Tag Archives: Books

Anne Fadiman and Confessions of a Common Reader

As part of my ongoing concussion recovery, I’m teaching myself to read again, an activity that I always found so joyful before and now find so daunting. I am generally re-reading. It’s easier, what with my memory the way it is now. Anyway, the trivialities of my self-initiated treatment plan aside, what better book to re-read than Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris; Confessions of a Common Reader.  ex libris

In it are eighteen delightful essays about reading, about books, about personal libraries and about words by someone who is, I would say, an entirely un-common reader. Fadiman is the kind of person you see walking on the street devouring a book open in front of her. Her taste for reading was nurtured by her academic parents in a household stuffed to bursting with books. Her own writing is scholarly without being snobbish, a situation ripe for incidental learning. The book is full of factual tidbits so seamlessly incorporated into its text that I come away feeling as though I could hold my own at an English Department dinner party. The tone is friendly and confiding. Her vocabulary is vast and slants Victorian, which, to my mind, is an asset.

My copy of Fadiman’s book is slightly ruined in my own library – a little warped from moisture, a little dog-eared, and not without considerable underlining and marginalia. Her essay, “Never Do That to a Book” issues a solid approval of all of my mishandling of her work. She writes of her childhood in which she used her father’s books as building blocks and how her own children do the same with hers. She writes of people who eat books, literally digesting the words, and her own son’s consumption of the corners of Good Night Moon. It occurs to me that for Fadiman, the rating system for used books employed by on-line purveyors is entirely backwards. A five-star book condition for her would mean a book was stuffed with notations and worn pages and a “like new” book would not interest her at all. Her essay about inscriptions in books has left me changed forever. Never again will I just dash one off.

It is difficult to choose an essay to highlight. I love them all. Like all the best personal essays, each one touches the universal. We are not just reading about reading; we are reading about life and death, marriage and parenting, love and loss. Her description of the process that she and her equally bookish husband undertook to marry their libraries  describes both a marriage and a library for the ages. In a later essay, she explains how, after inheriting part of her father’s library, she kept it in separate book shelves at first and then changed her mind. Integrating his library into hers becomes a testament to how the people we love and lose become indistinguishable parts of our own lives. It is deeply reassuring.

If I had to choose a favourite, “Nothing New Under the Sun” might make the cut. It is a sly investigation into plagiarism that should be read by every teacher and every writer everywhere. The footnotes are screamingly funny. I would love to plagiarize it, but I won’t.

I remember exactly how I came to be in possession of this book. It was a gift from a dear friend, Arlette Zinck, a kindred spirit in reading, and I hope I thanked her appropriately at the time. If not, I do so again.

Lastly, as if these essays weren’t enough, Fadiman’s final pages include recommended reading (of course) – a bibliography of other books about books. It is marvelous.

Give yourself a treat and buy a copy, preferably from a dust-mote filled used bookstore, and curl up under a blanket. Lay it down, open and upside down, on your bedside table, pages splayed and dog-eared.

Fadiman, Anne. Ex Libris. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

On Downsizing Books

For much of my life, getting rid of a book was blasphemy. Books have always been sacred to me. As a young person, I was deeply affected by an image of books being burned by Nazis. Piles of books up in smoke. In my personal Ten downloadCommandments, One Must Not Destroy Books. We all know where that can lead.

There is a scene in the wonderfully cheesy disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, in which having taken shelter from a world-destroying storm in the New York Public Library, the characters begin to collect books they will burn to stay warm. One of the group objects and clings to a Gutenberg Bible, determined to save civday after tomorrowilization until another quips that there can be no harm in burning the multiple volumes of the tax code. The point is well made. Not all books have equal value.

Three years too late, I have come across this sensible and well-written piece about downsizing books by Summer Brennan called “On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books.” It is based on Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. (Aside: I like to imagine Kondo’s books gathering dust on shelves everywhere, but that reveals something perverse in my nature.) What Brennan has done is apply Kondo’s now iconic zeal to her own life in a way that makes sense to her.

Brennan captures what’s wrong with any “one size fits all” approach to book culling. She writes, “It occurred to me that part of the reason why tackling the ‘books’ stage of the Full Kondo seems so daunting is that to many of us our books don’t really belong in the category she has assigned. They are not impersonal units of knowledge, interchangeable and replaceable, but rather receptacles for the moments of our lives, whose pages have sopped up morning hopes and late-night sorrows, carried in honeymoon suitcases or clutched to broken hearts.” Yes, that is it. The piece is well worth reading if you are about to embark on a book cull.  If you need further inspiration (and another book) go to the source material. Marie Kondo’s work has been much praised and mocked (a sure sign she is on to something) but I find there is something deeply consoling in her simple rule that one’s things should bring one joy.

Joy was the last thing on my mind when I moved from Calgary to Boston three years ago and faced the daunting task and considerable cost of moving fifty years of accumulated books. I cut my personal library in half. I never wanted to count how many books went. Too heartbreaking. I did it according to the space they took up. Each shelf was halved. I was methodical. For the most part, the Canadiana and hard to find books were boxed and went with me. Treasured gifts stayed. Books that brought me back to a specific time and place stayed. In short, books that had woven their way into the fabric of my life could not be given away. I worked hard to give my discards the possibility of a second life and keep them out of the landfill. If nothing else, I owed it to the trees.

Many of my Women’s Studies and feminist books went to two local women’s centres. That felt good. Except the ones I had to keep. Again, they were too much a part of me. I don’t even want to admit which books I ditched and which I kept for fear it will say too much about me. If I owned multiple books by one author, I would tell myself to keep only my very favourites. It was relatively easy to keep only two Dickens but then I kept every Carol Shields book. These were far too precious. I gave away Middlemarch, still unread since a Victorian Lit course in the 1980s.

Oh dear. I have revealed too much.

Of all the books I gave away three years (and two moves) ago, I have re-acquired only two. Oddly, one was Anne of Green Gables. Actually, I didn’t even have to buy it. A good friend, also moving, gave me one of her three copies. In the mean time, I have spared myself the cost of moving hundreds of books around (twice) and the cost of keeping a space to store them. Trust me, I still have a lot of books. For some reason, I feel it absolutely necessary to have six dictionaries.

Hard as it is to admit, you can have too much of a good thing. Even books.