Book Review: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Book Review: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading a book about books are among the coziest experiences a bookworm can have, in my opinion. Even if you don’t share all or many or any of the author’s views on books at all, there’s something about the knowledge that this person took the time to write an entire book for the soul purpose of expressing their fervent love for the medium that produces instant camaraderie between writer and reader.

“I have never been able to resist a book about books.”

Anne Fadiman is overly loquacious and verbose in her writing, but I think that’s easily forgivable when someone is writing about their greatest passion. Fadiman is a huge believer in book collecting, with a library of thousands of volumes crowding her and her husband and children into tighter quarters. I relate to that need to collect on an almost spiritual level, and would happily wear rags and eat nothing but cereal and sandwiches if I lived alone, so that I could buy books with every spare dollar. Thankfully, I have a husband who keeps this desire in check, encouraging my love of reading but reminding me that space is limited and bills must be paid. I’m glad I have someone who understands my desire for more books but helps me find a balance. But Fadiman is married to a man who shares her deep and abiding love for the written word, so her collection makes mine (of approximately 2,700 volumes) seem paltry in comparison.

“Other people’s walls looked naked to me. Ours weren’t flat white backdrops for pictures. They were works of art themselves, floor-to-ceiling mosaics whose vividly pigmented tiles were all tall skinny rectangles, pleasant to the touch and even, if one liked the dusty fragrance of old paper, to the sniff.”

Fadiman writes not only of her love for reading and collecting, but of the vocabulary that reading has given her, and the compulsion to edit everything she reads right down to restaurant menus and instruction manuals (I am so guilty of this), and her propensity for annotating her books with gleeful abandon. The merits of reading aloud are proclaimed in great detail. She discusses the difficulty of marrying libraries and the fact that new books will never be as enticing to her as ratty, second-hand hardbacks.

“I have come to view margins as a literary commons with grazing room for everyone—the more, the merrier.”

In one essay, Fadiman explains the difference between courtly love and carnal love when it comes to books; those who value the physical book itself and could never annotate in the margins or dog-ear a page are courtly lovers of books, while those who love books only for the words they hold have no respect for the physical book and have no qualms about reading a book in the bath for breaking the spine so said book will lie flat are book lovers of the carnal variety. My friend Petrik is the epitome of a courtly book lover. Fadiman and her family are carnal book lovers who believe that the more battered a book is, the more personality it shows. I am somewhere in between the two. While I try to keep books in the best shape I can, I also have a soft spot for used book, and though my heart aches a bit when a book is returned in less than stellar condition, I will never stop lending them out. Though I do mark them with my fancy library embosser first, so no one ever “forgets” where the books came from.

“When you read silently, only the writer performs. When you read aloud, the performance is collaborative. One partner provides the words, the other the rhythm.”

This was a lovely little collection to nibble away at while reading other, denser, more serious books. If you love hearing about the reading lives of others, I believe you’ll really enjoy Fadiman’s essays on her passion for the written word.

You can purchase a copy of the book here, with free shipping worldwide!

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