“The heart of reading,” with Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

It figures that it would take a book about books — a book celebrating [hysterical] book love, to boot — to pull me up from the reading [and blogging] slump lately. So, thank you, Anne Fadiman, for your book Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. [Although that small nugget of doubt in my head is demanding, How dare I proceed to write clumsily about a book I loved, which happens to write very beautifully about book love? Ah, life’s little headaches.]

I won the book from Simon a while back, and it was awesome because I’ve always wanted to read it — I’ve heard nothing but good things about Fadiman, and, really, it was only a matter of time before I got my greedy hands on her. And so, Simon, I’ve said it many times, but it bears repeating: Thank you so much.

So. In twelve short essays, Fadiman writes about a life spent loving books — from growing up with an awesome family and a library, to charting a romance and a marriage with books, to reading a Victorian self-help book about womanhood while, er, gestating. She enumerates the many facets of book love — agonizing over inscriptions, the ways to love/molest a book, particular methods of shelving, and certain monstrosities such as tearing the flyleaf.

Little quirks and obsessions, a fanaticism here and there — it was fascinating. And so constant, the plain ol’ love and passion for the written word. At its most familiar and comforting and, pardon the drama, immortal form: For her, the heart of reading lies in “how we maintain our connections with our old books, the ones 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, for one, am looking at you, Jane Eyre.]

I’ve always been nosy about people’s attitudes re books. Why, yes, I totally judge you based on your reading list, haha. Aherm. When visiting other people’s houses, I’ll always find an excuse to saunter over to bookshelves. When visiting good friends, most times I don’t even engage in small talk — straight to the books I go, and usually with the agenda of taking some home with me.

Fascinating habits: I have a friend who won’t buy a book bigger than his Moleskine [that’s not a euphemism]; there’s this girl who covers her books with plastic whenever she’s got teh sadz; my boss used to keep all his books in plastic bags; a schoolmate halved a Harry Potter book because her baby sister couldn’t wait for her to finish.

The madness goes on and on. [You’ve all been witness to my own oddities, and those of the people I love most — I have a nervous breakdown when a spine is creased; a book I gave my boyfriend two months ago has lost the image on its spine due to constant handling and dumping oh-so-carelessly into bags and backseats and pockets and gah. Ahem.]

And one of the most giddy-fying aspects of the book blogging community is being in the virtual company of so many book dorks. I’ve got the opportunity to be a complete bibliophilic-creeper to all of you out there. I have offended people when I proclaim that I mean marginalia literally most of the time — I know some of you won’t even write your names on the book. I have seen a multitude of shelving diskarte, and collections galore. One of you has a bookshelf dedicated to foliage or something, I am sure. The madness, again, goes on and on.

It’s this voyeuristic aspect — and the given Sasha loves book for realsies — is a large reason why I enjoyed Fadiman’s book so much. Yes, her essays are a joy to read [and not just because of her clear prose, her wit, her gosh-darned charm, her willingness to sacrifice the self-esteem of her loved ones to prove a point] — but it’s more of me being certain that someone out there is as passionate as books as I am [more so in some aspects].

It’s holding this compact red book in my hand and feeling understood, even vindicated. It’s like meeting someone you know you’d be awesome friends with — never mind that, for the life of you, you can’t understand why she’d bring a book to the bathtub with her, although you can commiserate re the chronological shelving of Shakespeare’s plays.

Being privy to Fadiman’s kind of book love takes on a meta-edge to my own book love, to this very blog, to the fact that I’m talking about it here — but, well, you know: You can never have enough book love. And, unfortunately for my future paychecks, I don’t think I can ever have enough Fadiman. [You know what to get me for Christmas.]

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22 comments

  1. I am so sad my library doesn’t have this! But then again, you make it sound like one to own and return to again and again. I completely share this sentiment – “one of the most giddy-fying aspects of the book blogging community is being in the virtual company of so many book dorks” – and I think I’ll love Fadiman for the same reasons as you.

    It’s *great* to see you posting more again, btw :D

    1. Ana! I’ve missed you — though I like occasionally peeking in on you over at Tumblr. :] This seems like the best book to reintroduce me to blogging, reminding me why I love you guys so much. Fadiman has written so many other books about her book-love. I’ll be hoarding them sooner or later. :]

  2. Ok, seriously, you, Sasha, need to write your own book. Forget these other authors, your own love of books is definitely worth celebrating in print!

    1. Haha, Justine, thank you, I’m blushing right now, hee. This blog will have to do for now, my darling publication-dreams.

  3. I loved this book so much for all the reasons you mention. I especially loved her essay on carnal vs courtly lovers of books. (I’m definitely in the carnal category.) But mostly it was just fun to see another person expressing her own personal, quirky ways of loving books.

    1. The temptation I had to fight when I was writing this post was writing something about every essay Fadiman wrote. That is, I would talk about marrying books, or my own odd shelf, or whether I was a courtly or carnal lover [for the record, I think I’m leaning to courtly, haha.]

  4. I totally agree with you, in particular the quote that Nymeth pulled out. I haven’t read this particular Fadiman book, but one of her other books, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is among my favorite books ever.

    1. Hello, Kim. This is my first Fadiman, but I can’t wait to read all of her book-love related books. I’ll definitely put The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down on top of the wishlist. Thank you!

  5. I’m giving away a Chuck Palahniuk novel next week. perhaps you might be interested to join. :)

    http://melikesart.blogspot.com/2010/11/birthday-giveaway-sali-na.html

  6. I have a relative who uses a Stanley knife to slice all her books into pieces down the spine so that she and her husband can read the same book at once (though not the same chapter obviously.) I imagine she has either a very full recycling bin each week or shelves full of mangled books crudely strapped together with gaffer tape. Anyway, that’s my odd little book-habit snippet for you. Great post – and long live blibliophilic-creepers!

    1. GOOD GOD WHY WHY WHY THE HORROR. Thanks for sharing in the bibliophilic-creepiness, but THE HORROR.

  7. This is an interesting post to me-nearly 50 years ago before I even started High School I some how got a copy of her father’s book (Clifton Fadiman)-The Life Time Reading Plan-it was the perfect book to start me on a life time of reading-funny thing is I still have that book and other editions of it and am still working my way through it!

    1. Ooh, she does have a wonderful family, one that she never fails to cite as being instrumental to her book-loving life. I’m going to hunt down Clifton Fadiman, just to see how impactful he was to her. :] And, besides, if that book started you on a lifetime of reading, it only has good things in store for me. :]

  8. So I have this constant discussion with co-workers about readers versus book lovers. And my one “sucker for new technology” colleague does not read AT ALL but is constantly going on and on about how cool this new nook/kindle/ipad is and how books are unnecessary now. And another coworker and I just shudder and chant “I need books!”

    With news that the sales of hardcover books are dropping and big chains like Barnes & Noble are struggling, I have to wonder/predict…if the casual reader goes digital, will the small independent bookstores once again sprout up for the book lovers? I sure hope so. After finally finding “my” local bookshop, I can’t walk in a B&N or Borders and be happy anymore.

    1. I’ve said this so many times I’m sure: I do envy how there are so many stores and books to choose from out there. I know that there’s a lot of fear about bookstores disappearing forever there, but here, there’s such a limited range, and books are always expensive. But love, ya know, will find a way.

      About the e-reader thing. I have a feeling I’ll get one for Christmas. And frankly, I don’t know what to do with it. Can I write on it? O_o

  9. I remember enjoying this book. And I’m so glad to see that *something* got you out of your blogging and reading slump; excited to see so many unread posts from you to enjoy! And what a perfect book to start with.

    I confess that I am one that can’t write in my books. But I used to be one. And when I see you photos of your marginalia, I think it could be a beautiful thing. But no, I just can’t do that to my books.

    1. Hi, Rebecca. :] Glad to be back, and glad to see you’ve welcomed me. Makes me feel so loved, haha. This really was the best book to revive this blog with. I can’t wait to read more Fadiman.

      I remember that’s how we “met” — through my marginalia re one of Tolstoy’s essays. :]

  10. I love books about books and reading and this collection is one of my favourites. While I was reading it I kept talking to the book saying things like ‘So do I!’ and ‘Why do other people think that’s crazy?’ And I was also a little envious of Fadiman’s family where they all get together for some bookish craziness. I’m so glad you enjoyed this:)

    1. One of the best things about Fadiman’s essays is that feeling you’re sharing something so special with her. Like you, I talked to book. At times, I squirmed — especially when she elaborated on the whole carnal love thing. It was fascinating, but I can’t imagine that I’d do that to my books, haha.

  11. […] about books [there needs to be a word for these, to appease my bibliophilic squealery] — Anne Fadiman is witty and clever and funny, an also deeply personal; add quirky and charmingly off-kilter to […]

  12. […] Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman. […]

  13. […] Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman […]

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