Book Review: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Title: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
Author: Anne Fadiman
Genre: Non-fiction, essays
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together.

This review was previously posted on my personal blog on May 14, 2007.

If you’ve read my blog for any time at all, you know that I am a confessed bookaholic. I love books. Actually, I adore, obsess over, and devour books. That includes books about books. When I find an author who feels the same way I do about books, it’s like finding a long-lost friend I just haven’t met yet. The last time I felt like that, I had just finished How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman will go on the shelf right next to Quindlen’s book, because they are both odes to the joy of books. The writing styles are different, but the subject matter the same: books, the reading of books, the buying of books, the loving of books.

Not only did this book feed my love of books, it made me laugh. Hard – and often. Fadiman has a dry sense of humor, and the essay “Marrying Libraries” is evidence. After being married several years, Anne and her husband decided to take the next step. No, not have a child – they’d already done that. They decided to – ~gasp~ – mingle their libraries.

After five years of marriage and a child, George and I finally resolved that we were ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation. It was unclear, however, how we were to find a meeting point between his English-garden approach and my French-garden one. At least in the short run, I prevailed, on the theory that he could find his books if they were arranged like mine but I could never find mine if they were arranged like his. We agreed to sort by topic – History, Psychology, Nature, Travel, and so on. Literature would be subdivided by nationality. (If George found this plan excessively finicky, at least he granted that it was a damn sight better than the system some friends of ours had told us about. Some friends of theirs had rented their house for several months to an interior decorator. When they returned, they discovered that their entire library had been reorganized by color and size. Shortly thereafter, the decorator met with a fatal automobile accident. I confess that when this story was told, everyone around the dinner table concurred that justice had been served.)

So much for the ground rules. We ran into trouble, however, when I announced my plan to arrange English literature chronologically but American literature alphabetically by author. My defense went like this: Our English collection spanned six centuries, and to shelve it chronologically would allow us to watch the broad sweep of literature unfold before our very eyes. The Victorians belonged together; separating them would be like breaking up a family. Besides, Susan Sontag arranged her books choronologically. She had told The New York Times that it would set her teeth on edge to put Pynchon next to Plato. So there. Our American collection, on the other hand, was mostly twentieth-century, much of it so recent that chronological distinctions would require Talmudic hairsplitting. Ergo, alphabetization. George eventually caved in, but more for the sake of marital harmony than because of a true conversion. A particularly bad moment occurred while he was in the process of transferring my Shakespeare collection from one bookcase to another and I called out, “Be sure to keep the plays in chronological order!”

“You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?,” he gasped. “But no one even knows for sure when Shakespeare wrote his plays!”

“Well,” I blustered, “we know he wrote Romeo and Juliet before The Tempest. I’d like to see that reflected on our shelves.”

George says that was one of the few times he has seriously contemplated divorce.

Further chapters detail her family’s obsession with proof-reading everything under the sun – including menus; the fact that there is nothing new written under the sun (read this chapter for the footnotes alone; they’re a hoot!); and “The Joy of Sesquipedalians.” Her vocabulary demonstrates clearly her love of big words. Here are just a few I learned while reading this book:

soi-disant: self-proclaimed

trenchant: keen or sharp

lapidary: having the elegance and precision associated with inscriptions on monumental stone

palimpsest: writing material used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased

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8 Responses to Book Review: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

  1. Beth Hoffman says:

    This sounds like a fun book that I must read! I laughed out loud when I read this line: “After five years of marriage and a child, George and I finally resolved that we were ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation.”

  2. Kailana says:

    I really enjoyed this book. I recently read her other essay collection for your challenge, but I haven’t reviewed it yet.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Kelly – I loved her other collection, too! I really like her sense of humor.

  3. Vasilly
    Twitter: Vasilly

    I remember reading this years ago. “Marrying Libraries” is such a great piece. It’s an essay you want to re-read for years to come.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      V – yes, it is – this is one book that will always be in my library. 🙂

  4. Kathleen says:

    I love this excerpt you’ve shared. I’d say that library consolidation is a huge step. For me it is easier to share a bank account than to have someone messing with my books! ha!

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Kathleen – My husband just threatens to get rid of mine because they keep growing…. LOL