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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998)

by Anne Fadiman

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4,2992062,295 (4.19)729
Anne Fadiman is--by her own admission--the sort of person who learned about sex from her father's copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate's 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice. This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father's 22-volume set of Trollope ("My Ancestral Castles") and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections ("Marrying Libraries"), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony--Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners. Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.… (more)
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English (197)  Spanish (2)  Norwegian (1)  French (1)  Swedish (1)  German (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (204)
Showing 1-5 of 197 (next | show all)
A lovely little collection of essays about the odd intersections between reading and everyday life, where Fadiman talks about how we organise books in our homes (or not), how we acquire them and pass them on, how we mistreat them, how we read aloud or are read to, how the books on our parents' shelves can be raw material for building forts or a reference source in the quest for sexual enlightenment, and so on. There's a silly piece that purports to show that no-one has ever written anything original about plagiarism, and a rueful look at the joys of finding errors in restaurant menus and of writing bad but perfectly-iambic sonnets. Nothing life-changing, but probably a good book to slip into the Christmas stocking of any book-addict too young to have read it when it first came out. ( )
  thorold | May 16, 2022 |
This a series of essays about the author's experience reading books and building library. The essays are mostly pleasing to read, because the author writes well, and the author has an interesting family who share her love of reading. Actually it's obvious the author and her family are extremely intelligent, educated, and privileged. They've read everything and know everything. They attended Ivy League schools and hold accomplished careers are authors or journalists. It's kind of like watching Big Bang Theory except this book is about nerdy bookworms instead of nerdy physicists. My favorite essay is the one on how the author worked on combining her book collection with her husband's and how aggravating it was for her. Another fun essay is the one in which the author read a book that included 19 words she didn't know, and she got very obsessed with it because....I guess it's an unusual experience for her, so she surveyed friends and family on whether they know these 19 words. And she extensively wrote about how well they did. Very quirky! ( )
  CathyChou | Mar 11, 2022 |
Nice collection essays about reading, books, libraries and the joy of used books. Each essay picks a different aspect of the bibliophile and are of consistently high quality. I found that reading them one at a time, spread amongst my other reading to be the most satisfying way to approach the book. ( )
  kevn57 | Dec 8, 2021 |
I picked this up based on a recommendation and abandoned it about 75% in. I'm a sucker for books about books, bookshops, or libraries, both fiction and otherwise. But this one: no, thank you.

The essays on how books are central and essential to the author's childhood, life, relationships, marriage are very well-written. The author has a droll sense of humor that emerges here and there. But. This is a person who takes herself, her reading, even the way in which she displays her books in her personal library Very Seriously. Let's just say the idea of enjoying a beach read or the pleasures of Sweet Valley High or thrill in the forbidden fruits of Flowers in the Attic would be so far out of this person's orbit as to be in an other galaxy altogether.

The only thing that saves this from being completely pretentious, elitist, and insufferable is that the author's love of her books, her parents/brother, and her husband come through clearly and genuinely. Without that, this would completely drown under the weight of its literary self-importance. ( )
  angiestahl | Sep 23, 2021 |
In the one of the late essays, Fadiman says about people, "Their selves were on their shelves." Which is a truism most bibliophiles like us, who go straight to any collection of books in a new home, live by. And most of you will likely find yourselves in at least, but probably a bunch, of the other essays collected here. Whether how to care for and shelve books or grammar and editing mistakes, we are all here in Fadiman's slim book; it punches above its weight. I was surprised when I looked up the author and found I'd already read an earlier work by her, [The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down]. She's an intuitive and imminently well-read writer, a pleasure to read. ( )
1 vote blackdogbooks | Aug 29, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 197 (next | show all)
The book is a modest, charming, lighthearted gambol among the stacks. It serves up neither ideas nor theories but anecdotes about the joys of collecting and reading books.
added by jburlinson | editSalon, Dan Cryer (Oct 7, 1998)
 
A terribly entertaining collection of personal essays about books, reading, language, and the endearing pathologies of those who love books.
added by jburlinson | editBoston Book Review, Patsy Baudoin (Jan 23, 1998)
 
Witty, enchanting and supremely well-written... One of the most delightful volumes to have come across my desk in a long while, a book of essays in celebration of bibliophilia that will appeal to anyone who's ever tootled about in a secondhand bookshop and who loves books.
added by Lemeritus | editLondon Observer, Robert McCrum
 
These 18 stylish, dryly humorous essays... pay tribute to the joys of reading, the delights of language, and the quirks (yes there are a few) of fellow bibliophiles... A charmingly uncommon miscellany on literary love.
added by Lemeritus | editEntertainment Weekly, Megan Harlan
 
It is not just that she is erudite (which she is), or that an outlandish word will send her to the dictionary (which it will). It's that a book will set her pulses racing, whether it's Livy's account of the battle of Lake Trasimene or Beatrix Potter's "The Story of the Fierce Bad Rabbit." More to the point, perhaps. she can set ours racing too.
added by Lemeritus | editThe Economist
 
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Epigraph
Dedication
For Clifton Fadiman
and Annalee Jacoby Fadiman,
who built my ancestral castles
First words
Preface:
When the Irish novelist John McGahern was a child, his sisters unlaced and removed one of his shoes while he was reading.
A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together.
Quotations
Wake is just the right verb, because there is a certain kind of child who awakens from a book as from an abyssal sleep, swimming heavily up through layers of consciousness toward a reality that seems less real than the dream-state that has been left behind.
I, on the other hand, believe that books, maps, scissors, and Scotch tape dispensers are all unreliable vagrants, likely to take off for parts unknown unless strictly confined to quarters.
It has long been my belief that everyone's library contains an Odd Shelf. On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner.
Americans admire success. Englishmen admire heroic failure.
In The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf (who borrowed her title from a phrase in Samuel Johnson’s Life of Gray) wrote of “all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.” The common reader, she said, “differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole.”
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Anne Fadiman is--by her own admission--the sort of person who learned about sex from her father's copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate's 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice. This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father's 22-volume set of Trollope ("My Ancestral Castles") and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections ("Marrying Libraries"), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony--Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners. Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.

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