Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ex Libris

I walked past Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader at the library and immediately turned around. Without reading the dust jacket, I added the book to my pile. Any book about books must be a good book.

After reading Ex Libris, I have mixed feelings. The collection of essays is ten years old, and they already feel dated—particularly an essay about pens and typewriters. More than anything, though, I take umbrage with the subtitle. Fadiman is anything but the “common reader.” She is the daughter of two published authors (who sent their children to boarding schools); both her husband and brother also write. Is that the pedigree of a common reader?

Fadiman often comes across as pretentious and elitist. In “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” she writes about reading an essay that introduced her to several new words: diapason, goetic, paludal. I consider myself well educated, intelligent, and well read, but Fadiman’s “ordinary” vocabulary is far from accessible (e.g., the word sesquipedalian).

Yet, at times I can relate with Fadiman’s book love. In “My Ancestral Castles,” she talks about her parents’ personal libraries and inheriting books from them. I have fond memories of my own parents’ libraries and wonder if my siblings and I (all six of us) will fight over, or even want, their books. Does anyone want Dad’s collection of political books? Will I keep Mom’s collection of Georgette Heyer or Emily Loring books out of sentimentality? Will we divvy up or donate her thousands of mysteries?

In Ex Libris, Fadiman concentrates less on the texts themselves and more on the reading process or reading habits: organization, book shelves, book marks, book-leaf inscriptions. If you have a large vocabulary, patience with pretension, and a love of books, you’ll enjoy this read.

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