Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

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by Anne Fadiman

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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.

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

If you've ever found yourself organizing your bookshelves by author, subject, and publication date, reordering the polysyllabic ingredients of a shampoo bottle into metrical stanzas, or browsing the owner's manual to the family car in desperate moments of text deprivation, take heart: Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman's wise and charming personal essays on the incurable condition of bibliomania, is compelling proof that you're not alone. Whether chronicling the personal discoveries and agonizing decisions made when she and her husband consolidate their literary treasures in "Marrying Libraries" or the competitive fervor of Sundays spent watching "College Bowl" with her bibliolatrous family in "The Joy of Sequipedalians," exploring the genetic predisposition for compulsive proofreading in "Inset a Carrot," or explaining the rationale of readers who literally love their books to pieces in "Never Do That to a Book," Fadiman conveys her lifelong love affair with books and language with extraordinary humor and grace.

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Ex Libris

Confessions of a Common Reader

By Anne Fadiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1998 Anne Fadiman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2942-4



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, or George'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 twelfth-grade 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.

In the shelves next to our bed, we created a new category: Books by Friends and Relatives. I'd gotten the idea from a writer friend (now represented on these shelves herself) who had done the same, saying it gave her a warm feeling to have so many of the people she loved gathered together in one place. George was initially dubious. He felt it was potentially insulting, for example, to banish Mark Helprin from the American literature canon, where he had once reposed alphabetically next to Ernest Hemingway, and force him to bed down instead with Peter Lerangis, the author, under a female pseudonym, of sixteen volumes of The Baby-Sitters Club. (Eventually he changed his mind, deciding that Mark and Peter might actually find a good deal to say to one another.)

By far the hardest task came toward the end of the week, when we sorted through our duplicates and decided whose to keep. I realized that we had both been hoarding redundant copies of our favorite books "just in case" we ever split up. If George got rid of his beat-up copy of To the Lighthouse and I said goodbye to my genital-pink paperback of Couples, read so often in my late teens (when Updike's explorations of the complexities of marriage seemed unimaginably exotic) that it had sundered into a triptych held together with a rubber band — well, then we would clearly have to stick together for good. Our bridges would be burned.

We each owned copies of about fifty books in common. We decided that hardbacks would prevail over paperbacks unless the paperbacks contained marginalia. We kept my Middlemarch, read at eighteen, in which were registered my nascent attempts at literary criticism (page 37: "Grrr"; page 261: "Bullshit"; page 294: "Yccch"); George's Magic Mountain; my War and Peace. Women in Love generated the most agonizing discussion. George had read it at sixteen. He insisted that whenever he reread it, no edition other than his original Bantam paperback, with its psychedelic cover of one nude and one seminude woman, would possibly do. I had read it at eighteen. I kept no diary that year, but I had no need of one to remind me that that was the year I lost my virginity. It was all too apparent from the comments I wrote in my Viking edition (page 18: "Violence substitute for sex"; page 154: "Sexual pain"; page 159: "Sexual power"; page 158: "Sex"). What could we do but throw in the towel and keep both copies?

After a final, post-midnight push, we were done. Our duplicates, plus another hundred or so painful culls, were neatly stacked, ready to be carted off to Goodwill. Sweating and panting beneath our triumphantly united Melvilles, we kissed.

Our library was in impeccable order, but it was a little airless, much as my own life had been before George entered it. And so, by subtle degrees, as the weeks passed, George's style began to retake the upper hand in a not entirely unwelcome fashion. As the excessively rectilinear foundation lines of a new house are softened by the addition of a few windblown weeds here, a knocked-over tricycle there, so the flawlessness of our new system was softened by the forces of entropy and my husband, which are closely allied. Our bedside tables started to sag under the weight of new, unsorted volumes. The Shakespeares reshuffled. One day I noticed that the Iliad and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had somehow found their way to the Friends and Relatives section. Confronted with the evidence, George crossed his fingers and said, "Well, Gibbon and I were like that."

A couple of weeks ago, when George was out of town, I decided to reread Travels with Charley. I got into bed with the copy I had first read the summer I turned seventeen. I was settling into the familiar feel of my crumbly old paperback, the one with Steinbeck sitting cross-legged next to his poodle on the cover, when I reached page 192. There, next to a passage about the dwindling redwood forests of California, in a younger version of my husband's handwriting — I'd recognize it anywhere — was the plaintive comment "Why do we destroy the environment?"

We must have had identical copies, and we'd kept George's. My books and his books had become our books. We were really married.



When my older brother, Kim, and I were children, our father used to tell us stories about a bookworm named Wally. Wally, a squiggly little vermicule with a red baseball cap, didn't merely like books. He ate them. The monosyllables he found in most children's books failed to satisfy his voracious appetite, so he turned instead to the dictionary, which offered a richer bill of fare. In Wally the Wordworm, a chronicle of some of our hero's lexicographic adventures that my father wrote when I was eleven, Wally savored such high-calorie morsels as syzygy, ptarmigan — which tasted pterrible at first, until he threw away the p — and sesquipedalian, which looks as if it means "long word" and, in fact, does. Inspired by Wally, Kim and I spent years vying to see who could find the best sesquipedalian. Kim won with paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde, a smelly chemical that we used to sing to the tune of "The Irish Washerwoman."

One of my greatest disappointments about growing up is that it has become harder and harder to achieve a Wallylike degree of sesquipedalian repletion. There just aren't enough new words. Or so I thought until last summer, when I happened to read a book called The Tiger in the House, written in 1920 by Carl Van Vechten, a novelist and jazz critic whose prose style, if not actually purple, can certainly be described as mauve. Its subject was cats — cats in literature, history, music, art, and so on. I was writing an article about cats myself, and I'd read several recent compendia of cat lore that covered much the same territory. The authors of these books made only one assumption about their readers: that they were interested in cats. Van Vechten, by contrast, assumed that his readers were on intimate terms with classical mythology and the Bible; that they could read music (he included part of the score from Domenico Scarlatti's "Cat's Fugue"); and that they were familiar with hundreds of writers, artists, and composers to whom he referred by last name only, as if Sacchini and Teniers needed as little introduction as Bach and Rembrandt.

What simultaneously most thrilled me and made me feel most like a dunce was Van Vechten's vocabulary. I couldn't remember the last time I'd met so many words I didn't know. By the end of the book I'd jotted down twenty-two. Not only did I have no idea what they meant, I couldn't remember even seeing them before. They might as well have been Old Norse. Here is the list: monophysite, mephitic, calineries, diapason, grimoire, adapertile, retromingent, perllan, cupellation, adytum, sepoy, subadar, paludal, apozemical, camorra, ithyphallic, alcalde, aspergill, agathodemon, kakodemon, goetic, and opopanax. These words didn't require a wordworm. They required a word anaconda.

Carl Van Vechten, who is better remembered as a patron of the Harlem Renaissance than as a cat apologist, wrote letters to his literary co-saloniers on stationery that bore the motto "A little too much is just enough for me." His weakness for over-the-top vocabulary (along with over-the-top everything else) was notorious. However, I doubt his book would have gone through four printings if his original readers had found these words as inscrutable as I did. My guess is that in 1920, educated general readers would have considered my list difficult but not impossible. Many of them would have known Greek and Latin, which would have provided etymological clues to about half the list; and seventy-five years ago, several words that now sound creakily archaic had not yet acquired a layer of dust. Sepoys and subadars, for instance — two ranks of Indian soldiers — still served the British administration. The camorra, a Mafia-like secret society, still kidnapped tourists in Naples. Aspergills, brushes used to sprinkle holy water, were still routinely used in Catholic masses. People still washed themselves with soap made with oil of opopanax, a fragrant plant.

Feeling elegiac about the lost world conjured up by Van Vechten's words, I tried them out on my family, to see if Wally's other former acolytes found them any more familiar than I did. (If any readers wish to grill themselves, the meanings of the words not defined during the course of this essay can be found on page 19.) Warming to the task, I was about to subject my friends to the killer quiz when my editor, who had no desire to become a victim himself, said gently, "Hold your horses, Anne. Not everyone loves tests as much as you do."

He had a point. When I was growing up, not only did my family walk around spouting sesquipedalians, but we viewed all forms of intellectual competition as a sacrament, a kind of holy water, as it were, to be slathered on at every opportunity with the largest possible aspergill. When I saw the movie Quiz Show, I squirmed in my seat because the literary-hothouse atmosphere of the Van Doren menage was all too familiar. Like the young Van Dorens, the Fadiman children were ritually asked to identify literary quotations. While my mother negotiated a honking traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway en route to a restaurant, my father would mutter, "'We are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.' Source?" And Kim and I would squeal in chorus, "'Dover Beach'!"


Excerpted from Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman. Copyright © 1998 Anne Fadiman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
AllisonB More than 1 year ago
EX LIBRIS is collection of essays on the subject of owning books. It's the perfect gift for avid readers, or for anyone who knows Anne Fadiman's work, or who enjoys the personal essay form, or who cannot imagine a life without stacks of books on every horizontal surface.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ex libris is a slim volume of essays and commentary from an avid book reader and collector. Anne Fadiman ties her wonderful library so closely to her personal relationships that one could easily see her giving up the love of her life were he not as passionate a reader as she. She also offers wonderful snippets of commentary...how Sir Walter Scott was out one morning hunting, when a passage he had been creating suddenly completed itself in his head. He promptly shoots a blackbird, plucks out a feather, dips it in the birds blood, and captures the sentences. She discusses how the greatest act of trust in her marriage was the combining of her library with her husbands. How as a child, her family would argue over words and meanings, and, as an adult, how she would seek her fathers council when she came across words like 'adapertile' and 'kakodemon'. She discusses the merits of literature as food. And on, and on, always anchoring her prose by citing various beloved pieces of literature which might prove her point. This is a beautiful book with a strong message for all those who have ever been lost in the pages of a great novel, or perhaps, would like to be. It provides a map to the heart of good literature. It provides the heart as well....
Derrybookworm More than 1 year ago
I loved this book so much, I bought copies for friends and relatives. They loved it so much, they bought copies for friends. Something this great has to be shared!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A slim book with 18 short essays on her love of reading & how it intertwines with her life. Her stories include from when she was a little girl through the present as a wife & mom.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anyone who has a lifelong love of book will see themselves reflected in this collection of essays. Anne Fadiman's humor and wit come through in each section. It was a quick read, and was well worth the time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am an avid reader, and I related to this book perfectly! I wish there was more to it, and that it was longer!!! I recommend it to EVERYONE!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed Fadiman's book so much that I even got a book written by the author's mother. Ex Libris really brought me back into the book world after being busy with kids for so many years. Not having read nearly 10% as many books as Anne Fadiman, I miraculously shared a lot of the same feelings she has about her books,it's absolutely amazing.
SleepDreamWrite More than 1 year ago
Been in a books about books lately. This is one of them. Basically what I been reading so far, books with a book theme to it really. This was interesting, good but interesting.
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