Book essays: Well-worn pages, eating your words
Sunday, January 10,
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common
by Anne Fadiman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 162 pages. $16.
English professors, bibliophiles,
and compulsive readers will love this book of essays about
books. Compact in size but generous in scope, Fadiman's "Ex
Libris" explores our relationships with books and their
contents - reading them, editing them, organizing them, even
shredding and eating them.
To the Fadimans, "bibliophile"
means loving words and not, necessarily, their containers:
Anne's father, the author Clifton Fadiman, reduced the
weight of paperbacks read on airplanes by tearing out
chapters as he completed them and throwing the pages in the
trash. Continuing the tradition of affectionate demolition,
Anne Fadiman's son has eaten the corners from pages three
and eight of "Goodnight Moon."
But, as long as a book has resisted
complete destruction, she prefers a used one because it
carries the history of its readers (albeit in marginalia,
food stains and eaten pages); in contrast, an old, unused
book makes her sad. Upon being given 100-year-old books with
pages still uncut, Fadiman had the impulse to "lend them to
as many friends as possible in order to make up for all the
caresses they had missed during their first century."
If books display the caresses of
their owners, what happens when their owners caress?
"Marrying Libraries," an essay that should strike a chord
with many an ex-graduate student, answers this question by
returning to the week in which she and her husband marry
their libraries, throwing out the duplicates. Hers were
"balkanized by nationality and subject matter"; his
"commingled democratically, under the all-inclusive flag of
Literature." The merger of their differently organized
libraries brings to mind Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My
Library." Arranging a library, he wrote, is "a balancing act
of extreme precariousness."
"Ex Libris" should occupy a
prominent place on that shelf reserved for the undeservedly
small genre of writing about writing - a category that
includes Benjamin's essay, about half of Nicholson Baker's
"The Size of Thoughts," and all of Virginia Woolf's "The
Common Reader" and "The Second Common Reader."
If your library has such a shelf,
Fadiman's collection makes a lively addition; if not, then
"Ex Libris' should give you reason to start one.
Nel is an adjunct professor of English at The College of