Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
by Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998
157 pages

A sonnet might look dinky, but it was somehow big enough to accommodate love, war, death, and O. J. Simpson. You could fit the whole world in there if you shoved hard enough.

The above quote could just as easily describe this wonderful book of essays as sonnets. It is a small book, but so large in bookish scope and quotable bits and things to think about that I am afraid this review may be fairly long. It's a book that makes me excited about reading. I don't need much encouragement, it's true, but maybe I have lately; maybe this book has hit me at just the right time.

Ex Libris is a smallish collection of essays on books, reading, literature, and literary lives by editor and writer Anne Fadiman. The essays are short -- five or six pages each -- and they fly by too quickly. I actually felt quite saddened that there were no more at the end, and that's always a good feeling when it comes to books.

I think what I like most is that I don't always agree with Fadiman; I felt more like I was having a discussion with her as I read -- well, she was persuading and orating, and I was interjecting and commenting. I think she's fascinating, I learned many things, I love her outlook on reading and most things literary, but. This is a woman, who in the same essay, can write the absolutely marvelous sentence:

I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, and get her fingerprints all over them.

And then she will go on to write in the same essay,

Our father's library spanned the globe and three millenia, although it was particularly strong in English poetry and fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The only junk, relatively speaking, was science fiction;

Which makes me want to bash the book against the wall. It's not just that it's a horribly snobby thing to write (because I have come, at this point, to the conclusion that Fadiman comes by her literary snobbery honestly, and some people are like that, and fine) but it makes me sad for her. If an entire genre like science fiction (and what must she think of fantasy? or god forbid, romance?) can be dismissed so easily, how much she is missing. The remarkable, brain-tingling writing of Samuel Delany, for example, is better than most literary fiction I have read. Ursula K. Le Guin, with things to say about gender and belonging and truth and loyalty in the most creative ways. Entire challenging, interesting, shining works of art dismissed as junk because they happen to be written in genre. I know I can be a bit sensitive to this, but that sort of thing always feels like a punch in the gut, a complete dismissal of something that I both enjoy for fun and intellectually.

It is a testament to how much I enjoy these essays that I didn't throw the book, and in fact just shook my head in bemusement and kept reading. Because, like there is more to science fiction than space ships and aliens, there is far more to these essays than one throwaway comment, telling though it is. And it doesn't hurt, once in a while, to think about what it is I love about reading, and why I like reading what I do, and what books mean to me. And think, in detail, about how I might defend that position to someone like Fadiman -- or whether or not it needs to be defended at all.

Other essays are about books as objects, about used bookstores, about compulsive proofreading, about personalized inscriptions, about marrying personal libraries when the owners marry, and one of my favourites: an essay about the his/her dilemma. It deals with Fadiman's personal wrestling with gendered language, about the difficulty of sometimes placing equality over beauty in a sentence, and why it is necessary. From that came the following passage:

Long ago, my father wrote something similar: "The best essays [do not] develop original themes. The develop original men, their composers." Since my father, unlike E. B. White, is still around to testify, I called him up last night and said, "Be honest. What was really in your mind when you wrote those sentences?" He replied, "Males. I was thinking about males. I viewed the world of literature -- indeed, the entire world of artistic creation -- as a world of males, and so did most writers. Any writer of fifty years ago who denies that is lying. Any male writer, I mean."

I believe that although my father and E. B. White were not misogynists, they didn't really see women, and their language reflected and reinforced that blind spot.

This is particularly interesting to me given that Fadiman's father and E. B. White were both married to very accomplished women of letters, and both relied on them for artistic assistance and delighted in sharing the world of literature with them. Fascinating, thought-provoking stuff.

Fadiman is not a common reader, nor is she a common writer. She is erudite, clever, interesting, funny, and replete with new and unusual words (I am going to follow her example and list words in this book that I have never encountered before -- it is going to be a long one). It occurs to me that someone less talented may have come off as patronizing or full-of-herself, but Fadiman's essays come off instead as full of joie de vivre and completely, head-over-heels in love with language and the written word. She isn't using her fancy words to impress. She is using them because they exactly embody what she wants to say, and she just happens to have them handy for use. Her vocabulary becomes a gift to the reader.

This book is delightful, and I need to find my own copy. I'll also be keeping an eye out for her newer collection of essays, At Large and at Small. I recommend Ex Libris highly to anyone who loves reading, language, and most especially books.

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