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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader Hardcover – October 31, 1998

4.6 out of 5 stars 137 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The subtitle of Anne Fadiman's slim collection of essays is Confessions of a Common Reader, but if there is one thing Fadiman is not, it's common. In her previous work of nonfiction, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, she brought both skill and empathy to her balanced exploration of clashing cultures and medical tragedy. The subject matter here is lighter, but imbued with the same fine prose and big heart. Ex Libris is an extended love letter to language and to the wonders it performs. Fadiman is a woman who loves words; in "The Joy of Sesquipedalians" (very long words), she describes an entire family besotted with them: "When I was growing up, not only did my family walk around spouting sesquipedalians, but we viewed all forms of intellectual competition as a sacrament, a kind of holy water as it were, to be slathered on at every opportunity." From very long words it's just a short jump to literature, and Fadiman speaks joyfully of books, book collecting, and book ownership ("In my view, nineteen pounds of old books are at least nineteen times as delicious as one pound of fresh caviar"). In "Marrying Libraries" Fadiman describes the emotionally fraught task of merging her collection with her husband's: "After five years of marriage and a child, George and I finally resolved that we were ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation. It was unclear, however, how we were to find a meeting point between his English-garden approach and my French-garden one." Perhaps some marriages could not have stood the strain of such an ordeal, but for this one, the merging of books becomes a metaphor for the solidity of their relationship.

Over the course of 18 charming essays Fadiman ranges from the "odd shelf" ("a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection reveals a good deal about its owner") to plagiarism ("the more I've read about plagiarism, the more I've come to think that literature is one big recycling bin") to the pleasures of reading aloud ("When you read silently, only the writer performs. When you read aloud, the performance is collaborative"). Fadiman delivers these essays with the expectation that her readers will love and appreciate good books and the power of language as much as she does. Indeed, reading Ex Libris is likely to bring up warm memories of old favorites and a powerful urge to revisit one's own "odd shelf" pronto. --Alix Wilber

From Publishers Weekly

The author of last year's NBCC-winning The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, has collected 18 essays about her relationships with books, reading, writing and words. Gathered from the "Common Reader" column Fadiman wrote for Civilization magazine, these essays are all inspired by interesting ideas?how spouses merge their large libraries, the peculiar pleasures of reading mail-order catalogues, the joys of reading aloud, how people inscribe their books and why. Unfortunately, some of these fascinating ideas grow fussy. The minutiae of the shelving arrangements at the Fadiman household brings the reader to agree with the author's husband, who "seriously contemplated divorce" when she begged him to keep Shakespeare's plays in chronological order. The aggressive verbal games waged in Fadiman's (as in Clifton) family are similarly trying: They watched G.E. College Bowl, almost always beating the TV contestants; they compete to see who can find the most typos on restaurant menus; and adore obscure words such as "goetic" (pertaining to witchcraft). At least the author is self-aware: "I know what you may be thinking. What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!" Well, yes, but Fadiman's writing, particularly in her briefer essays, is lively and sparkling with earthy little surprises: William Kunstler enjoyed writing (bad) sonnets, John Hersey plagiarized from Fadiman's mother. Books are madeleines for Fadiman, and like those pastries, these essays are best when just nibbled one or two at a time.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 162 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (October 31, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374148600
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374148607
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.8 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (137 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #854,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
I was reading Ex Libris as my 9-year-old daughter Sarah was reading a Marguerite Henry book. I laughed out loud, and Sarah wanted to know why, so I read her a passage from Ms. Fadiman's essay on taking care of books. There are two camps of booklovers: the "words are everything" group, into which the entire Fadiman family, as voracious a bunch of readers as you could imagine, belongs. They write in margins, dog-ear pages, break spines. To them, a book is merely a container for the thoughts in it. And then there are the folks who would never write in a book, or turn down a page. I asked Sarah, who's been reading, avidly, for six years, which group she belonged to. Of course the words are important, she replied, but if you don't take good care of the book, you won't be able to read them. You can have that sort of conversation over and over while reading the essays that make up Ex Libris, and since you care about books (why else would you be visiting Amazon dot com, or Ms. Fadiman's page?), you probably will -- even if you're alone, and the conversation is internal.
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Format: Paperback
This book made me think that Anne Fadiman would be my new best friend if she lived close enough. Books are in her genetic make-up, obtained from her energetic parents, shared with her affectionate husband, and passed on to her young children.

The book itself consists of a series of short essays on book and reading-related topics: happy arguments between new spouses about how to merge their collections; the peccadillos of how each of us treats books (to bend down a corner or not to bend?), the joys of spelunking in used bookstores; and the like.

Fadiman's prose is charming and articulate, as those readers familiar with her outstanding book "The Spirits Catches You and You Fall Down" will already know. It's a brief and thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a few hours. However, since the book is a set of essays originally published in the magazine "Civilization," the chapters don't GO anywhere; there is no Grand Point or Theme beyond the affection for books.

Fadiman shouldn't be condemned for this, but enjoyed - this book is not an entree but a box of dessert chocolates, delicious if not enough for a full meal.
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Format: Paperback
This is the perfect little book for anyone who prefers reading to TV watching. Fadiman grew up in a reading family where their favorite pastime was grilling each other about the origins of quotations. "Like the young Van Dorens, the Fadiman children were ritually asked to identify literary quotations. While my mother negotiated a honking traffic jam on an L.A. freeway... my father would mutter, `We are here as on a darkling plain...' and Kim and I would squeal in chorus, `Dover Beach.'"
While some might find this egocentric, I was enthralled with their literary banter. My family used to hold similar competitions on words and quotes, and of course we played Jeopardy! against each other for years. There are many excellent essays in this collection - I particularly loved one of her funniest essays on plagiarism in which she swamps the readers with a multitude of superfluous footnotes. Another hilarious essays details her encounter with the legendary William Shawn (New Yorker) who tried not to embarrass her for not knowing the correct pronunciation of the "Ms." in Ms. Magazine. This is a book to be savored while sipping tea, reclined in a favorite reading chair in the family library.
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Format: Hardcover
Anne Fadiman (b. 1953) is that rare writer - she speaks directly to the mind of the reader. Though we don't know her, she seems to be our best friend. I even think she'd be pleased that I read the 162-page volume the way I'd pick at a delicious tinned fruit cake - savoring each morsel-filled page. Emerging from an eminent literary family - and knowing enough, though happily married - to keep her own name - she recounts childhood days of compulsively proofreading menus and enjoying the art of reading a Toyota manual. An entire chapter is delightfully devoted to the library of former British prime minister Gladstone (1809-98). When "leadership pressed too heavily on him, Gladstone did one of 3 things: felled large trees with an ax; walked around London talking to prostitutes; or arranged books." Arrange your own bookshelf or nighttable to include this beautiful lime-colored volume, with little Anne sitting atop a pile of books, our next-best teachers on how to live our lives. Her wit and humanity abound!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What a marvelous book!
When Anne Fadiman started to describe the merger of her library with her husband's (never mind that they had been married for years and had children together, this was the event that convinced her they were *really* married), I knew I had stumbled on a kindred soul. Anne Fadiman can write, and she chooses to write about what it means to live a life surrounded by (and wallowing in, let's admit it!) books.
Her love affair with the written word permeates this book. The details of her life are completely different than mine, but this book made me feel like I understood her from the inside out. I read large parts of this book out loud, to anyone I could find who seemed like they might find it amusing. Most of them ran out and got themselves a copy of the book. I can't read it out loud to you, so all I can say is if you love reading, if you are consumed with a love of the written word, Anne Fadiman's book will speak to the deepest part of your soul.
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