Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris

An ardent reader who still remembers the glorious moment when I first decoded the black marks in a Golden Book and found a story waiting for me, I love books. And I love books about books.

This is the first of several essay collections from Fadiman, former editor of The American Scholar and a founding editor of the Library of Congress magazine Civilization. She will be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October. The essays here are about books—loving books, living with them, building castles with them.

In the first selection, Fadiman describes the hilarious and tender process of marrying her and her husband’s libraries after five years of marriage. First they had to negotiate how the books would be placed on the shelf. Like Fadiman, I organize my books by nationality and subject matter, while her husband lumped all under the heading Literature. And George could have been talking to me when he gasped and said, “‘You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?’”

But it was having to give up duplicate copies that brought home to Fadiman that they “had both been hoarding redundant copies of our favorite books ‘just in case’ we ever split up.” She realized that taking this giant step meant that they were “stuck together for good.”

One essay explores inscriptions in books given as gifts while another hilariously exploits the charm and eccentricity of footnotes. To me, the most moving selection is about her father’s library, evoking memories of my own childhood. My love affair with books started early and quickly grew from valuing them as transportation devices to appreciating them as physical objects.

Like Fadiman, I look at bookshelves in homes I visit. She says, “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.”

In the realm of Creative Nonfiction, personal essays have one foot in the province of memoir and the other in narrative nonfiction. By including personal details, they share some of the power of memoir and the way it welcomes the reader in. At the same time, they can convey bits of knowledge like tasty morsels hidden in a cake.

Fadiman is particularly adept at bringing in abstruse and amusing bits of information. Before now, I didn’t know that “Galileo compared Orlando Furioso to a melon field, Coventry Patmore compared Shakespeare to roast beef, and Edward Fitzgerald compared Thucydides to Parmesan cheese.” Nor did I know that William Gladstone invented the system of rolling bookshelves used in Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and other places, including some archives I’ve explored.

Most of all, though, the personal essay is a story and, as such, takes the reader on a journey. The journey may end in an epiphany or a comforting hug or a sad acceptance, but always in a satisfying way. Each of these small journeys rewards the reader with insights, images, and a chuckle or two.

What book about books have you read?

4 thoughts on “Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman

  1. Nichael Cramer says:

    A fiction book about books that I very much enjoyed was Alan Bennet’s[*] “The Uncommon Reader”.

    The titular “Reader” is Queen Elizabeth II. She has a chance encounter with a mobile library and meets (and takes under the royal wing) a twenty-something young man who is an fanatic reader.

    The core plot is. admittedly, a bit of cliche, particularly in films (The Lonely Queen, meets a Commoner who introduces her to a New World). But “The Uncommon Reader”[*] is a lot of fun (and a relatively quick read), and it soon becomes clear that the real hero of the book is Bennet’s own love for books.

    (A great quote from tUR:
    “It was the kind of library he had only read about in books.”)

    [* The British writer of many books, plays, films, etc, etc. And also a member of Beyond the Fringe.]

    [** A play on the title by Virginia Wolfe, itself taken from a quote by Dr Johnson.)

  2. Nichael Cramer says:

    If I could pick one other “book about books”:

    When I was in college I received (as a gift) a copy of “The Lifetime Reading Plan” by the editor and critic Clifton Fadiman (i.e. Anne Fadiman’s father). It has always held a place of honor on my shelves.

    As Fadiman writes the book is intended to serve as an introduction into the “The Great Conversation” of world literature. (The newest edition, published in the 1990s, contains 133 entries, beginning with “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and ending with Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”.)

    The entry for each book/author contains an article –typically a page or so in length– describing, discussing and giving some context to the subject. (Also included is a bibliography for each entry containing suggestions for “Further Readings”, recommendations for translations where necessary, etc.)

    It’s also worth noting that probably the most important word in the title is “Lifetime”. Any list that recommends reading, “The Mahabharata”, Augustine’s “Confessions”, the Complete Koran, “The Tale of Genji”, “The Divine Comedy”, the complete works of Shakespeare, “Remembrance of Things Past”, and “Being and Nothingness” –to mention a scant handful of the works listed here– is not something most folks are going to whip through in the proverbial summer at the beach.

    Perhaps a books like this can most usefully thought of as a companion or a guide. I freely admit that it’s, well, at the very least “unlikely” that I’m going to read –or even make a significant start– on a most of the books here (yet??). But, on the other hand, I can certainly say that there are several works here that have been important to me that I would not have known (or would not have known so early) had it not been for tLRP. And it has also served as an infallible guide when I’ve decided that I need to add “something new” to my reading life.

    But then, as the saying goes: “The destination is the dream; the reality from which we learn is the journey.”

    Finally, perhaps the best role for a book like “The Lifetime Reading Plan” is as a gift. Either for the proto-reader in ones life. Or for oneself.

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