Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a collection of essays that provides bookish conversations to bibliophiles. It’s also a literary memoir because Fadiman injects bookish anecdotes about her reading life, which includes her family. Some favorite topics include arranging books in one’s own library, classifying the kinds of readers, buying second-hand books, and growing up and still living in a world of books.
In Marrying Libraries, Fadiman discusses the various ways readers may arrange their books on their shelves. Shelf description is expanded in My Odd Shelf, My Ancestral Castles, and The P.M.’s Empire of Books, which is about the strict shelving habits of four times British Prime Minister Gladstone. Although such a political figure is mentioned in this book, it remains true to its subtitle: it’s still wholly confessions of a common reader.
What are the merits of writing and critiquing books right on their pages? What books have surprisingly made an impact on you? On what page should you write an inscription when you’re giving a book to a friend? How can your perception and experience change when you read a description of a setting while being right at that place? Why are some people obsessed with long words, pens, catalogues, and proofreading? Is there any benefit to reading aloud?
There are also topics on poetic attempts (Scorn Not the Sonnet), gender equality on print (The His’er Problem), originality and plagiarism (Nothing New Under the Sun), and cooking (The Literary Glutton). There’s nothing about ebooks and how the Internet revolutionized reading because this was published in the late 90s. The general tone of the essays is candid, which is just right for a fun book. Other sources are not abundant, but when there are any, references are drawn from her editor and writer friends, who also are big readers. In Fadiman’s tight literary circle, one can’t not notice erudite background, and this may lead one to suspect that she’s a snob and not a common reader after all.
But the common love that we all have for books makes her as common as any book lover, and this love can be felt right from the first page. It is hard not to at least like a book that is about books, the reading life, and bookish conversations, such as the one below:
“When I was leaving work that day, I noticed that the proprietor had put one of Clive’s books in the fifty-cent cart we kept on the sidewalk. It was an Edwardian compact Shakespeare with an ugly typeface and garishly colored plates. Inside, in a round adolescent hand that must have been dated from his teens or early twenties, Clive had written his name and the lines from The Tempest ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.'”
I asked Adam what he had done with the book.
“I bought it,” he said, “and took it home.”
[Read in January 2014.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
[162 pages. Trade paperback. A book club traveling book.]