Ex Libris: confessions of a common reader

Anne Fadiman

I got this book out from the library the same day as The Book of the Bookshelf, and Petroski makes several references to this book, so that was a kind of odd coincidence. I can’t remember now what made me seek out these two books specifically. Then I was also thinking about “books about books” and whether I should integrate it as a category. This one ends with a short chapter of recommending reading that begins, “Most good secondhand bookstores have a shelf labeled ‘Books About Books.’” Not particularly earth-shattering, but it’s always interesting when synchronicity abounds, especially around a common locus.

Fadiman’s collection of personal essays about reading were originally published in the Library of Congress magazine Civilization—which apparently doesn’t exist anymore as this is the most recent news about it on the LOC. They vary in topic from book-owning-specific musings—she and her husband marrying their libraries after five years of their own marriage, the “odd shelf” in most people’s collections, buying used vs. new—to language-specific musings. Among the latter I realized that all language nerds aren’t equal. A lot of these pieces reflect a dedication to the classics, whereas most of the language nerd folk I know are not so canonically bent. In the essay “My Ancestral Castles,” she discusses growing up around books, and both her parents are writers, with her father’s collection focused on English poetry and fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and “the only junk, relatively speaking, was science fiction.” It struck me to read later:

There must be writers whose parents owned no books, and who were taken under the wing of a neighbor or teacher or librarian, but I have never met one.

… and realize that growing up the only bookshelves in our house were in the kids’ rooms, that my parents surely had some books, since they did read—but they did not keep a collection of books we could peruse. And what I do remember my parents reading, Fadiman would surely consider “junk,” relative to anything referenced in this book. I certainly did not inherit any particular reading legacy from them. That quote in its context seems to imply a qualifier on the word “writers,” as it seems obvious that of course there are writers out there whose parents didn’t own books or weren’t big readers of, let’s say, “legitimate” literature.

Aside from a few such moments, this is a nice collection of essays focused around reading.