It all started with the reconnection with my old missionary companion Kim ("Kimmie") Petersen. Somehow we hooked up with each other's blogs and profiles - I saw that she is an avid reader, and she saw that I had a book by Anne Fadiman in my favorites list - The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (highly recommended.) Kim told me that the name of her blog, exLibris Lady (also highly recommended, especially for book suggestions), is based on another book by Ms. Fadiman, and I should read it. And so I have.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a small, very entertaining, book of 18 personal essays recounting the author's lifelong love affair with books, language and all things literary. Reading it made me feel both confidently clever and dolefully dense - clever for the experiences and passions with which I could relate, and dense for the heaps and mounds of literary references and 50-cent words with which I could not. I recognized (but not necessarily understood) probably less than 5% of her allusions and references. Ms. Fadiman is a seriously well-read woman. I am not. But I enjoyed it so much all the same.
This post is Part I because it's an intro and book review. Part II will be a more personal post inspired by one of the essays, so watch for it. And have your dictionaries handy!
I was thinking I'd give a quick one-liner about each essay, maybe a quote as well. I didn't realize until I just now counted that there were actually so many - it doesn't feel like eighteen! So instead here are some highlights:
#1 Marrying Libraries - On the solemnity, and complexity, of combining her and her husband's book collections. "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."
#5 Never Do That to a Book - On the ways that people treat books and why. "...just as there is more than one way to love a person, so there is more than one way to love a book. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy."
#8 You Are There - On the practice of reading books in the places they describe. "For example, reading Steinbeck in Monterey won't do; we must read him on Cannery Row."
#10 Insert a Caret - On her and her family's compulsive proofreading - hilarious to anyone who has the same tendency. "Once, when I ordered a chocolate cake to commemorate the closely proximate birthdays of my three co-Fadimans, I grabbed the order form from the bakery clerk, who had noted that it was to say, 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY'S,' and corrected it. I knew my family would not be distracted by the silver dragees or the pink sugar rose; had I not narrowly averted the punctuational catastrophe, they would have all cried, in chorus, "There's a superfluous apostrophe!"
#13 Nothing New Under the Sun - On quoting, referencing, intellectual property and the fine line of plagiarism - written with footnotes ad nauseam to reference almost everything she says or thinks. "In the incestuous world of cookbookery, there seems to be no such thing as plagiarism. Add a sprig of rosemary and the recipe is yours. In literature - or so goes the conventional wisdom - the rules are a bit stiffer. I have long been fascinated by the sea-change through which an aggregation of words, common property when scattered throughout a dictionary, is transformed into a stealable asset."
And you don't want to miss #12 The Literary Glutton, on figuratively and literally devouring books; also culinary descriptions in literature. "The art critic Eric Gibson once told me that one of the most frustrating experiences of his life was reading the description of chicken-and-sausage stew in A Moment of War, Laurie Lee's memoir of the Spanish Civil War, while riding the Washington subway, at least a half hour's ride from his kitchen."
Anyone who loves to read will find something of themselves in these pages, and enjoy the reading as well. It is a lovely balance of familiar and new, written by a true master of the English language. It especially highlighted for me the difference between being literate (me) and literary (her), but I've just taken my first step.
This book receives 4.5 out of 5 disco balls: