Wednesday, November 15, 2006

43. Ex Libris

by Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is a book that has received much attention among the Chickliterati. A slim volume, I’ve lusted after it many times when I browsed the literary criticism section of Borders because if there’s one thing a bibliophile loves more than reading a great story is reading about books and reading. On some level I think it has to do with wanting to feel like we’re not so weird for the habits we endure, but I think it’s also just as much about the vicarious and voyeuristic act of reading about others’ love of books.

Because any book like this is bound to elicit some very personal emotions from an avid reader, I think the best way for me to go about describing it as a whole is to describe my reactions to specific parts. Thus:

In the preface (already we have insight in the preface!), Fadiman writes that books are often written about as toasters, with which I’ll agree and it’s the reason I don’t read many book reviews. Sometimes I think reviewers don’t actually read the book and, as a result, can’t do much more than describe the plot rather methodically. Now, I review books in my spare time (oh, would that I could say “for a living”!) so I know it’s kind of haughty for me to criticize book reviewers, but I have actually read the entirety of every book I’ve ever reviewed and I think that simple practice has made me a fairly decent reviewer. (I judge this from a few very complimentary reactions I’ve received from the authors of said books. I’m not tooting my own horn or anything…I’m just saying.) Anyway, Fadiman’s problem with this view of readers as mere consumers is that it “neatly omits what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books, the one we have lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colors and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin.” I believe that is so true. It’s the reason why I couldn’t just buy a new copy of Dandelion Wine, signed by the author, or why I ended up getting rid of a nice copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn only to steal back tattered high school copy I had given to a friend. As songs and smells can bring memories racing to the forefront, so too can a singular copy of a well-read book.

Fadiman is fan of the thoroughly read book, by which I mean she dog-ears pages, writes in the margins, and breaks spines. The thought of which makes me cringe! A few weeks ago I had to copy a book’s pages and, in trying to scan the full page, it was necessary for me to break the book’s spine. It was painful and I felt guilty for what I had done. For me it was like hurting a puppy! By Fadiman’s definition I’m a “courtly lover of books,” someone who, “always remove[s] their bookmarks when the assignation is over.” This is opposed to what she calls the “carnal lovers [who] are likely to leave romantic mementos, often three-dimensional and messy.” Carnal lovers make me want to cry. I see them on the El, rolling back the first half of a paperback, folding in a page instead of using a bookmark – I always want to scream, “Why are you doing that?!” Although, I have to admit that when I read books for reviews I do write small notes in the margins. But only in pencil! And only because it really is the most effective way for me to remember what I was feeling as I was reading the book. Otherwise, count my books among the read and pristine.

“Between them, our parents had about seven thousand books…other people’s walls looked naked to me.” My parents had nowhere near seven thousand books – I remember my father once saying we had around a thousand – but I remember fondly the living room in our New Mexico home, lined with full-height bookcases filled, of course, with books. “Ours weren’t flat white backdrops for pictures. They were works of art themselves, floor-to-ceiling mosaics whose vividly pigmented tiles were all tall skinny rectangles.” Yeah, I don’t understand those people who use their bookcases to display knick-knacks or the TV designers who promote the aesthetic (yes, Nate Berkus, even you). Nothing is so beautiful as a wall of bookshelves filled to the brim with all sorts of books. It’s what I aspire my home to be.

These are just a few of the things that struck me as I was reading Ex Libris. I think anyone with a heart for books will love this little gem and I can’t wait to pick up Fadiman’s other writings. While I’m usually happy when I can finish a book in one day, I really wished this one could have lasted for much longer.

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