I tried and tried to make Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris last as long as possible, telling myself to read only one of these short essays each night. My plan inevitably backfired and I was unable to stop at just one, moving forward to finish three or four each evening and then yesterday, waiting at the doctor’s office I finished the collection.
I am hard pressed to pick a favorite essay. I loved Marrying Libraries and Fadiman’s humorous description of the ups and downs of merging the treasured books of two bibliophiles into one cohesive, organized collection. I also laughed my way through Nothing New Under the Sun in which Fadiman manages to painstakingly footnote every single word or sentence that might possibly be attributed to someone other than herself. Cleverly, she makes the point that literature is an endlessly renewing and evolving art, and that although plagiarism is serious business, writers are unavoidably and always standing on the shoulders of their predecessors.
Aside from the specific essays, I also enjoyed the way Fadiman shared her family’s bookish idiosyncrasies – how they treat their books, their merciless radar for grammatical mistakes, and their devoted, nearly obsessive search for new words. I was also raised in a book-loving family, although nowhere near as erudite as Fadiman’s.
Books were, and still are, our preferred form of entertainment. My parents’ bedroom, and both my sister’s and my own, overflowed with books for as far back as I can remember. Our living room housed my father’s collection of old Scottish poetry, 17th century novels and newer collectible hardbacks. Their bedroom was wall-to-wall with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and anything and everything my father could find about Winston Churchill, WWII and the American Civil War. My mother collected gardening and nature books.
My sister and I followed their example, amassing shelves and shelves of our favorite authors. As teenagers, we both had phases – mysteries and thrillers, Jane Austen and the Brontës, historical fiction and even romance. By the time we had both finished graduate school and finally packed up our belongings for good, we each had the challenging task of selecting which old favorites would get donated to the library or the local second-hand bookstore, as well as choosing from the hordes of books from our respective fields that we’d collected throughout our schooling. I’m sure neither of us managed to part with many. But I’m forever grateful to my parents for showing me there is really no such thing as too many books.
The very last essay in Ex Libris is called Secondhand Prose and it is a delightful little meditation on the joy of musty, scribbled-in old books rooted out from the creaking shelves of a used bookshop. I found myself wishing to hop on a plane to NYC, take a train to a town called Hastings-on-Hudson and browse through the 300,000 books to be found at the Riverrun Bookshop. Fadiman writes about spending seven hours in this shop on her birthday one year and taking home 19 pounds of books. I’m quite certain I’m not the only one reading this essay who got shivers of delight at the very idea!
What is it about secondhand bookshops? I’ve never met a reader that didn’t love a good hunt through some dusty shelves. I’m completely biased but I think this has much to do with the inexhaustible nature of reading, coupled with that very notion of literature being on a continuum. Not only does literature build upon and renew itself with each generation, but literary experience is effectively infinite, there will always be another book to find, another story to read. Which makes reading a never-ending treasure hunt and secondhand bookshops the way stations of that adventure.