Ex Libris is a collection of 18 essays by Anne Fadiman on books and bookishness. In these essays, Fadiman writes of her family’s obsession with words, merging bookcases with her husband, the case and treatment of books, her love of fountain pens, and more.
It’s hard for me not to like a woman who as a teenager got totally immersed in the works of Thomas Hardy and started classifying all the boys she loved as Damons or Clyms. (For me, they were Angels or Alecs, which is perhaps not such a good thing.) I nodded in agreement with Fadiman’s essay on compulsive proofreading (a habit that I have turned into a career) and with her comments on the need for gender-neutral language, along with her acknowledgement that sometimes linguistic elegance gets lost in the translation. And, like Fadiman, I have an odd affection for catalogs and will happily read them over breakfast if nothing else is available. (Alas, none of the catalogs I receive are nearly as entertaining as hers sound.)
One of my favorite essays discussed the difference between courtly and carnal lovers of books. For the courtly lover,
a book’s physical self was sacrosanct … its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.
I don’t wantonly abuse my books. I do, after all, want them to remain readable, but I don’t take great care to keep them pristine either. If I want to read in the bath, I read in the bath. If I get crumbs in a book, I don’t worry about it. If I know I’m only stepping away from a book for a moment, I’ll almost always splay it facedown instead of grabbing a bookmark—Fadiman compares this to hitting pause instead of stop on a VCR, which strikes me as exactly right. (Note to friends who lend me books: I am far more careful with your books than I am with my own. Bookmarks and dry environments are the rule.)
As with any collection of essays, there were some I liked here better than others, but when the book itself is tiny and the longest essay is fewer than 10 pages, even the less than perfectly delightful essays don’t overstay their welcome, and most of the essays are, in fact, perfectly delightful.
Anne Fadiman is my 5th new author this year, which leaves me with 20 to go to meet my goal in the New Author Challenge.