Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

12 Responses to “Anne Fadiman – Ex Libris”

  1. Stefanie

    Isn’t this a mervelous book? You make me want to read it again (I’ve already read it twice). Fadiman so perfectly caputres the quirks and joys of books and readers that it is hard not to identify with almost everything she says.

    I think one reason why I love used bookstores so much is that all the new books stores like Barnes and Noble have such a limited range of things. They carry the always new and there is nothing generally very surprising to be found. Used shops on the other hand, you just never know what treasure might be waiting for you.

  2. Colleen

    A gorgeous review of a gorgeous book! Thank you.

    And I had the same profound longing to catch a plane to New York to visit that bookstore as well…

  3. adevotedreader

    Like Stephanie, your review is tempting me to re-read Ex Libris. I loved it and Fadiman’s second book At Large and Small. I just hope she writes more!

  4. ds

    Delightful review of a delightful book! ExLibris is a favorite of mine; I re-read snatches of it often, and have promised myself to read the sequel. Would have been scared to death to have been at the Fadiman family dinner table though!

  5. andremanguel

    Reading about reading, books about books: one of my favourite sub-genres. Fadiman’s father, Clifton Fadiman wrote the classic “New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classic Guide to World Literature.”

  6. litlove

    Oh I remember the 19 pounds of books – I was practically salivating! Lovely review, verbivore, and it’s a fabulous collection of essays. I must get around to reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – not about literature, but another iconic book from Fadiman.

  7. Dorothy W.

    I loved this book too, and need to get my own copy and read it again. This is definitely a book to own, especially since I own her other essay collection. I’ve never been to that shop in Hastings-on-Hudson, although it’s not far away — what’s wrong with me?? I’ve very grateful for the reading legacy my parents passed on to me. I don’t read in the way they do, but I read, and that’s what matters.

  8. verbivore

    Stefanie – You are absolutely correct about new bookstores. I enjoy them but it’s never the same experience as wading through those musty stacks of books in a secondhand shop.

    Colleen – I know! The next time I’m in New York…

    Devoted Reader – I will definitely be searching out Fadiman’s other essay collections. Not only did I love the subject, but her writing is wonderful.

    DS – I would hate to have Anne Fadiman edit my blog posts, I can’t imagine how she would squirm at all my mistakes!

    André – I’ll have to have a look for the Clifton Fadiman book. Ex Libris made me quite curious to look into the rest of her family, an extraordinarily erudite tribe!

    Litlove – I will forever be a devoted fan of Fadiman at this point and I look forward to her other books.

    Dorothy – I was wondering if you had ever gotten to the bookshop she describes, you’ll have to make us all jealous on one of your next biking and booking adventures!

    Ted – Isn’t it just?

  9. zhiv

    Wow. What a great post. I already knew that I need to get and read the Fadiman book, but now I know it better. And the bookstore aside is a wonderful bit–I could read about readers and bookstores all day.

    But the part of this gem that I like the best is the too-brief description of your family library and reading habits. More! 17th century novels? “Collectible contemporary fiction?” A pair of reading daughters powering through “enthusiasms” and graduate school, then dumping wheelbarrows of beat-up books off for the library sale. It’s fantastic! How can you tell us more about these scenes and books?

  10. Wynne

    I loved this book and gave my copy to my literature-loving Mother in law. I especially like the “you are there reading” concept. Although I do not read on the same level as Ms. Fadiman, I have enjoyed this concept. Finished “A Room with a View” standing in line, waiting for my turn to enter the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I have had a wonderful time pairing books with places ever since.

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