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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader – Anne Fadiman

27 Apr

Ex-asperatingAnne 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.

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54 Comments

Posted by on 27/04/2016 in Essays

 

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54 responses to “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader – Anne Fadiman

  1. Alastair Savage

    27/04/2016 at 11:54

    Even the cover makes it look pretentious and snobby so I’ll happily give this one a miss, based on your review. You have delivered the coup de grâce, sir! “The only junk on our shelves was Ex…”

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • Ste J

      27/04/2016 at 11:58

      Ha! The infuriating thing is there are some good observances within its pages but with its dearth of pages and so much ‘look at me’, there is little room for the better parts to shine through. Looking for a cover image, I noted that all her book covers seem to be of the same theme.

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  2. Sherri

    27/04/2016 at 12:19

    Hmmm…it all started off so well, and then… the very thought of ripping chapters out of books horrifies me. I agree with you Ste, Fadiman’s idea of the ‘common reader’ is very different to mine! Great review…shame about the book, for the most part. All the best with those Classics!!!

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    • Ste J

      27/04/2016 at 12:31

      It promised so much, I have mahoosive list of other books about books that I can’t wait to get my hands on, my enthusiasm for such books aren’t diminished in the slightest. I could never deface books like that either, not even if it was a Dan Brown book!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  3. Jill Weatherholt

    27/04/2016 at 12:23

    Thanks for the honest review, Ste J.

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    • Ste J

      27/04/2016 at 12:26

      I did want to like this and I think to a certain point I did until I really thought about it, still plenty more books in the sea to mix a metaphor.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  4. shadowoperator

    27/04/2016 at 12:38

    Well, I’m glad I know what you think about the book I started but didn’t finish. That way, if I decide to pick it up again later (someone actually gave me a copy for a gift), I won’t feel obliged to go further than I want, and if I don’t read it, I don’t need to feel bad!

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    • Ste J

      27/04/2016 at 12:48

      I did wonder why this was in the charity shop and now I know. It is one to flick easily through at least and it is mercifully short but it didn’t leave a great impression on me, you did right to stop reading when you did.

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  5. Purpleanais

    27/04/2016 at 12:47

    What a great review! I want to read this now, although I suspect I may have the same misgivings you did. One example: there isn’t “one” view on books that’s the right one. It’s such a ridiculous assumption to make.

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    • Ste J

      27/04/2016 at 12:55

      A book written by a bibliophile should just be on the overwhelming love of books, all views and thoughts because it’s such a rich tapestry of subjects to write about. I suspect you would be riled up as well, reading this but then that’s part of the fun when reading people’s views on this effort.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  6. Sarah

    27/04/2016 at 12:59

    I hate to admit it but I am guilty of a certain degree of literary snobbery. My opinion of someone devoting their life to saving abandoned kittens and orphaned donkeys would be fractionally soured on the discovery that their favourite author was Jeffrey Archer. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. Even so, I’m aware that there’s nothing more loathsome than being immersed in someone else’s literary prejudice, so I think I’d pass on this book.
    (Oh, and for the record, I’d only dismantle a book that’s no longer usable, although if ever a book would tempt me to take a pair of scissors to it, it’d be a Dan Brown! 😉 )

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    • Ste J

      27/04/2016 at 13:07

      That Jeffrey Archer comment was priceless, it’s made my day. I’m all for people talking about what they don’t like and why if they do it in an interesting way, which is why I have a thing against bestsellers which and relevant arguments to back up my views (all of which are laminated and colour coded), just acting superior is annoying, I like Sci-Fi when I get around to it, I still prefer other genres but I am up for pushing my (final) frontiers.

      Dan Brown and Fifty Shades are books that test the rule of thou shalt not harm books, at my last job someone made the decision to buy loads of books and paint them and stick them on a wall, this is not only karma but one of the desperate ideas BHS had to bring customers in.

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  7. macjam47

    27/04/2016 at 13:23

    You have convinced me this is one to pass on.

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    • Ste J

      27/04/2016 at 13:26

      Sometimes I just can’t find many positives in a book, it promised so much as well. I was really excited when I picked it up, still I can’t be too sulky with so many other good books waiting for me.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • macjam47

        27/04/2016 at 13:40

        That’s right, Steve. There are so many great books to look forward to reading. Once in awhile we do come across one that doesn’t measure up to expectations. Have a terrific Wednesday.

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        • Ste J

          27/04/2016 at 17:59

          Have a great day yourself my friend, plenty more book gems will be coming your way soon I can guarantee!

          Liked by 1 person

           
  8. shoshibookblog

    27/04/2016 at 22:11

    I’m so sorry for encouraging you to read this one! I discovered it as a very book-snobbish teenager and have a huge amount of fondness for it. I recognise the validity of your criticisms, but they honestly never occured to me on first reading and it’s one of the few books that I re-read without ever trying to see something new in it.
    I wish you more enjoyment with the rest of your excellent book haul…

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    • Ste J

      28/04/2016 at 09:32

      I think I would have been of the same mind as you if I read it as a teenager, it is easy just to be lost in the book love and back in the day we were a lot less critical of what makes a good book than we are now. Still it was a good exercise in reading and critiquing and for that I can have no complaints and now I shall be savouring words all the more and being even kinder to my books.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  9. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

    27/04/2016 at 22:18

    I don’t consider science fictions as trash. Yes, some of them are over-rated, over-imagined …just like a dish over-cooked; but most of the times, I enjoy flowing with the imagination of the authors. I liked them more as a teenager, but I enjoy reading them still now.

    Like you, I try to keep my books pristine as well. It feels peaceful… 😀

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    • Ste J

      28/04/2016 at 09:53

      I must admit I am wary of a lot of Sci-Fi books, I want the ones I read to be of a certain literary standard which in itself is snobbish but I offset that by dabbling in lighter side of Sci-Fi when I am in the mood. Fadiman’s point about them being junk would hold up to an extent if she justified herself and said why she didn’t enjoy some of the greats but she needs to stick a toe in to the genre before dismissing it.

      If I buy a new book, it can’t have any damage at all and then I like to keep it that way, in time I hope my investment will be around long after I’m gone and still bring joy to people.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

        28/04/2016 at 16:06

        Yes, I’ve inherited a lot of books from my parents, an investment indeed… 🙂

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        • Ste J

          30/04/2016 at 14:39

          They always feel more special when handed down and it feels good to keep them in good condition for the next generation.

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  10. Lyn

    28/04/2016 at 00:35

    I’ve been known to highlight or underline things in books and even make notes in margins, but that’s usually only in non-fiction. I don’t even mind if other people do it too if I loan them the book, but when it comes to my fiction…I’m very careful who I loan them to — especially paperbacks. I become a little upset when someone returns a book with the pages dog-eared, the cover curled back because they’ve folded the book backwards so they can hold it with one hand while they read, or there are coffee or food stains on the pages. To me, it’s not “just a book” – something that can be carelessly lost and replaced. LOL I’ll get off my soapbox now 😀

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    • Ste J

      28/04/2016 at 09:37

      You are spot on, I agree totally, a book given should be treated with respect, I wouldn’t go to someone’s house and leave fingerprints on their TV because it’s just a TV so why should people be mean to my books. I hardly ever break the spines of my books and if I do, it’s just a frown line of a break, so to speak so people assume I hardly open my books to read them which is nonsensical, I open them just fine and read the words…honestly people who do not respect books can never know the pain of lending somebody a book and then worrying about it for days afterwards. My books are rarely ever lent out now and I feel I am much happier about that.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  11. clarepooley33

    28/04/2016 at 01:34

    When you mentioned this book in one of your previous posts I thought I would probably like it but since your review I’m not that sure any more. I cannot harm a book and do not understand why anyone would want to. That is reason enough for me not to read her book let alone her classifying Sci Fi as junk. I am sorry you were disappointed with Ex Libris.

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    • Ste J

      28/04/2016 at 09:23

      I was really looking forward to it, put it to the top of my pile because I thought it would push my passions more, I was surprised by the tone of it but really it goes to show what complacency there is when it comes to books about books, we assume they will be great without really thinking about it, unlike every other genre where the reader is more wary. I understand people writing, underlining and so forth a beloved copy of a book and also reading it to falling apart at times but justifying doing damage to books because you like them is a horrible and contradictory thing. I’m not one for possessions but I do value my books and take pride in what I have amassed and read. Sci-Fi is a genre I dabble in mainly and perhaps some it is junk but I’ve come across some really good reads, her dismissal of Sci-Fi makes me wonder how myopic a reader she really is.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • clarepooley33

        29/04/2016 at 02:01

        I agree with you totally! One assumes that we all love books and reading for the same reasons. There is also such a lot of snobbery with regard to paperbacks. I would say that most people can’t afford to buy hardbacks – we wait til they come out in paperback or we buy second-hand. I treasure my pbacks and look after them as best I can though they do deteriorate quicker than hbacks sadly. Those people who only buy hardbacks and treat pbacks as though they were disposable like newspapers and magazines really upset me. There are quite a few myopic readers about – I know someone who suddenly gave up reading fiction, though he had been a great fiction reader and had studied American Literature at university. He decided fiction was a waste of time as it was just someone’s imaginings and not factual. He only reads non-fiction now. He won’t listen to anyone who suggests to him that there is always a lot of truth to be found in fiction and a lot of fiction in non-fiction!

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        • Ste J

          30/04/2016 at 15:34

          It’s very rare that I buy a hardback these days unless it is either second hand or from an author I really want to read, off hand I think the last new hardback I purchased was quite possibly Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole but that was because I needed a Dark Tower fix. If it weren’t for cheap paperbacks I would be lost, I saw War and Peace in Tesco for £3 something the other day which was heartening.

          As to the chap with the fiction aversion, that is extremely short sighted indeed, fiction defines so much in society and to call it a waste of time is inexplicable. Fiction addiction is the way forward.

          Liked by 1 person

           
  12. Resa

    28/04/2016 at 03:15

    I would never read a book like this! It’s not because I wouldn’t want to, but alas, I have not the time. I read a lot of scripts for work, so when I get to read for pleasure, I just want to read a story, or something personal…ie: a biography.
    So glad you read everything, as I want to know about everything!

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    • Ste J

      28/04/2016 at 09:42

      I think that was a subtle hint that I should review more biographies! I should get to that and Children’s books as well. Learning is great, the thirst to know everything although the fear that it can never be so and we might miss something is always a bit of a worry.

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  13. Lucy

    28/04/2016 at 07:12

    There is no place in this world for snobbery at sci-fi! Oo! Why I oughta dig up HG Wells and take him round her house and see if she’ll say it to his face.

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    • Ste J

      28/04/2016 at 09:16

      Yeah and I’ll bring my copy of Solaris and get all Cold War at her!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  14. Liz

    28/04/2016 at 13:02

    Once again you have done us a great service by sacrificing yourself and your reading time so we don’t have to lol! I agree that books about books are beguiling, but on the basis of your review, I will be giving this one a body-swerve. Anyone who is anti-sci-fi is not to be trusted… 🙂

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    • Ste J

      30/04/2016 at 14:41

      Haha, that should be a T-shirt slogan. I need to get a sci-fi book reviewed in the next month, for some reason the one I have keeps sinking down the pile. I blame everybody but me!

      Liked by 1 person

       
  15. Theanne aka magnoliamoonpie

    28/04/2016 at 14:33

    🙂 I almost had heart failure when read about how you say she treated her books…when I dog-eared books when I was in elementary school my Mom verbally beat me into a pulp and other than putting your name at the beginning of the book…a book was NEVER written in, or torn or any other destructive thing done to it. And it was my father who instructed me in the correct way to open a brand new book so the binding wouldn’t be snapped. I learned to respect books early in my life and do so to this day. Also I LOVE Science Fiction and have done so since I was a young adult and first read Isaac Asimov. Needless to say I won’t be reading Ex Libris but thank you ever so much for reviewing it. :).

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    • Ste J

      30/04/2016 at 15:17

      The ordeals I go through for you guys! Lol. I am yet to really be bitten by the Sci-Fi bug but when I do read one I generally vow to read more and then fail to, I do have Foundation though and so should give that a blast soon. With books I take the view that I wouldn’t treat anything else with disrespect and wilfully damage it so why would I do that with my books, the one thing that gives me my writing identity.

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  16. Jilanne Hoffmann

    28/04/2016 at 19:41

    Although I’m not a fan of sci-fi, I clearly see ifs value in the literary world. She’s definitely a snob. But I’m wondering if you started finding her essays a bit repetitive or perhaps there was no real arc to the collection of essays, so they felt a bit scattered. And when things feel that way, it’s difficult to maintain interest. Oh, and I hate the idea of ripping pages out of a book just to save weight?! Marginalia, yes. At least it maintains the integrity of the book.

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    • Ste J

      30/04/2016 at 15:10

      The essays weren’t repetitive, they were diverse and written over a few years so they didn’t have much of an arc to it. I could have spaced them out but I wanted to motor through it given my dislike for the tone of it. Pages should be left in the books, I always feel a little queasy when I come across a book with pages dropping out.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  17. Bumba

    29/04/2016 at 00:19

    Sorry about your hopes getting scuppered. Well, maybe a late night schnack!

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    • Ste J

      30/04/2016 at 14:38

      It does me good to read a book I don’t like, I’d hate to get too complacent when going with my instincts in the bookshop.

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      • Bumba

        02/05/2016 at 05:03

        You made me look up the word scuppered, skipper. I thought it was was one of your Brit slang words. But no, it’s a word in English too.

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        • Ste J

          02/05/2016 at 09:13

          We only use the English language when foreigners are about, when we are on our own we descend into incomprehensible rhyming slang and colloquialisms that bamboozle even us sometimes.

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          • Bumba

            02/05/2016 at 16:09

            Talk about philosophers, I watched a Monte Python compilation last nite and it had that bit where the ladies travel to France to visit their buddy Jean Paul Sartre.

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            • Ste J

              05/05/2016 at 09:11

              Ah yes, I remember that one, what a build up and (mrs) conclusion!

              Liked by 1 person

               
  18. Andrea Stephenson

    29/04/2016 at 19:05

    Interesting, I suspect that I wouldn’t like her – all books have value to someone.

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    • Ste J

      30/04/2016 at 14:46

      This is true, I wasn’t a fan of Fadiman’s book but at least I sent it to the charity shop for somebody else to discover it rather than doing it some damage.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  19. Liz Dexter

    02/05/2016 at 21:50

    Interesting – I remember not loving this as much as I had expected to, but not why!

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    • Ste J

      05/05/2016 at 09:18

      It is a shame that we didn’t love it as much as we hoped, it does mak me wary about such books in the future but probably won’t stop e from buying them anyway.

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  20. anna amundsen

    03/05/2016 at 12:24

    I would still read it – because of my interest in other people’s experiences with books – but, I think I would have the same comments as you do!

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    • Ste J

      05/05/2016 at 08:44

      Parts of it will probably infuriate you but as it is a short book, at least if you do get annoyed with it, it will be over and there are some good bits as well so it isn’t all doom and gloom from me.

      Like

       

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