I picked up Ex Libris in a manner that its author would approve of: in a used bookstore. I’ve actually owned it for almost seven months, but I only got around to reading it now, because I wasn’t in love with reading for a while. If I had read it right away, I might have reconciled with it sooner.
The first collection from essayist and reporter Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is the chronicle of a life devoted to bibliophilia. Reading, words, and books are everywhere—as obsession, addiction, and pleasure.
But Fadiman does not fall into the trap of being overly precious about books as physical objects. Her extensive collection is largely categorized and alphabetized, she would not be caught dead sorting by color and size, and it took ten years of cohabitation before she was willing to merge shelves with her husband and toss the duplicates, but she revels in marginalia, inscriptions, and the wear on used editions. As she remarks in “Never Do That To A Book” after her brother leaves a book open face down on a family vacation and a maid bookmarks it, closes it, and leaves him a scandalized note:
[J]ust as there is more than one way to love a person, so is there more than one way to love a book. 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. To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.
Immaculate first editions have no place in Fadiman’s library. In a passage that I, a recent convert to writing in books, felt compelled to star, she says that she has “come to view margins as a literary commons with grazing room for everyone—the more, the merrier.” In several essays she discusses the joy of seeing previous readers’ annotations, with scribbled notes composing both a personal history—a record of her thoughts reading Middlemarch at age eighteen, a bookplate in a text on womanhood that belonged to her great-grandmother, an inscription from an author who is also a friend—and establishing her as one in an ongoing series of owners. Stamps and reading lists fall out. Reading a book is not only part of her life; she becomes part of its.
In the preface to Ex Libris, Fadiman describes her childhood self as the type of reader 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.” As an adult, she discusses cravings for the food that authors describe and trips to places she reads about, book in hand, in order to experience them through the authors’ eyes. In organizing and reorganizing, inscribing and vandalizing, shelving and rediscovering, and answering the eternal question of whether or not to correct a menu—yes, obviously—Fadiman comes to see the written word less as an escape from reality than a way to improve it.
Despite being well versed in the classic, the literary, and the obscure, Fadiman is not romantic with her reading. In “The Catalogical Imperative” she details a litany of materials read cover to cover, not because they are good, but because they are there, including the Yellow Pages (Ex Libris was published in 1997), a 1974 Toyota Corolla manual, and the Nordstrom catalogue: “How can I justify a stroll to the new stand to pick up The New York Review of Books when Alsto’s Handy Helpers is right there in my mailbox, offering, among other memorable lucubrations, 103 words in praise of the Ro-Si Rotating Composter?” It is impossible not to think about reading and re-reading the back of cereal boxes as a child (and sometimes now). Or scanning and editing bathroom-stall graffiti. Or reading the words in every ad on the metro just because they’re there. Fadiman legitimizes the sort of incidental reading that happens when a fresh book is out of reach. And nothing takes the imagined pressure off obligatory reading like a discussion of the merits of direct mail by someone who, elsewhere, also discusses the joys of reading Homer’s Odyssey aloud in Greek. Fadiman’s appreciation for reading extends not only to the written word, but any written word, an omnivorous approach that in a world of to-read lists and public taste profiles is almost radical. Everything is worth reading, if you want to read it.
Fadiman’s sheer voraciousness and exuberant joy inspires the same. Ex Libris is the type of book that only someone who’s been in love with reading will love, but it’s also the type of book to make you fall in love with reading all over again. And again. And again.
– Carolyn Yates is a freelance editor, scholarly copy editor, and writer based in Montreal. She tweets at @c_yates.