Ex Libris: Confessions Of A Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman
It is hard to really think of the author of this book as a common reader. Indeed, the more one reads about this book, when one does not laugh at some of the absolutely hilarious things she happens to say about books and reading, the more it is obvious that anyone who reads as much as she does (or as much as the reader is likely to) is not going to be a common reader at all. To be a reader is to be uncommon, especially in an age where somewhere around a quarter of college graduate never bother to read another book again for pleasure after finishing their degrees. To be a reader at the level of the author is certainly extremely uncommon, although it is possible she views herself as a common reader largely because she does read for enjoyment, and happens to be part of a family that reads a lot as well and thinks deeply about books and their context. Although this is a short book, it is full of intriguing thoughts and insights about books that should at least prompt some conversations between the author and other readers as passionate and as opinionated as she is.
This particular book is a quarto-sized book of about 150 page or so. The author begins with an essay about the marriage of libraries, and then follows that one with a discussion of long words and how one learns them. There are reflections on odd shelves as well as the joys of the sonnet and other restrictive forms of poetry and some comments on the way that different people treat books differently. There are essays about womanhood and writings about it, the writings that can be found on flyleaves, the joys of being in places where one can understand exactly what a book means, and the problem of gender identity in writing. There are essays on proofreading, eternal ink, the eating of books, plagiarism, the author’s love of catalogs, ancestral book collections, sharing the mayhem, Gladstone’s Empire of Books, and the joys of secondhand book stores. All of these essays combine to create an intriguing set of impressionistic sketches on what is means to be a reader, to come from a family of readers and to seek to encourage reading in one’s children and to ponder what it means to both read and write and to live a life full of books and their contents.
This book is about a subject of great personal interest to me. The author here provides worthwhile reflections and also this book is a fantastic example of essayism of the best kind, of a lover of books who writes to other lovers of books in a conversation about books in book form made up of small and insightful essays that are full of delightful quirks. Admittedly, as is often the case, I answer some questions as to books and how they are to be treated differently than the author, in that I tend not to do much writing in the books I own rather than fill it with entertaining marginalia. I found the author’s desire to use and teach new words to be endearing and agree with her that contemporary education has led a lot of wonderful connotative words to be lost in contemporary people, with all of the intellectual poverty that induces. Whether or not one agrees with everything she has to say, there is a lot that the author does reflect on, including the sacrifices made by her mother when she had children and had to give up a life of adventure as a foreign correspondent whose dispatches from the Philippines during the early part of World War II were stolen by someone else who was apparently quite fond of robbing the glory of others for his own profit, that is deeply poignant and worthwhile to think about.