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Susan’s Bookshelves: Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

It was one of my former A level student who emailed me around 2010. “Mrs Elkin, have you read this?” she asked excitedly. “If you haven’t I know you’ll love it. It made me think of you such a lot”.

Well I could hardly resist that, could I? So I bought Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998) and admired every word. It’s a witty series of essays about books, reading and the effect it has had on the author’s life. Anne Fadiman is an American journalist from a Very Bookish Background.

The quality of her writing is so magical that I hardly dare make the comparison but I’ve come back to Fadiman’s book now – with great pleasure – because I too have just finished a semi-autobiographical book about books and reading. All Booked Up: A Reading Retrospective will be published by The Book Guild on 28 March. I was asked by my publisher (standard practice) which other books/authors my new effort could be likened too. So I cited Anne Fadiman and of course, once I’d picked her book up again I had to read it right through.

She starts with a very amusing account of merging her personal library with her husband’s, several years after they got together. This “transfer of books across the Mason-Dixon Line that separated my northern shelves from his southern ones” was arguably a much more significant step for a pair of bibliophiles than sleeping or living together. George’s books “comingled democratically, united under the all inclusive flag of literature” whereas hers were “balkanised by nationality and subject matter”.

In other essays she writes about sitting in a restaurant with her parents and brother (like George and her two children, they feature a lot) where they all, habitually, vie with each other to spot the errors in the menu rather than choosing food – a whole family of soi-disant proof readers. I liked her essay about Gladstone, Victorian Prime Minister, and one of the most enthusiastic readers ever. In another mood she depicts her eight month old son devouring literature – literally. And she’s thoughtful on the not exactly snappily named The Mirror of True Womanhood: A Book of Instruction for Women in the World which she inherited from her grandmother.

She is hilarious about her own compulsive attachment to mail order catalogues especially when there is nothing else to read but where on earth do they come from? “Although it is tempting to conclude that our mailbox hatches them by spontaneous generation, I know that they are really the offspring of promiscuous mailing lists which copulate in secret and for money”  I joyfully marked that sentence, as I read the book. Like Fadiman I am not much interested in the sanctity of bindings and paper – it’s the content I want. That’s why I’ve taken so readily to reading on a digital tablet, as perhaps Fadiman has by now too. You do, however, miss the scribbles, biscuit crumbs, stains and folds in the old editions which date from student days and have become part of a book’s history as well as of yours. She’s right about that.

It’s quite an art to be intelligent, accessible, thoughtful, funny and scholarly all at the same time but that’s what Fadiman achieves. Thank you, Rachel, You were right. Ex Libris and I were made for each other.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Daughters of the Late Colonel by Katherine Mansfield.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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