Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ($16)
by Deborah J. Safran
Over the last few years, there have been a plethora of "books about books" published—more specifically, "readers on reading." Each has its merits, but there are too many to read; after skimming a few of the titles, I decided that a true reader would rather "just read" than discuss others' attitudes towards the act of reading. Yet I stopped my self-declared moratorium on the topic after stumbling across Anne Fadiman's slim, new book, Ex Libris.
Ex Libris is more than just a book about reading. In these 18 essays, Fadiman examines the memories and personalities created through reading, the joy of books themselves, and more complex issues such as the constant changes in our vocabulary, the need (artificial or otherwise) for nonbiased speech, and the eternal search for the "original idea." As most avid readers can, she links certain books to the most intimate moments of her life ("I had read [War and Peace] at 18. 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."). She believes that the marriage of her and her husband's libraries really and truly secured their commitment to each other. And reading her great-grandmother's copy of The Mirror of True Womanhood upon the birth of her first child connected the five generation of women in a unique and touching way.
For the "common reader," the books kept at home can tell more about a person than the contents of a medicine cabinet. We each have our own methods of organizing our libraries (by title, author, subject, date of publication, etc.), and while some believe that a book's physical self is "sacrosanct . . . its form inseparable from its content," for others, "a book's words [are] holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contain them [are] a mere vessel." Reading is the one act that is both intensely personal and public—our bookcases alone can tell a thousand secrets, and yet we display them proudly, instead of hiding them from our friends and neighbors—a concept I truly appreciate after reading this collection.
While I found all of the essays entertaining and engaging, the subtitle of Ex Libris—"Confessions of a Common Reader"—struck me as a bit odd. After reading "The Joy of Sesquipedalians," in which she disclosed her family's favorite pastime of trying to stump others with obscure literary references, my own upbringing seemed to pale by comparison. And I can't even imagine purchasing 19 pounds of books in one afternoon. Confessions as they may be, Fadiman seems to lean more towards the extraordinary than the common. I empathize, however, with her description of how books can bind the family together, and share her love for the English language, her quandary over the "his/her/them" issue, and her obsessive-compulsive proofreading. In Ex Libris, Fadiman captures the essence of reading for a true lover of books—one who views it not as a pastime, but as a passion.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999