A blog for everything bookish

Friday 7 February 2014

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

I am a bookaholic, I think we’ve established that. I find it hard to imagine a life without books, a life not being surrounded by books. E-Readers horrify me, their clinical un-bookishness, their empty, soulless, paperless, unfeelingness in which you can carry around an entire library and yet, for me, the very fact that I can’t carry around my library gives me a fuzzy-warm feeling of security. Wherever I am, whatever book I am carrying with me, I know that my library is waiting patiently for me at home. Books on every surface, that’s me. And of course I know that e-Readers are a boon to many, not least of which to those who live in climates that eat paper alive, but not to me. Not to me. I am a covetous bibliophile. My children can grow up and move out but my books are mine until I die.

So imagine the pleasure to discover this wonderful little book about a woman who loves books, if you can comprehend the idea of this, EVEN MORE THAN ME. It is rare for me to encounter someone who loves books as much as me, but in reading this small volume I discovered that perhaps I’m only an average bibliophile after all. Perhaps in the world of book loving, I’m a mid-ranker. And I’m ashamed (only a little, and perhaps equally a little proud) to say that it raised a kind of competitive book-loverishness in me. I found myself measuring her against me, and sadly found myself wanting.

But that’s enough about my bruised ego, let’s talk about the book. It’s, just kidding. Any book that speaks so lovingly and exploratively about the art of loving books was bound to be worth a read. In Ex Libris Fadiman shares, though the course of 18 short essays, her musings on the challenges and art of reading. She talks about the terror of inter-mixing libraries (I have never done this; my husband’s science fiction books are squeezed into whatever tiny space I allow them, usually hidden behind a pile of books that are ALL MINE), of the difficulty of deciding which duplicate volume to remove, the impossibility of not-proof reading, the compulsion to read anything including catalogues, the pleasures of reading aloud and the dreaded question of how best to store your books whilst addressing the necessity to always have one within easy reach.

Each chapter addresses a different aspect of book reading. No doubt different readers would have different favourites, but the one that really struck home to me was a chapter called “Never do that to a book” which addresses the question which splits readers right down the middle: is your love of books courtly (i.e. you treat books like articles of fine art) or carnal (you practically devour your books, write on them, bend their spine, rip pages out, etc)? Now I will confess, here and now, that I am a courtly lover of books; the idea of writing on a book horrifies me. Never have my books seen highlighter pen or markers. The idea of ripping out chapters after you’ve read them, as Fadiman’s father did to make the volume lighter and easier to carry, makes me sick to my stomach. Fadiman, however, sees it quite differently; she sees her connection to the book as physical and temporal and the idea of picking up an old volume and discovering the notes of her much younger self is part of how she connects with the books that she reads. She literally ‘loves them to pieces’, and whilst my instinctive inner book-lover screams at the idea of it, I can see what she means. The other night my daughter came to me and asked me if we had any copies of The Chronicles of Narnia she could read. I led her to my seven ancient volumes, yellowed, faded and a little loose-leaved. I passed them to her with shaky hands and asked her, as calmly as I could, to treat them carefully; they are old and fragile and precious and easily broken. Then she opened up The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and there, on the first page, in the top left corner, in tentatively pressed pencil was my name and my address, written to claim ownership of these precious articles when I was around nine or ten and reading these wonderful books that had been handed down to me. When I saw my shaky (but frankly neater than it is now) handwriting in the cover, it meant something to me. So whilst I’m not about to get out the Sharpie and scrawl all over my signed copy of The Goldfinch, the idea of writing in books, of loving them to pieces has become a lot less abhorrent to me.

What is lovely about this book is how Fadiman shares both the joy and frailties of book loving; there is a lot of humour in her writing, and a kind of intimacy as she uses her personal experience and anecdotes to show where excessive book-loving can lead. It is a funny, quirky and enlightening book which has made me think a lot about the way I read and what it means to me. It made me want to pick up a book and read to my kids again (apparently they’re never too old, though I tried it this morning and after about 6 lines my daughter took the book from my hands and put it carefully back in the bookcase, a meaningful look in her eye), or perhaps read as a family. When we recently visited the Harry Potter experience for my daughter’s birthday, I read extracts from The Tales of Beedle the Bard in the car on the way home, and it was weird but also kind of interesting, and little different, really, to listening to the radio. This book has helped me to appreciate, and in some ways deepen, my life-long love of reading. It is life-affirming and a blessing, and an absolute pleasure to read.  

Ex Libris receives a bookish 9 out of 10 Biis. 

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