Ex Libris

Ex Libris

By Anne Fadiman

Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

    One knows that books are sometimes read by people who do so without any expectation of experiencing pleasure from them. Yet those who read for pleasure are at pains to deflect this knowledge.

    The pleasure taken from reading is both insular and personal. The sensible reader guards against the intrusion of insensibility. One is like Lott or Orpheus, charged to walk through the valley of insensibility without looking backward lest the object of our affection turn to a pillar of salt, march back down into the underworld, or otherwise be despoiled of the pleasure of our living association.

    As a general matter insensibility, however pronounced and garish, is easy to ignore. Certain occupations, however, come with special hazards in this regard, and bookselling is one of them. The lurid spectacle of a student genuinely desperate to obtain a Cliffs Notes for Wuthering Heights, "or an audio book or anything" (other than actually reading the book), forces one to acknowledge the existence of what Wodehouse termed "a different and a dreadful world."

    And perhaps it is the jarring nature of the mundane and the insensible which makes books about the love of books so congenial to book lovers. Two books in this august genre have just been released in paperback, A Passion for Books, edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan, and Ex Libris, a collection of essays by Anne Fadiman.

    A Passion for Books is an enjoyable collection of essays, relevant lists, and other matters of interest. One of the most entertaining essays is by the late Clifton Fadiman entitled Pillow Talk, a canny analysis of points of consideration pertinent to reading in bed. The pronounced sense of an interrelation between reading and other aspects of life, which marks Fadiman's essay, is also strongly present throughout Ex Libris, a book which, far from coincidentally, was written by his daughter Anne.

    Anne Fadiman's delightful essays offer a sequence of narrow topics of interest to all passionate readers. The marrying of libraries, courtly versus carnal book love, the merits and demerits of compulsive proofreading, are examples. A number of consistent themes regarding the passion for books run through her essays, namely that it is passed down generationally, that it is interrelated directly with both its objects and its subjects, and that the author is awfully fond of fellow bibliophile and husband George Howe Colt.

    Fadiman sets up her book as the "confessions" of Virginia Woolf's common reader. Woolf's definition of a common reader isn't really a tight fit for Fadiman, but the reader quickly forgives her this odd bit of false modesty.

    Fadiman is far more intent on providing her own definition of a common reader than on embodying Woolf's. Organic, insular, and personal, Ex Libris is steeped with a profound sense of balance, of a literary self which exists as if a perpetual counterweight on a see-saw, providing perspective, movement, and grounding. Time and again Fadiman demonstrates that if reading is good, then so is life.