Friday, 14 December 2012

REVIEW: Ex Libris - Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman (4.5*)

(Penguin Books, 2000)

"... there is a certain kind of child who awakens from a book as from an abyssal sleep, swimming heavily up through layers of consciousness toward a reality that seems less real than the dream-state that has been left behind. I was such a child."

This lovely little volume is a collection of essays about books and reading.  Fadiman does not deal in generalisations and the broad sweep of the literary world, instead writing about her deeply personal habits and experiences.  Whether she is discussing the difficulties of merging libraries with her husband, or the delights of reading a book in its real-life setting, her introspective approach means that the reader doesn't feel the need to argue or dispute her opinions; instead we are simply invited to enjoy the ride and reflect on our own reading experiences along the way. 

Like many American 'books about books' (and Fadiman does love her old-school highbrow literature), there were many titles I hadn't heard of and many authors I wasn't familiar with, but rather unusually, in this case I found that my enjoyment wasn't dented at all.  Fadiman's lightly-worn expertise means that her readers don't need an intimate knowledge of every volume she cites, and her infectious enthusiasm had me adding a whole bunch of new and exciting titles to my wishlist rather than getting frustrated.  She also includes a list of more 'books about books' at the end, some of which I already own, and some of which I'm sure I'll be seeking out at some point!

Obviously I would highly recommend this one to book lovers who haven't already succumbed to its pleasures - but rather than leave the post at that, I thought instead I'd give you a run-down of the essays themselves.  I don't know about everyone else, but sometimes with a book like this I like to know a bit more about what I'm buying so that I can better judge whether it's going to contain pieces I'm interested in, written from a perspective I'm going to appreciate...

1.  Marrying Libraries
One of my favourite essays of the bunch - though like songs on a CD, I do sometimes wonder if this is because it's at the beginning and so I've probably read it most often!  It is about a reader's love for their own books, about an individual's unique history with each volume on their shelves, and the perils of trying to sort and categorise books when you are melding collections with another, equally idiosyncratic reader.
  • "Promising to love each other for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health... 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."

2.  The Joy of Sesquipedalians
Fadiman shares her family's love of words, and the pleasure they get from learning new, long or archaic words to add to their already impressive vocabularies (this is one of the few books I've read over the years where I've had to consult a dictionary every few pages!).  Some of the more ancient examples she cites are quite beautiful, and her enthusiasm is infectious!

3.  My Odd Shelf
A quirky essay about what Fadiman calls her 'odd shelf' - a collection of around sixty books on polar exploration.  She practically bubbles with enthusiasm, sharing little-known facts and explaining why she loves these tales so much.  This is the kind of essay she writes best, I think: sharing her affection for her favourite books and making us want to rush off and read them too!
  • "When the corpses of some of Franklin's officers and crew were later discovered, miles from their ships, the men were found to have left behind their guns but to have lugged such essentials as monogrammed silver cutlery, a backgammon board, a cigar case, a clothes brush, a tin of button polish, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.  These men may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentlemen."

4.  Scorn Not the Sonnet
Fadiman looks back at her youthful fascination with the sonnet form, and neatly captures the earnest but usually fairly painful compulsion of a bookish teenager to write bad poetry.  It is also the moving story of her father's developing blindness, and the poetry and intellectual curiosity that saved him from despair.
  • "It was a grievous blow when Miss Farrar tacked up the class's star sonnets on the bulletin board and mine was not among them.  Her favorite was about the Acropolis... its author called the Parthenon "a ruined crown".  It never occurred to me that this metaphor alone was worth a hundred of my entire sonnet."
  • "My sonnets looked like poems.  They quacked like poems.  But at seventeen, when I got to college and my critical faculties suddenly kicked in, I had to admit that they weren't really poems.  I had mistaken for lyric genius what was in fact merely the genetic facility for verbal problem-solving that enabled everyone in my family to excel at crossword puzzles."

5.  Never Do That to a Book
An exploration of the way readers interact with their books, and the different attitudes we have towards the book as an object.  Do we keep our books pristine and care for them faithfully, or do we annotate, dog-ear, stick mementoes between the pages, and generally make them our own?  Is the book a vessel or a sacred object, and what makes this particular topic so inflammatory for bookish folks?  This is another of my favourites, because it's so very relatable!
  •  "The chambermaid believed in courtly love.  A book's physical self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller.  The Fadiman family believed in carnal love." 

6.  True Woman
Musings on an old book on the subject of a woman's duties, passed down to Anne from her great-grandmother Maude.  The archaic advice laid down in the book is set against Maude's life and against Anne's role as a modern wife and mother.  It's quite interesting, but very personal and not so bookish; it would probably have been a better fit in Fadiman's other book of essays, At Large and At Small.

7.  Words on a Flyleaf
A rather lovely essay about inscriptions, beginning with where they are written and how they are acquired.  Fadiman includes some famous examples (eg. Shelley to Keats, Byron to the Marchesa Guiccioli) as well as some personal ones, showing how special a book becomes when it contains a carefully-considered inscription from a lover or friend.  Another one I like to reread fairly regularly!

8.  You Are There
What is it like to read a book in the very place being described within its pages?  For Fadiman this is a kind of literary double whammy - being able to look around and see, smell and experience some little piece of that book in the flesh.  The less the place has changed, the better!  My favourite part of the essay is when Fadiman's little daughter gets to enjoy this phenomenon at a certain famous New York hotel - it's so adorable!
  • "When he read Livy at Thrasymenus - in Latin, of course - Macauley achieved a kind of Double Word Score whose peculiar frisson will be instantly recognized by anyone who has ever read Wordsworth at Grasmere, Gibbon in Rome, or Thoreau at Walden."

9.  The His'er Problem
One of the duller essays of the collection, about gender bias in language, and the pros and cons of trying to find more neutral alternatives.  Fadiman successfully walks the fine line between historical precedent and modern feminism and it's worth reading, but honestly?  I'm not THAT interested in etymology, and I prefer it when she's talking about books.

10.  Insert a Carrot
The actual title of this essay has proofreading symbols in it, which I can't figure out how to do on here, so... go with it.  This one's about spelling and grammar mistakes, and the sheer impossibility of switching off your inner proofreader if you have a pedantic nature.  I'm sure many of us can identify!  Fadiman comes from a family of compulsive correctors and includes some brilliant examples of classic proofreading blunders, which always make me laugh!

11.  Eternal Ink
Fadiman goes right back to the basics of the writing experience: the implements we use.  Part of the essay is a kind of love letter to her favourite pen and the romance of writing with a quill, before she moves on to modern convenience and how writing on a computer differs to the reassuring permanence of ink.  I really enjoyed this one for its simultaneously relatable ideas and its very personal touch.
  • "What a pleasure it is to open one's mailbox and find a letter from an old friend whose handwriting on the envelope is as instantly recognizable as a face!"

12.  The Literary Glutton
One of my absolute favourite essays, covering every aspect of literary gluttony, from the literal (people who chew book pages) to the sublime decadence of food description.  Interestingly, she returns to her polar exploration shelf to show how vivid and joyful a hungry man's description of an imagined meal can be.  This is a real celebration of the sensuousness and poetry of food writing, and made me immediately think of everything from The Darling Buds of May to Enid Blyton picnics, Chocolat to the groaning tables in the Great Hall at Hogwarts.  Gorgeous.
  • "My most frequent response to gastronomic references in literature is an immediate urge to raid the refrigerator.  When I happen to be reading in bed, the spoils are a source of marital strife.  If I had married Charles Lamb, who once told Coleridge that he was especially fond of books containing traces of buttered muffins, I would have no problem, but instead I married George, to whom crumbs on the pillows - especially after we have brushed our teeth - are a sign of grave moral turpitude."

13.  Nothing New Under the Sun
A playful but enlightening look at plagiarism in an era in which nothing is truly 'new' - who does it, how attitudes to plagiarism have changed, and how it affects its victims.  Fadiman cites some extreme (and deeply ironic) examples, which made me smile!  In a rather inspired move, this essay is also excessively footnoted, showing every single source of influence and input, from the title (taken from Ecclesiastes) to phone conversations Fadiman made to her mother.  It's amusing but also makes her point very cleverly!

14.  The Catalogical Imperative
Fadiman explains her peculiar addiction to mail order catalogues: she delights in the ridiculous yet tempting items on offer, and the vastly hyperbolic descriptions that are always so very entertaining to read!  She describes the wondrous plenty of an old Sears catalogue, and explores the way these companies pander to our fantasy lifestyle via her imaginary alter-ego, 'Anne Sadiman'.  Pithy and amusing!
  • "... why do I receive catalogues devoted exclusively to salsa, equestrian gear, electric grills, extra-large clothes, extra-small clothes, tours to sites at which UFOs have landed, and resin reproductions of medieval gargoyles?  Do these companies know something about me that I don't know?"

15.  My Ancestral Castles
A rather magical essay about the way in which a parent's reading habits trickle down to their children: how a child observes someone reading, imitates them, and might later borrow books from their library, opening up a new world of discovery.  Fadiman talks about our fond memories of the books that we had around the house in childhood - and how many of us had our first encounters with literary 'dirty bits' via sneaky peeks at some of the less virtuous titles on those very same bookshelves!
  • "My daughter is seven, and some of the other second-grade parents complain that their children don't read for pleasure.  When I visit their homes, the children's rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parents' rooms are empty...  By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says PRIVATE - GROWNUPS KEEP OUT: a child sprawled on the bed, reading."

16.  Sharing the Mayhem
Fadiman explores the joys of reading aloud, and of hearing a story read aloud to you in turn.  She discusses Dickens's famously dramatic public reading of Nancy's death scene from Oliver Twist, the act of reading aloud to your children, and the romantic intimacy of lovers reading to one another.
  • "When you read silently, only the writer performs.  When you read aloud, the performance is collaborative.  One partner provides the words, the other the rhythm.  No stage is required, no rehearsal, not even an audience.  When he was a boy, Heine read Don Quixote to the trees and flowers in the Palace Garden of Düsseldorf.  Lamb believed that it was criminal to read Shakespeare and Milton silently, even if no one was there to listen."

17.  The P.M.'s Empire of Books
An essay about William Gladstone and his obsession with arranging, cataloguing and housing his books.  He saw this occupation as a retreat from his government work, and made it his mission to cram as many books as possible into a small space: he designed an optimum library layout, and invented the rolling bookshelves now used at the Bodleian Library (amongst other places).  He even wrote a book about it!  Definitely one of the more unusual and fascinating pieces of the bunch.

18.  Secondhand Prose
I'd actually forgotten all about this essay in between reads, so it was a pleasant surprise to get to the end of the collection and find an entire piece about the delights of second-hand books!  Obviously I'm biased, but I loved this one.  Fadiman writes eloquently about her affection for second-hand bookshops: the surprises, the romance, the temptation...  In the name of balance, she also cites George Orwell's experiences as proof that running one of these bookshops isn't always idyllic (yup), and describes the flipside of used books - all those unwanted titles sitting unloved, without a home.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the idea that once a library is split apart in a secondhand bookshop, it no longer 'is' its owner - the books lose their context and meaning.  With my own books, I definitely find that once they're divided up onto the bookshop shelves, they no longer feel like a part of me and it's easier to let them go.  If they're together in the office in a stack, on the other hand, they still feel like a part of 'my collection'.  Books get their value from the way they sit within a library or a personal collection - a book with no home and no context loses that value.
  • "On an earlier birthday, George gave me a two-volume set of Farthest North, Fridtjof Nansen's account of his unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole by ship.  The edges were unopened.  As I slit them with an unpracticed fingernail, I was overcome with melancholy.  These beautiful volumes had been published in 1897, and not a single person had read them.  I had the urge to lend them to as many friends as possible in order to make up for all the caresses they had missed during their first century."
  • "In a secondhand bookstore, each volume is one-of-a-kind, neither replaceable from a publisher's warehouse nor visually identical to its original siblings, which have accreted individuality with every change of ownership.  If I don't buy the book now, I may never have another chance.  And therefore, like Beecher, who believed the temptations of drink were paltry compared with the temptations of books, I am weak."

Source:  I acquired this book six years ago after finding it frequently quoted in The Book Addict’s Treasury (Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy), and it's been a much-loved fixture on my shelves ever since!