Ex Libris came highly recommended by fellow bibliophiles because of its witty and incisive essays about books. And there was a lot to love about this book. Fadiman grew up in a bookish family (She used her father’s set of Trollope novels as building blocks) and both of her parents were writers.
In her preface she writes, “Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?” Later she adds, “Between them, our parents had about seven thousand books. Whenever we moved to a new house, a carpenter would build a quarter of a mile of shelves… Other people’s walls looked naked to me.” (p. 125)
Bibliophiles can be a quirky lot and I chuckled with understanding over her confession of being a compulsive proofreader. “If you are a compulsive proofreader, you know it, since for the afflicted it is a reflex no more avoidable than a sneeze…” (p.82) She differentiates between readers who keep their books in pristine condition as “courtly” lovers from those who devour (i.e., dog ear, underline, love to pieces) their books in “carnal” fashion.
For years I collected lists of “must read” classics, but after a few decades I realized I could never read them all and had to choose those which really interested me. Fadiman assuaged my guilt with her essay on her parents’ diverse home library. She compares it to the library of another writer’s parents by telling of Diana Trilling “who had to wash her hands before she extracted a book from her parents’ glass-fronted bookcase.” Trilling’s parents are chided for this cold, calculating treatment of books. But “by buying his set of leather-bound classics en bloc from a door-to-door salesman, Trilling’s father committed the additional heresy, unimaginable to us, of believing that a library could be one-size-fits-all.” (p. 124) Hooray, I can finally justify my eclectic library!
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand Fadiman is an eloquent writer. And funny too. I loved it when she wrote, “I’d rather have a book, but in a pinch I’ll settle for set of Water Pik instructions.” (p. 113) On the other hand she’s indiscreet about her personal life which interfered with my enjoyment of the book. I know it’s hard to believe, but I managed to be inspired by her father’s books without one single reference to his paramours.
If you love books about books, don’t miss this one.