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November 8, 2010

On reading Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris

I realize I’m being startlingly unoriginal in loving Anne Fadiman’s books of essays, not to mention about a decade late, but you see, I spent that decade entirely unaware that Anne Fadiman’s books were in the world, and I now see it as my duty to deliver any other readers from such similar darkness.

I first encountered Fadiman in August when I took her book At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays away with me on vacation. Tragically, its adorable front cover was marred when I used it to kill a mosquito against a log wall, and I was determined that a similar fate would not befall the even more adorable cover of Fadiman’s Ex Libris.

Ex Libris is a book of essays about books and reading, written with Fadiman’s signature exuberance. Though her book’s subtitle is an understatement; she is just about as “common” a reader as Virginia Woolf was. Fadiman’s bookish cred is serious: her parents are both writers, she grew up in an apartment with 7000 books, her husband is a writer and the progress of their relationship can be traced by the dedications on the fly leaves of books they’ve given each other over the years. One of her essays begins, “When I was four, I liked to build castles with my father’s pocket-sized, twenty-two volume set of Trollope.”

Still, however, there is common ground between her and us, which is partly aspirational thinking on our part, but also the result of Fadiman’s generous spirit. And she does have a knack of summing up experience just right: “I’d rather have a book, but in a pinch, I’ll settle for a book of Water Pik instructions”, she writes of her incessant need to always be reading something (which once a 1974 Toyota Corolla manual, twice, in an otherwise literature-barren motel room).

She writes hilariously about she and her husband eventually taking the plunge after some years of marriage, and finally deciding to merge their libraries, about the courtly and carnal approaches to how we mistreat our books, about gender and the evolution of language, compulsive copy-editing, and a wonderful essay about reading aloud with the perfect title: “Sharing the Mayhem.” Some of the book’s best bits feature her hapless husband, and her parents and brother who with her comprise a family like no other. A family that is an institution onto itself, with new word acquisition, literary references and allusions, and compulsive bookishness wholly integrated into everyday life– they are a fascinating window onto a world.

Anyway, I left this book on the kitchen table and something dripped on it, and there’s also now a rip on its upper right edge, but none of this makes Ex Libris less than perfect still, really. And how lucky was I this weekend to be discovering it for the very first time– delight and joy and wonder abound. My life is richer for it.

4 thoughts on “On reading Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris”

  1. Charlotte says:

    On the “Common” Reader:

    I had a similar thought reading Diana Johnson’s introduction to my edition of Stendhal’s Red and the Black. She says “The American reader is most likely to have encountered The Red and the Black at about the age of its protagonists… who are eighteen or nineteen when we meet them.”

    It seems to me that she’s giving an awful lot of credit to American 18-and-19-year-olds, but nonetheless I enjoy reading about a utopia where teenagers read French novels and children grow up with a 22-volume Trollope in easy reach.

  2. Julia says:

    I think you’ll also love the book her husband wrote about his family’s summer home on Cape Cod — it’s a biography of (and elegy and ode to) a house through multiple generations, essentially, and totally fascinating. _The Big House_ by George Howe Colt.

  3. Nathalie says:

    I can never get rid of the image of a cowboy when I read her husband’s name…. Thanks, Julia, for suggesting his book. It’s right up my alley. I’m about to read Bill Bryson’s new book on the history of houses, and one of my all-time faves, Winnifred Gallagher’s _House Thinking_, is outstanding.

    Kerry, you articulate wonderfully how Fadiman manages to be totally and completely original, yet gives us all hope that we can love books as well as she does. I still cannot be coherent about my love for _Ex Libris_ and simply foist it on bookish folk and hope they get the same profound pleasure from it that I do.

  4. Rachel says:

    As a carnal lover of books, I’m sure Fadiman won’t mind the drips and dead insects.

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