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Ex Libris recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books ...
Ex Libris 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 Cleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father's twenty-two-volume set of Trollope ("My Ancestral Castles") and who considered herself truly married only when she and her husband had merged collections ("Marrying Libraries"), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of flyleaf inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proofreading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading aloud. Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.
"A book for bookworms . . . 18 stylish, dryly humorous essays"--Entertainment Weekly
A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together. We had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, been married for five. Our mismatched coffee mugs cohabited amicably; we wore each other's T-shirts and, in a pinch, socks; and our record collections had long ago miscegenated without incident, my Josquin Desprez motets cozying up to George's Worst of Jefferson Airplane, to the enrichment, we believed, of both. But our libraries had remained separate, mine mostly at the north end of our loft, his at the south. We agreed that it made no sense for my Billy Budd to languish forty feet from his Moby-Dick, yet neither of us had lifted a finger to bring them together.
We had been married in this loft, in full view of our mutually quarantined Melvilles. 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. We were both writers, and we both invested in our books the kind of emotion most people reserve for their old love letters. Sharing a bed and a future was child's play compared to sharing my copy of The Complete Poems of W. B. Yeats, from which I had once read "Under Ben Bulben" aloud while standing at Yeats's grave in the Drumcliff churchyard, orGeorge's copy of T. S. Eliot's Selected Poems, given to him in the ninth grade by his best friend, Rob Farnsworth, who inscribed it "Best Wishes from Gerry Cheevers." (Gerry Cheevers, one of Rob's nicknames, was the goalie of the Boston Bruins, and the inscription is probably unique, linking T. S. Eliot and ice hockey for the first time in history.)
Our reluctance to conjugate our Melvilles was also fueled by some essential differences in our characters. George is a lumper. I am a splitter. His books commingled democratically, united under the all-inclusive flag of Literature. Some were vertical, some horizontal, and some actually placed behind others. Mine were balkanized by nationality and subject matter. Like most people with a high tolerance for clutter, George maintains a basic trust in three-dimensional objects. If he wants something, he believes it will present itself, and therefore it usually does. I, on the other hand, believe that books, maps, scissors, and Scotch tape dispensers are all unreliable vagrants, likely to take off for parts unknown, unless strictly confined to quarters. My books, therefore, have always been rigidly regimented.
After five years of marriage and a child, George and I finally resolved that we were ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation. It was unclear, however, how we were to find a meeting point between his English-garden approach and my French-garden one. At least in the short run, I prevailed, on the theory that he could find his books if they were arranged like mine but I could never find mine if they were arranged like his. We agreed to sort by topic—History, Psychology, Nature, Travel, and so on. Literature would be subdivided by nationality. (If George found this plan excessively finicky, at least he granted that it was a damn sight better than the system some friends of ours had told us about. Some friends of theirs had rented their house for several months to an interior decorator. When they returned, they discovered that their entire library had been reorganized by color and size. Shortly thereafter, the decorator met with a fatal automobile accident. I confess that when this story was told, everyone around the dinner table concurred that justice had been served.)
So much for the ground rules. We ran into trouble, however, when I announced my plan to arrange English literature chronologically but American literature alphabetically by author. My defense went like this: Our English collection spanned six centuries, and to shelve it chronologically would allow us to watch the broad sweep of literature unfold before our very eyes. The Victorians belonged together; separating them would be like breaking up a family. Besides, Susan Sontag arranged her books chronologically. She had told The New York Times that it would set her teeth on edge to put Pynchon next to Plato. So there. Our American collection, on the other hand, was mostly twentieth-century, much of it so recent that chronological distinctions would require Talmudic hairsplitting. Ergo, alphabetization. George eventually caved in, but more for the sake of marital harmony than because of a true conversion. A particularly bad moment occurred while he was in the process of transferring my Shakespeare collection from one bookcase to another and I called out, "Be sure to keep the plays in chronological order!"
"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.
Our transfer of books across the Mason-Dixon Line that separated my northern shelves from his southern ones took about a week. Every night we lined up books on the floor, interlarding mine with his before putting them on the shelves, which meant that for a week we had to hopscotch over hundreds of volumes in order to get from bathroom to kitchen to bedroom. We physically handled—fondled, really—every book we owned. Some had inscriptions from old lovers. Some had inscriptions from each other. Some were like time capsules: my Major British Writers contained a list of poets required for my 1970 high-school English final; a postcard with a ten-cent stamp dropped out of George's copy of On the Road.
As our piles accumulated on the floor, we had several heated debates about not just which books should go together but where they should go. I had lived in the loft for nine years before George moved in, and English literature had always occupied the most public spot, the wall facing the front door. (At the opposite end of the spectrum was a small bookshelf with a door, to the right of my desk, behind which lurked The Zipcode Directory and The Complete Scarsdale Diet.) George thought American literature deserved this place of honor instead. If I agreed to present myself to the world as an acolyte of A. J. Liebling rather than of Walter Pater, I would be admitting that the academic I had once thought I'd be had forever been replaced by the journalist I had become. Deciding that this was the truth and that, furthermore, our entrance wall should represent my husband as well as myself, I capitulated, but with a lump in my throat.
|The Joy of Sesquipedalians||11|
|My Odd Shelf||21|
|Scorn Not the Sonnet||29|
|Never Do That to a Book||37|
|Words on a Flyleaf||55|
|You Are There||63|
|The His'er Problem||71|
|Inse[r]t a Car[e]t||79|
|The Literary Glutton||95|
|Nothing New Under the Sun||103|
|The Catalogical Imperative||113|
|My Ancestral Castles||123|
|Sharing the Mayhem||131|
|The P.M.'s Empire of Books||139|
The great New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling used bacon for bookmarks. This fact was attested to by another great New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, who inherited Liebling's library after his friend's death. This is all I know about the incident, and I'm curious about a couple of things. First, did Mitchell witness this historic act, or did he find the bacon after he inherited the library -- that is, was he reading along in Madame Bovary and all of a sudden, during the middle of one of Emma's love scenes, did he come upon a fragment of a breakfast Joe Liebling had eaten 20 years earlier? And second, was the bacon rare or well-done? From the bookmark perspective, each has advantages and disadvantages: Crisp bacon would be less greasy, but it would leave more crumbs.
Liebling loved books, but not in the same way as, let us say, the parents of the late critic Diana Trilling. They kept their copies of Flaubert and Dumas in a glass-fronted case, and required their daughter to wash her hands before she touched its contents. I would place Trilling's parents in the category of courtly book-lovers: They wished to maintain each book in its original state of chastity, and their love, therefore, was real but platonic. Joe Liebling, on the other hand, was a carnal book-lover. He preferred a hands-on, strips-of-bacon-on, physical kind of relationship, and I have little doubt that he would have viewed courtly lovers as sterile and prissy.
I thought a lot about carnal and courtly lovers when I wrote Ex Libris, because I knew that when the book was published I'd be irretrievably outed as a member of the carnal school. In these confessional days, hardly anything shocks anymore, but I have the sneaking suspicion that many readers who accept presidential dalliances with aplomb may gasp in horror when they find out that I write in the margins of my books and mark my place, at least in paperbacks, by turning down the page corners. (So far, I have not used bacon for bookmarks, but -- this may earn me a long jail term for felony book abuse -- I did once use a Saltine.)
One of my readers, a courtly lover, once told me that people who write in books should be relegated to a special circle of Dante's hell in which they would be eternally poked with sharp-nibbed pens. My view is that people like Diana Trilling's parents should be relegated to a special circle of hell in which they would have to wash their hands eternally and never, ever be permitted to read a book. Writing in the margins of books strikes me as a form of conversation; it turns a monologue into a dialogue. I have inherited many books that my father, who can no longer see, used to own, and turning the pages of Moby-Dick and reading his observations on Ahab's character makes the book vastly more precious to me than it would be if it were pristine. The great English essayist Charles Lamb used to lend books to his best friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and they often came back with annotations as long as the text. Lamb said the marginalia "tripled the value." I'm not sure the same can be said for the paperback edition of Middlemarch in which, at 18, I offered a good deal of marginal advice to the heroine ("Don't marry that creep Casaubon!"). But that copy of Middlemarch is more valuable to me, if not to anyone else. Like a diary, it reminds me of the person I once was -- and for me, as for everyone in my family, the person I once was and the reader I once was are impossible to separate.
So I beg clemency from all you courtly lovers. As you don surgical gloves to read your immaculate first editions, think about indulging, every once in a while, in a bit of wanton pleasure. I'm not recommending using bacon for bookmarks, but you might try throwing caution to the winds by leaving a marginal comment or a fingerprint or a pressed flower in the next book you read. Perhaps you will even come to feel that such personal vestiges are marks not of desecration but of intimacy.