Saturday, March 8, 2008

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Andres asked me, again... well really BEGGED me this time... to read this book and tell me what I thought of it... to review it for him. Imed me from an internet cafe in Accra and told me that this was my homework.

Since Andres is sort of my own personal professor and el catalizador of some impressive things in my life --including but not limited to my masters degree-- I took him seriously and went to the library today, not 24 hours after receiving my assignment. 3 hours after pulling the book off the shelf at the library, I'd finished it, melting into the first available chair on the library's second floor with one arm free of my jacket and my scarf half on/half off, and ignoring the strange man to my right whom I think may have stared at me the whole time I was reading. Patrick tells me that there are 70 positive reviews of this book on, which is hardly surprising, since the kind of people who write reviews on are exactly the kind of people this book is intended for... it's a book for the bookish, or those who fancy themselves as such (like me).

I knew the name Anne Fadiman but couldn't remember why, until I saw that she is the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is one of those books that everyone who fancies themselves sort of a lay anthropologist (like me) knows about, even if they haven't actually read it (see above comment about fancying oneself bookish). I first heard about it years ago from Lala Iverson (maybe someday I'll write a post about her) but have heard of it several times since.

Anyway, Ex Libris is a fantastic read for the bibiliophile or bibliophile want-to-be. Fadiman is incredibly well-read and is surrounded by other incredibly well-read people. Her writing about her reading allows the voyeuristic reader a little entrance into the life and world of someone who grew up among intellectuals, whose whole life has been among books, and really DECENT books, too. I have to admit jealousy while reading about the bookshelves of her parents, about the things she had read by the time she was 14 and 16, about the merging of her massive book collection with that of her husband. I droolingly followed her writing about massive volumes I'd never heard of or dreamed of reading, like Livy's History of Rome, and of authors and books I'd really wanted to read but never gotten around to, like Nabokov and Thomas Wolfe and Anatomy of Melancholy by Burton. I found it interesting that she and Annie Dillard both share a fascination with the doomed British Antarctic expeditions... and wonder if I should read up on them now. I took a page of scrawled notes of books and authors I'm now interested in reading, and I didn't even start taking notes 'til I was halfway through the book. I could have written a couple of pages of vocabulary words, too, but that's by-the-by...

Not only do you get little snippets of text and analysis of books you've never had the time or erudition to read, you get them told anecdotally through loving eyes... not through the eyes of a critic or a professional literary analyst or a bored English professor, but through the eyes of someone whose love for books is foundational to her sense of self, and who is writing about the books she PARTICULARLY loves (and writing extremely well). She writes about books, and writing, and the love of long words, and inscriptions and book shelves and politics and compulsive proofreading of pretty much everything written (of which I am also guilty)... so many things in such a small space that is somewhat exhausting, but exhiliarating at the same time.

My favorite, favorite essay in this book --so favorite that I paid 75 cents to photocopy it so I could have it forever, or at least until I lose it-- is "Nothing New Under the Sun". It's a brilliant and extensively footnoted essay on the impossibility of avoiding plagiarism, but also of the damage that plagiarism does, using the example of Fadiman's own mother to emphasize the point. Fadiman's attempt to footnote EVERYTHING unoriginal in her own essay is as hilarious as it is thorough, and it points out brilliantly how much we are conduits for everything around us, and how easy it is to mistake the ideas of others for your own... well, really, what a mistake it is to take pride in your ideas or your language, because they're probably someone else's. I photocopied it because it was such a clever idea and because I want to find the sources she mentions, but also to remind myself not to beat myself up for sounding like someone else when I write, because everyone always does.

To sum it up, this is a really lovely read... undoubtedly worth spending more time on than I did, but my personal book list is pretty long so I wanted to knock this one out rather than letting it languish behind the others in my queue, a problem I imagine I share with anyone interested in the book. I would highly recommend it to any booklover looking for a kindred spirit, some really good book recommendations, and a smile on their face throughout the read.

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