbacks would last forever. I was wrong on both counts. As Fadiman got older, she began to enjoy the sensation of being a small link in a long chain of book owners.
In a secondhand bookstore, each volume is one-of-a-kind, neither replaceable from a publisher’s warehouse nor visually identical to its original siblings, which have accreted individuality with every change of ownership. If I don’t buy the book now, I may never have another chance. And therefore, like Beecher, who believed the temptations of drink were paltry compared with the temptations of books, I am weak.
Fadiman’s musings are funny and enlightening and highly recommended. 5 stars.
Fadiman, who is hooked on books about polar explorations, on John Franklin's expedition:
"Who but an Englishman,Sir John Franklin, could have managed to die of starvation and scurvy along with all 129 of his men in a region of the Canadian Arctic whose game had supported an Eskimo colony for centuries? When the corpses of some of Franklin's officers and crew were later discovered, miles from their ships, the men were found to have left behind their guns but to have lugged such essentials as monogrammed silver cutlery, a backgammon board, a cigar case, a clothes brush, a tin of button polish, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield. These men may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentleman." (Page 25)
Oh my, she really knows how to turn a phrase. And who of us, has not found themselves in a similar situation and reacted exactly as she did here:
"I have spent many a lonely night in small town hotel rooms consoled by the Yellow Pages. Once, long ago, I bested a desperate bout of insomnia by studying the only piece of written material in my apartment that I had not already read twice: my roommate's 1974 Toyota Corolla manual. Under the circumstances (addiction, withdrawal, craving, panic), the section on the manual gearshift was as beautiful to me as Dante's vision of the Sempiternal in canto XXXI of Paradiso.(Page 113)
My husband has accused me of studying the phone book on more than one occasion. But my absolute favorite has got to be the essay about proofreading. My hubby has walked away from me in embarrassment as I pulled out a black marker and corrected a sign or three in the produce department at the local grocery store so I laughed out loud at this, as a pedant could only be expected to do, because it hit so close to home. Fadiman is lucky to be joined by her immediate family in the proofreading business:
"Of course, if you are a compulsive proofreader yourself---and if you are, you know it, since for the afflicted it is a reflex no more avoidable than a sneeze---you are thinking something quite different: What a fine, public-spirited family are the Fadimans! How generous, in these slipshod times, to share their perspicacity with the unenlightened!"
Why can't my hubby be more understanding? Anyway, if you want to laugh and pass a couple of hours in sheer delight, do pick up this little gem. Highly recommended.
I actually read Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader for the first time in 2006. That would make this review the product of a Re-Reading, which coincidentally, is the subject of another one of this author’s books. Aside: Anne was the editor of that book, and wrote the Foreword for it. That in itself, was worth the price of the book.
At the time I first read Ex Libris, I was not in the habit of writing reviews of any books, and once I did begin to record my opinions, I felt a pang of guilt, because this one is truly wonderful, and deserves better of me.
I may as well get it out now and be done with it… Anne Fadiman has become my all-time favorite author. She may be usurped some day if I read anything by ~her~ favorite author, E. B. White, but I have so far successfully evaded all of his writings, ensuring Anne’s prime position as THE Preferred Author. Reading these essays, for me, is like I have just spent a day with a good friend that I hadn’t seen in a couple of years, and we were able to get caught up on how our lives were going. I assure you, this is not infatuation, but I’d like to sit down with her some time and talk over coffee. I’d even spring for the pastries.
Ex Libris is a collection of eighteen essays, the longest of which span ten pages. It’s good, easy reading. It’s the kind of book you read in queue – at the bank, the supermarket, traffic lights… But it’s best read sitting in a comfortable seat because you really don’t want to stop once you get started. Each essay is a delight, and had plenty to muse over when you finish it – except for one. It’s nine pages long and has thirty-eight footnotes in it, which occupied the majority of the physical space therein. And whereas that was the point of the essay, it was nonetheless annoying as all get-out. But I forgive her, because I understand why she did it.
Ex Libris is a book lover’s dream come true. It validates your reasons for wanting to read. It soothes the brow from the ravages of marginalia and dog-ears. It justifies cataloging and excessive purchasing – the bookends of the book, these two are probably my two favorite essays of the bunch. The rest are really just very well-written bits of great conversation, and I don’t think I could be more emphatic about recommending this book to everyone.
Added bonus: Anne includes a few pages choked full of recommended readings.
There are so many things a writer can do with words, things that go beyond the basic, almost laconic straightforward meaning of the words. They can stir emotions, and suddenly writing can become wistful. They can hint and without ever saying anything challenging, create tension in the reader. It’s almost magic how they create something out of nothing.
I’m thinking about this after finishing [Ex Libris], which receives raves from widely spread areas of the LibraryThing spectrum. It’s, of course, a book of essays on the theme of reading and books. I can’t quite place my skepticism, but while I wanted to read this, I could not imagine what could possible be so special...and it’s variety I’m thinking of. Readers tends to have reading personalities characterized by certain kinds and ways of reading. I have never met anyone that reads quite the way I do. So, I just assume a book about reading will cover other ground, something of peripheral interest to me personally...and cover it in a way that is only peripherally interesting to me. What this means other than that I have some kind of personal issues about reading another reader’s writing on reading, I haven’t figured out yet.
Anyway, to Fadiman. Fadiman comes across to me as a highly skilled essay writer who can be great on occasion. She is exceptionally polished, and knows how to bring in many different things to link the reader to her points, and bring the reader in; and always one of those things has to do with some kind of literary anecdote.
She opens her preface with a short paragraph about an obsessed reader (of course) and a short paragraph highlighting her own reading obsession (we guessed that from the title), and then paragraph three opens:
I began to write Ex Libris when it occurred to me how curious it was that books are so often written about as if they were toasters. Is this brand of toaster better than that brand of toaster? At $24.95, is this toaster a best buy? There is nothing in how I may feel about my toaster ten years hence, and nothing about the tender feelings I may yet harbor for my old toaster. This model of readers as consumers--one I have abetted in many a book review myself--nearly omits what I consider the heart of reading:
If you need to find out what she considers the heart of reading, then, those few of you who haven’t read this yet, you’ll have to get your hands on your own copy. It’s outside my point. It’s that just like that Fadiman has captured my imagination. She’d pulled me away from my regular concerns and anxieties about life, she has my attention. And she did this over and over again. A wonderful collection of essays.
If it's a good book, when you fall into the book, parts of it fall into you, and you're not quite the same person when you leave it. Much of the time your 'to be read' list won't look the same after reading it, either. You'll find new treasures to add.
And so it was when a few years ago my firstborn stumbled across a pretty little book titled Ex Libris, Reflections of a Common Reader.
If you like books about books by people who love them, you'll love this one. If you like sweet stories of affectionate families, you'll love it. I liked it so much that I had to find a copy of my own, since my firstborn quite selfishly wrote her own name inside the cover the book she bought (she wishes she had done this from the beginning of her book ownership, as I never do remember with certainty who bought which book, and am always suspicious of claims that it wasn't me).
Anne added several links to my chain of people, things, and books I wanted to know more about, and one of them was her remarkable parents. According to one review:
Her father is Clifton Fadiman, the legendary critic, anthologist and former Book of the Month Club judge. Her mother, Time magazine correspondent Annalee Jacoby Fadiman, co-authored "Thunder Out of China" with Theodore White. Their apartment had room for 7,000 books and not much else.
And I was embarrassed that I had never heard of either of them until I read their daughter's book. I was even more annoyed by this obvious gap in my common knowledge when I learned that my mother knew all of the above (at least about Mr. Fadiman) and could fill in my gaps with more. I wasn't annoyed that she could fill in the gaps, just frustrated that it hadn't been done before.
Ex Libris is a sweet little book that has more than rewarded me for the time spent reading (and rereading) it.
Some of my favorite essays include the author's comments regarding how, after joining her partner in marriage, years later it was decided to meld their books. Realizing that commitments can begin and then end, both book lovers did not want to give up their personal cache. What fun to read laugh out loud situations about who gets to give away their copy of a multiple edition and who decides how to categorize and shelf which are most important.
Another essay, of which I can totally relate, discusses the fact that those who consume books like lovely pieces of chocolate, cannot help but become obsessive proofreaders, noting the smallest errors. We read menus and find typos. And, how very frustrating it is to read a lovely sentence and then discover the utter shock of a glaring spelling error.
I laughed at this tale because a few days ago while at physical therapy I noticed many materials on the counter. Wham! I saw the proud statement that this practice is excellent in managing "pan!"
Remembering that as an infant my granddaughter chewed the corners of all cards sent to her, I smiled when I learned that one of the reasons first editions of Alice in Wonderland are so difficult to find is because children seemed to like to eat the pages.
"Promising to love each other for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health—even promising to forsake all others—had been no problem, but it was a good thing the Book of Common Prayer didn't say anything about marrying our libraries and throwing out the duplicates. That would have been a far more solemn vow, one that would probably have caused the wedding to grind to a mortifying halt."
In "The Joy of Sesquipedalians" I was equally amused and mortified by the fact that I would never have qualified to play along with what she calls Fadiman U, who have a propensity for seeking out long and obscure words (something my mum, a writer, no doubt loves too). But my personal favourite was beyond a doubt "The Catalogical Imperative", in which Fadiman makes the following admission: "There is one form of literature, however, that I would sometimes prefer to the Paradiso. It is—I realize that I am about to deal my image a blow from which it may never recover—the mail-order catalogue." Now there's a girl after my own heart.
This is a book about books. It's actually a collection of essays that Fadiman (daughter of the late famed scholar and book lover Clifton Fadiman) wrote for Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. I'm not sure the magazine exists anymore (which is a shame), but for several years at least, Fadiman wrote a column there called "The Common Reader." We're talking about essays such as "Marrying Libraries," which is all about how Fadiman and her husband George Howe Colt -- after several years living together and several more as a married couple -- finally took the leap and merged their book collections. Before that they each had their books segregated on opposite walls in their NYC loft apartment. Now, combining libraries doesn't sound like such a big deal. The hardest decision would be what to do about duplicates. Do you keep both, or does that imply a lack of faith in the relationship and a potential for splitting the libraries apart again in the future? But no. The most difficult aspect for Fadiman and Colt appeared to be deciding whose classification system they would use.
There's another essay on Fadiman's love of big words, otherwise known as sesquipedalians. (And yes, I already knew that. I just have trouble spelling it.) Her family used to collect them, trade them, and try to one up each other. I must add here that this is the first book I've read in a very long time where I actually needed to reach for the dictionary a couple of times. Though that might say more about what I'm reading than what Fadiman was writing.
At the end of the day, I found myself really wanting to know Anne Fadiman. I wanted to compare book collections with her, and chat over dinner. I wanted to have a dinner party, invite her, and ask her to bring along half a dozen of her friends that she mentions in the book. These are people who don't mind when she calls them up and asks what titles they used to steal off their parents bookshelves when they were kids. They sounded like good folks.
Anyway, I guess you could say I liked this book. By the end I really felt like I'd made a new friend. Not to mention a really long list of books that my new friend had recommended...
Never do that to a Book, which explores the "proper" treatment of books, and highlighted one of my own personal quirks, the way in which I place a bookmark in order to know whether to resume reading on the right or left page.
The His'er Problem, which discusses the importance of inclusive language in writing, and how writers in earlier eras "didn't really see women, and their language reflected and reinforced that blind spot."
Insert a Carrot, celebrating the "compulsive proofreaders" among us. Yes, I'm one of them. My husband and I are prone to spotting grammatical errors on road signs. And I have found a kindred spirit in my friend Claudia, with whom I exchange raised eyebrows across the room when someone at work mixes up "averse" and "adverse".
Secondhand Prose, celebrating the joys of used books. I hardly ever buy new anymore, having discovered both Paperbackswap.com and a wonderful small bookshop in a nearby college town (a great source for classics, cast off at the end of term).
This is a quick and fun read, and highly recommended.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman is everything a booklover could want. She writes insightfully about Odd Shelfs (hers has 64 books about polar exploration), merging your library with a loved one's, predilections for constant proof-reading (including menus and store signs), the joy of long words like sesquipedalians (bonus points if you spot some redundancy there), and lots more in a slim, concise volume.
She writes beautifully, and manages to make you want to spend time with her in a cafe in discursive palaver. Her family (parents, siblings, husband and children) are of her tribe, with the same love for books and words, and their appearances in the book are beautifully sketched. She's also self-deprecating, which she seems to have every reason not to be, and charms with admissions to things like her obsession with mail order catalogs.
What a wonderful book! Many thanks to NarratorLady for recommending it.
Growing up in the Fadiman household (Anne has a brother, Kim) must have been fabulous. Dad quoted liberally from tomes in several languages and Mom had been a foreign correspondent before retiring to raise the children. Their collective mania for the printed word results in proofreading restaurant menus and challenging each other by unearthing new "sesquipedalians" (long words). She clearly considers it a magical childhood and her love for her parents permeates the book like a romance.
Anne describes book owners as either "courtly lovers" who remove their bookmarks once a book is finished and return it to its proper place and "carnal lovers" who are likely to leave momentos and marginalia inside. Clearly the Fadimans belong in this camp and she admires a friend who, during a trip to the Yucatan, slammed the book shut whenever an interesting bug fell on a page, "amassing a bulging insectarium" amid the pages of "The Collected Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe".
"Nothing New Under the Sun" is an essay about plagiarism and the impossibility of being completely original; she fills the essay with footnotes, giving credit to everyone from Shakespeare to her husband for every line. My favorite: "Reference suggested by George on 11/14/96 as he was doing his back exercises on our living room floor."
Obviously this book is a favorite among LTers but although Anne and I share much (including our first name, correctly spelled) I am not a book collector. I have access to a fantastic public library and am still astonished that I can go online and order a book and they'll send me an email to tell me when it's arrived. Last summer, when I got hooked on the Maisie Dobbs series, I took out three of the sequels and marveled anew that I was allowed to remove $75 worth of books ... on faith! It still fills me with optimism about our collective psyche that libraries still thrive, after all these years, on the honor system.
Still, I do have a wall and a half of book shelves but I purchase them sparingly. Some paperbacks that I've purchased because of a too-long library wait have either remained on the shelves or been sent along to the library's used book sale. Bel Canto, Water for Elephants and The Thirteenth Tale made the cut; Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency didn't. I enjoyed all these titles but the first group touched my heart. Other books I love so much that I purchased the hard cover versions after reading them: Remains of the Day, The Help, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and many children's titles for future grandchildren. Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare and Steinbeck are all there but I could never touch the breadth of classics that Fadiman has read. In any case, the thought of owning every book I've ever read makes me think: clutter. I know that's the last thing that Fadiman and other "carnal lovers" of books would think but I'm afraid my thoughts go to: "What if there's a fire? What then?"
So it's only my special books that stay on my shelves. Which is why I'm buying "Ex Libris" which had me laughing and nodding throughout despite my not having everything in common with this other Anne. (I might even - gasp! - write in the margins.) We do both love our fathers though and they've influenced us mightily. Hers was a brilliant intellectual. Mine? Not much of a reader but a great guy ... and a firefighter.
Few readers, if any, will identify with her predilections across all eighteen essays. They range from the joys of "you are there" reading - the act of reading a book in the same location it's set in - to the peculiar allure of catalogues and the ignominious compromise of joining marital book collections. However, the act of recognition itself, and the internal debate it will no doubt ignite about the types of reading *you* prefer, are certainly enjoyable.
Fadiman is aware of the potential middle-brow snobbery that these fancies can entail, but cannot wholly avoid them. The book's appeal is undeniably limited to compulsive readers, and as a fully qualified member of that category, I all-too-easily recognised the unspoken, guiltily-delicious smugness lingering behind some of the sentences. Our love of books is comical and silly, Fadiman will complain, but there's an undeniable implication that it also makes us better readers, and perhaps better people.
Maybe it's the New Critic lurking somewhere in me, but I prefer essays about reading that focus more closely on particular works and authors. Using a reading experience as leverage into more universal aspects of reading and writing, as typified by Michael Dirda's writing. Perhaps its my own biases, but there's something vaguely distasteful to me in making the experience of reading so intensively inward-looking.
For me, reading is certainly an escape - but just as often an escape out-of, rather than in-to, and I think Fadiman neglects that facet of the experience. That reading is an opportunity for engagement and understanding with a broader world. Her reader - at least as it's presented in Ex Libris is more of a beach-comber; unchanged by glittering delights snatched up from the flotsam of every-day words. For me, at least, I'm more often the one snatched than snatching, and a richer book would have elucidated that experience, also.
Despite her prodigious vocabulary, I'm not quite sure the author knows what the word "common" means. Her experience with books, being the scion of well-off two parents from the New York literary elite and the wife of another member, is hardly that of the average person. The title sets an expectation of relatable material for all bibliophiles, but this simply is not the case.
There is an element of literary snobbishness in this book as well. At one point, she refers to science fiction as junk, and throughout, it's made clear in tone and content that only certain types of reading qualifies as truly reading. As a reading omnivore, I have no space for that in my life. As an egalitarian, who passionately believes in the inherent value of others, I find the smugness a bit unbearable.
I just can’t get enough. I love reading books about what other people love about books. I love knowing that there are other readers out there who love books as much as I do, who collect books as obsessively as I do, and whose houses are as packed with books as mine is. I love all of that.
(I also couldn’t help loving the title, as I have an “ex libris” tattoo.)
If you love that, too, then you will definitely enjoy Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays about her reading life.
Anne’s essays are funny, insightful looks into various aspects of book-loving. She discusses the difficulty she had in finally “marrying” her library with her husband’s. She writes about growing up in a book-loving, vocabulary-expanding family; about the woes of being a compulsive proofreader; about the pleasures of long and sometimes archaic words; about the agony of penning the perfect inscription inside a book cover. Her essays are funny, clever, and peppered with interesting words. (I definitely expanded my vocabulary while reading.)
I feel a sort of kindred spirit in Anne. I kept seeing bits of myself in her—especially in the way she physically treats her books. To her, books are meant to be loved, and loved hard. They’re meant to be handled, cried over, eaten over, and written in.
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.
To me, a sign of a good book is how close the cover is to falling off. I’ve never understood people who want to keep their books looking pristine, and I’ve always felt a little bit guilty about not being afraid to really manhandle my books. After reading Ex Libris, though, I feel affirmed.
This is a quick and very entertaining read for book lovers everywhere.
You see, Fadminan is of the school of thought that the vessel of the book is inconsequential and it's only the meaning contained within that matters. I agree with her in part. The meaning absolutely matters. But to me, the vessel is also important. I collect books - I buy a book and read it and if I really like it, I'll track down a first print to add to my collection. The first version I bought can get beat up, but I try to keep the first print mint. That's just something I enjoy. I enjoy the crisp lines of a squared cover. I like the smooth, unblemished jackets and the bright titles shining from the shelves.
Fadiman offers a anecdote about how her father would rip out chapters of paperbacks as he read them to keep the book lighter for travel. I once dated a girl whose father did that too. That wasn't a deal breaker with her, but 10 years down the line, that's one of the things I remember about her. Yes, I probably have problems.
Anyway, back to the book. Anne's writing at least to me, was a little condescending, but she seems to have earned it to some degree. She's very bright and well-versed in literature. I just didn't enjoy the tone. The stories could have been warm and welcoming, but as I said, I was already at odds with her about her book philosophy and I didn't like the tone. So instead of warm and welcoming, I felt put off. Her stories weren't deep or touching, but that can be fine for a comfortable read. Unfortunately, again the condescending tone was a big detriment to my enjoyment of the work.
From the astounding amount of positive reviews, this book will probably appeal to most LibraryThingers, but Fadiman isn't the right author for me.