Anne Fadiman: EX LIBRIS

Here’s a pleasant, ‘occasional’ book of short essays about reading and books — a book about books. The author is the daughter of the famed Clifton Fadiman, an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica, an editor for Book-of-the-Month Club back in the day, and author of, among other things, The Lifetime Reading Plan, one of those volumes comprising intellectual ambition that I have occasionally dipped in to over the course of my life, and a radio and TV personality.

Anne Fadiman, one of his two children, was editor of The American Scholar for a time and published a small handful of books, including an award-winner about a Hmong family dealing with the American medical system.

I saw a reference to this book, Ex Libris, in the paper a week or two ago, and realized I had a copy of it, on my own shelf of books about books. It’s a small tidy book, like the image here except without the “National Bestseller” brag at the top or the review quote at the bottom, since mine seems to be a first edition.

It comprises 18 short essays on various bookish topics, such as:

  • How two bookish people combine their libraries upon getting married and living together; how to decide which ‘duplicates’ to dispose of;
  • Confronting a set of multisyllabic words which most people didn’t know (diapason, grimoire, mephitic, aspergill, etc.)
  • How most bibliophiles have an ‘odd shelf’ on some specific topic; hers is about polar explorations
  • Writing sonnets, and how she realized as an adult that her early work didn’t cut it
  • How people treat books—leaving them face down, etc—as a contrast between courtly love vs carnal love; the latter write in their books, turn down the page corner, etc. [I am courtly. I never write in books, never turn down page corners. If you see a book in my entire, vast library, that looks as if it’s been read, it’s because I bought it, used, that way.]
  • An old book from 1886 about ‘true womanhood’
  • Flyleaf inscriptions, and how they survive when books are sold or given away
  • Reading books in the location where their events took place, e.g. Thoreau at Walden Pond, etc.
  • The problem of gender pronouns; author disapproves of most solutions; how she encountered the word ‘ms.’ without realizing how to pronounce it, back in the day.
  • How her family proofreads restaurant menus, and signs, and instruction manuals
  • Fine pens with black ink, not pencils or computers
  • Books about food
  • About plagiarism, in an essay that uses footnotes and elaborate references to justify anecdotes or instances of reference or tribute
  • How the author loves to read catalogs that come in the mail
  • Building castles from books as children; children who grow up w/o books
  • Reading out loud
  • A pamphlet by 19th century English prime minister Gladstone about arranging books – anticipating the shelving system on wheels invented much later, and famously used by Charles N. Brown (and Robert Silverberg) in their home libraries
  • Visiting a used bookstore and how opportunities there are unlike shops with new books
  • Recommended reading – other books about books

I have two takeaways. First is the one reference in the book to science fiction. Anne’s father had a vast library, and on p124 she discusses it, and mentions, “The only junk, relatively speaking, was science fiction.” She doesn’t say what books.

Second — the running theme of the book is her childhood as growing up in a family that was literate, that reveled in books, that gained a thorough, pervasive, assumed state of familiarity about world literature. (Not including certain genres…) That’s a fascinating alternative-history fantasy for me; I’m the only one in my family, and the only one in my adult family, who’s interested in books and literature. I’m the outlier.

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