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.
The author of last year's NBCC-winning The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, has collected 18 essays about her relationships with books, reading, writing and words. Gathered from the "Common Reader" column Fadiman wrote for Civilization magazine, these essays are all inspired by interesting ideas--how spouses merge their large libraries, the peculiar pleasures of reading mail-order catalogues, the joys of reading aloud, how people inscribe their books and why. Unfortunately, some of these fascinating ideas grow fussy. The minutiae of the shelving arrangements at the Fadiman household brings the reader to agree with the author's husband, who "seriously contemplated divorce" when she begged him to keep Shakespeare's plays in chronological order. The aggressive verbal games waged in Fadiman's (as in Clifton) family are similarly trying: They watched G.E. College Bowl, almost always beating the TV contestants; they compete to see who can find the most typos on restaurant menus; and adore obscure words such as "goetic" (pertaining to witchcraft). At least the author is self-aware: "I know what you may be thinking. What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!" Well, yes, but Fadiman's writing, particularly in her briefer essays, is lively and sparkling with earthy little surprises: William Kunstler enjoyed writing (bad) sonnets, John Hersey plagiarized from Fadiman's mother. Books are madeleines for Fadiman, and like those pastries, these essays are best when just nibbled one or two at a time.