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Susan’s Bookshelves: Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

We bibliophiles are a world wide club. I doubt, though, that I would have found Anne Fadiman’s delightful set of eighteen book-celebrating essays, had I not been alerted to it by a former student. The young woman in question is a Hong Kong Chinese who became a lawyer after she’d done A levels in a UK boarding school, including English with me. “You’d love this book, Mrs Elkin,” she wrote. So I bought it … according to Amazon that was on 23 May, 2000. I read and admired it and it has sat on my bookshelves for the intervening 21 years.  So it must be time for a re-read – and a moment to rejoice in the global-ness of it. Fadiman is American. I am European. The person who recommended it to me is Asian.

Fadiman comes from a Very Bookish Family. Both her parents were writers. Her brother works in the publishing industry and her husband George is a fellow writer. Their two young children were firmly headed in the same direction when their mother wrote these essays in 1998 – no doubt they’re now, as adults, bookishly engaged, one way or another.

So how – when two people each with big book collections – get together, do you marry your libraries? This is the subject of Fadiman’s opening essay. “We agreed that it made no sense for my Billy Budd to languish forty feet from his Moby-Dick” she writes of the loft they live in “but neither of us had lifted a finger to bring them together”. She continues: “We had been married in this loft in full view of our quarantined Melvilles”. And you grin at that bookish wit which sits lightly on every single page.

I loved the essay about having dinner with her parents and brother in a Florida restaurant where they all – compulsively and habitually – proof-read the menu rather than choosing their food. Then there’s her love affair with mail order catalogues and the poetry she finds in their wordily incomprehensible language. “Joiner’s mash, jack plane/ Splitting froe? Bastard cut rasp!/ Bastard dozuki” she observes, in wry delight as she trawls the Garrett Wade tool catalogue, is a “syllabically impeccable haiku”.

She’s funny about feminism and pronouns too – summing up my own dichotomy very neatly. Yes, I want equality of opportunity, attitude and so on but no, I don’t want mangled grammar and language. I was moved too about her thoughts about reading aloud and how it changes the way we perceive the written word and our rapport with the author – whether it was Dickens performing his own work, her husband, George, reading to their children or Fadiman herself reading to her, newly blind, nonagenarian father.

It’s informative, entertaining, anecdotal, colourful stuff. Peppered as it is with intelligent, knowledgeable references to books and other reading matter, Fadiman is neither heavy nor pompous. She makes me smile a lot, sometimes laugh aloud and is always good company. Describing a surprise birthday organised my her husband to a second hand bookshop in Hastings-on-Hudson ( a village in New York State) they buy nineteen pounds of old books. “I weighed them when we got home”. She declares them “nineteen times as delicious as one pound of fresh caviar” before going on to reflect on the appeal (or not) of second hand books as opposed to new ones, the rise of the paper back and its pros and cons. Her writing here predates the ubiquity of the e-book. I doubt that she’s a fan.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

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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