Bookworm: Anne Fadiman's 'Ex Libris' offers unique bond for bibliophiles
By Kathleen Duncan
May 29, 2013 at 12:29 a.m.
When I lived in Boston, I didn't have a lot of money or belongings, but I had a lot of books.
I had saved up for grad school for a couple years and was funneling all my savings into my tuition, so things like furniture and plates took a backseat to rent and school supplies.
Despite that, I managed to mail myself a few boxes of books when I left Los Angeles and accumulated quite a few more after my first few weeks in Boston.
Boston, my friends, has glorious secondhand bookshops - Harvard Book Store, Brattle Book Shop, Brookline Booksmith. I probably knew all the great secondhand bookshops before I knew where my classes were.
So when my books began to pile up, tripping me on my way to the bathroom or making it hard to open the front door to my tiny studio apartment, I figured out the perfect solution: kitchen cabinets.
For a studio apartment in Boston, my kitchen had some really nice cabinets. They were so deep and wide, you could really pile a lot of books in there - even large photo books.
Of course, I had a system, so when I needed a new book, I could flip open the ones over the stove or pull out a drawer near the sink and find what I was looking for. Literature above, mysteries in the drawers, biographies in the bottom.
My friends thought this a tad odd, but they never did anything except shake their heads at me. Though I had no bibliophiles who could understand my priorities in Boston, I did have some in my favorite books.
"Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader" by Anne Fadiman is one of the best jaunts into another slightly obsessed bibliophile's world.
When I first read this book, I (in the tradition of Helene Hanff in "84, Charing Cross Road") wanted to holler "Comrade!" at Fadiman as I read her words. Here was someone who understood my bookish ways.
Fadiman starts with a piece about her and her husband. They had been married for five years and been together long before that, but it was finally time to take the biggest step of their relationship. It was time to mix their books together. She describes it as a hard, humorous and emotional process, but they manage it, and at the end she says, "My books and his books had become our books. We were really married."
Another anecdote is a tale of her love of words from growing up in a family that treasured obscure vocabulary. "One of my greatest disappointments about growing up is that it has become harder and harder to achieve a Wally like degree of sesquipedalian repletion. There just aren't enough new words."
One touching story is about a special book sent to her from her mother that once belonged to her great-grandmother. In this essay, she shares how books passed down through the generations can teach us a little about the people that came before us. They can make us feel closer to our family history.
Fadiman speaks of the intimacy of reading aloud, of growing up in a house that loved books so much she still remembers the color and heft of the treasured volumes, and of her own children learning the same love of books from their parents.
And then, for those that can't get enough, she ends with a recommended reading piece, listing her own favorite books about books.
So if you happen to split your paycheck into money for rent and money for books, if you've ever bought books instead of food and clothing, and if you've ever convinced your friends that you do, seriously, need to visit all six secondhand bookshops in a town to see what they have (true story, my friends are amazing and let me do it), then take my advice - buy this lovely collection of essays.
And if you're anything like me, you'll store it in your best, watertight and spacious kitchen cabinet with all the other really great ones.