Anne Fadiman is the sort of person who learned about sex from her father’s copy of Fanny Hill, and who once found herself poring over a 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only thing in her apartment that she had not read at least twice. EX LIBRIS wittily recounts a lifelong obsession with books. Writing with humour and erudition she moves easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family.
Books about books should be a win/win situation, the cyclical obsession of our love should be empowered by such literature and to have somebody share the love and to be nodding along all the while is great and inspiring,
The passion for words bound between delightful covers is a wonderful thing, being both endearing and encouraging, filled with knowing anecdotes to have recognise ourselves and our habits. As I was to find out though, it turns out that other people’s habits can actually be really annoying, I wanted to love this book, sadly that hope was scuppered a short way in.
Not that there isn’t much to savour in this slim tome, on the contrary there are some cosy and mildly amusing anecdotes and the enthusiasm shines through, I suspect some of her opinions will split her readers though. On the plus side it is obvious that Fadiman clearly has a romance with the English language and its playful nature and the discovering and collecting/hoarding of books with the subsequent joys and stresses of arranging them.
These sections are then jarringly placed with such superior opinions as – when mentioning about her dad’s library – she says ‘the only junk, relatively speaking, was science fiction’ now I’m not overly well versed in my limited travels through the Sci-Fi department but I know the worth of the genre, not just for the imagination and inspiring nature of its themes but for sheer delight in escapism as well. Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey for example may not be as technically brilliant as the author’s collection of classic and obscure literature from around the world but are no less valid in their ability to move the reader and allow them to venture beyond the bounds of their world with little more than stimulation of the mind.
Little niggles aside, there was one major sticking point to me and that was the chapter on how people treat their books. I am apparently a ‘courtly ‘lover’ of books, I read them and try to keep them pristine, because they are an investment to me and I tend to like them looking nice. I can cope with spine breaking if I happen to do it, which I rarely do and marginalia is fine as well, as it can be an interesting source and adds to the book. Fadiman is a ‘carnal’ lover, she will read the books to bits, she is happy to annotate them and even tear pages out to make notes on, this is apparently the most rewarding way to enjoy books and we others that don’t have family tales of parents ripping out of previously read chapters of a paperback to save weight at the airport are obviously doing it wrong.
Respect issues notwithstanding, the book has plenty of nostalgia to it, reminiscences of the author’s younger days, her enjoyment of writing with a pen and her love of exploration which did have me smiling but too much of the book is peppered with needlessly expansive and overwrought language. There is no doubt she is well read and was well-educated from a young age, it all just feels a bit pretentious at times and did weary me to the point of wondering if a literary drinking game could be made of the book.
Ex Libris wasn’t half as intoxicating as I hoped it would be but it does have some solid essays in it, sometimes the book feels like her education is an equally integral part to the essays as the books and surrounding topics themselves. It comes across that there is a certainty that her views on books are the ‘right’ ones which is disappointing, I don’t read like Anne, I wasn’t educated like her either but I love the adventure of my unique reading path. I feel like the ‘common’ reader of the title is a misnomer and that it clearly hasn’t been aimed at somebody like myself, the hoi-polloi as Anne would put it.
Admittedly, after reading this I did pile up 23 Classics on my bed and spent a good deal of time choosing which one I would read. The enthusiasm for words ended up leading me to a good hour and a half of agonising over which one to start, so much so that it turned out I picked none of the Classics and plumped for some Nietzsche instead, more of which when I finish reading it.