Book essays: Well-worn pages, eating your words

Sunday, January 10, 1999

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
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.
     (Phil Nel is an adjunct professor of English at The College of Charleston.)




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