This review is posted under “Memoir,” but Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader isn’t memoir. Where memoir often attempts to bring healing or closure to part of an author’s past, Ex Libris provides general commentary on the life of a book addict. This is a collection of short essays about books, each one weaving a bit of Anne Fadiman’s story into it.
Through these essays, we learn that Fadiman never considered herself married until she and her husband merged libraries; she reads anything and everything, including car manuals; she learned about motherhood (at least, her grandmother’s motherhood) through an 1877 book written by a priest; she is a feminist and is irritated by misogynistic language (think: “to each his own”), but is also opposed to changing the language if it is grammatically flawed (i.e. “to each their own”); her parents and brother would go to restaurants and proofread menus together for fun; she likes pens better than computers though she wrote this book on a computer; and she can’t imagine not living in a “book-choked” abode. Among other things.
In the last essay-chapter of this book, Fadiman quotes from George Orwell:
“There was a time when I really did love books,” he wrote, “loved the sight and smell and feel of them… Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a job lot of them… But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening.”
She goes on to try to redeem this statement. But for me, I just found it ironic. That last line was exactly how I felt after reading this book.
Let me be fair and frank: Fadiman is a great writer, and a witty one at that. I did find myself laughing out loud at one point, which I hardly ever do while reading. She is a self-professed wordsmith, dedicating an entire essay to sesquipedalians (“large words”). The writing itself is enjoyable and easy to read. Each of the essays are exactly the same length of pages (8-9), which is a minor element that I appreciated. I liked that consistency and reliability.
So what, then, did I find so bothersome?
It may have started when Fadiman defines two types of readers and categorizes herself in the opposite camp as me (she likes dog-earing pages, writing in books, leaving books open face-down, doesn’t mind abusing the “carnal vessel”). It may also be the way she comes across in tone as extremely pretentious, as do many avid readers and learned people. Either way, my annoyance doubtlessly reached its pinnacle when I got to this line, where she describes how she inherited this elite love for books from her parents and grandparents:
There must be writers whose parents owned no books, and who were taken under the wing of a neighbor or teacher or librarian, but I have never met one.
Or, translated: “Your parents never owned books and you don’t come from the same literary legacy as I do so you will never be the type of successful writer that I know or with whom I associate.” That’s how I took that line to mean. I may be dramatically misinterpreting it… but it left a really bad taste in my mouth.
Ultimately, I think, like Orwell, I became entirely desensitized to the joy of books through the burgeoning overemphasis placed upon them here. To glorify books to such an extent is exhausting. Dissatisfying. Books tell stories, welcome you into worlds, introduce you to people, expand your mind – these are wonderful things. But it seems foolish to allow the associations of an object to take precedence over the substance, which is what I felt happened in this book.
Contrary to its subtitle, this book was not the “confessions of a common reader.” It felt rather like the “confessions of a self-proclaimed addict.” Sure, books are better than drugs, but they are still a placeholder. To devote my love and my life to books for the way they smell, the way they make me feel, the beauty of a bookshelf, or the legacy that I inherited, is unfulfilling. It seems to me that those of us who are book-obsessed attempt, either inadvertently or intentionally, to find our identity in books and everything associated with books. But, like all other placeholders we commit our love to, they won’t ever deliver what we truly seek.