I am making the elementary assumption that everyone reading this loves books. By which I do not mean that you love this particular story or that particular author. No, I mean you love books, the objects you hold in your hands, the distinctive smell of a secondhand bookshop, the feel of a page as you turn it, the simple way that a really good book will block out your immediate surroundings for a moment or an hour and transport you effortlessly to somewhere that is at the same time familiar and new.
If I read you right, then you are going to love Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (1998, Penguin 2000). It’s a short book, little more than 120 pages, and consists of a series of short essays originally written for a magazine with the gloriously pretentious title of Civilization. They are essays about books, but never about specific works, rather they are about her on-going relationship with books. So there is a piece about her and her husband merging their book collections, another about whether to mark your place with a bookmark or by turning down the corner of the page (she is in favour of creasing the corner), yet another about how the perfect surprise outing for her birthday was seven hours in a used book store (from which she emerged with 19 lbs of books – I’ve never thought of measuring my purchases by weight before). There are idiosyncracies here – while her collection of American literature is arranged sensibly in alphabetical order of auther, her European literature is arranged chronologically, which makes no sense to me since I’d have endless trouble finding specific books because I’d never be able to remember whether Waugh predated Wodehouse. Nevertheless, I suspect we would all recognise ourselves in the pages of this book (there is an essay on proof reading which reminded me so much of the way Maureen will proof read a menu before she ever chooses a dish from it).
She (Fadiman, that is) has the attitude that books should show the signs of their usage (hence her belief in folding the page to mark the spot). Any book that is pristine, unspoilt, with uncracked spine and unmarked pages has somehow been betrayed as a book. I used to make notes in the margins of books all the time – there are certain pages in The Critique of Pure Reason which have more of my spidery marginalia than they have of Kant – but I haven’t done that for a long time, preferring to keep a notebook and scribble away there. But after reading her essay on marginalia I felt curiously guilty for leaving the pages of my books unsullied.
There are things about the book that can irritate somewhat. She comes from the sort of bookish family we might all envy. Her father was Clifton Fadiman, American man of letters par excellence during the 60s and 70s (one of the few things that really lets Anne Fadiman down is a passing reference to science fiction as being the only junk on her father’s shelves – Clifton Fadiman, as I recall, edited a rather good anthology of science fiction in the 1980s). The family are clearly very close, and all have remarkably similar bookish tastes and attitudes, but this closeness can come to feel very cloying at times, particularly for those of us who did not enjoy such advantages. Nevertheless, whether she is delighting in long words or discussing the book shelving habits of W.E. Gladstone (did you know our former prime minister actually predicted the sliding shelves now used in the stacks of most major libraries?), this is a book every book lover will savour. Go out and find a copy now.
First published at Livejournal, 7 June 2005.