Ex Libris

To continue the current tour of my Christmas presents, I also got Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (thanks David). It’s a book about the love of books, based on Fadiman’s essays on this subject which have been published in, er, some magazine or other.

The essays are very well written, full of moments of wincing recognition as she describes various quirks of bibliophilia. She describes the love of books very evocatively. But I did have a couple of problems. First, she writes about the difference between courtly and carnal booklovers, the courtly being those, like me, who do not like to crack spines, and the carnal being those like her who crack away merrily and write all over the margins. She very much looks down upon the ‘courtly’ reader as being too precious about books, too fussy, whereas the carnal is a true, passionate booklover.

This pissed me off a bit. She ascribed to the courtly reader all sorts of prim motives which I wouldn’t agree with. I don’t write in the margins of my books not out of some fear of desecration but because I don’t want to see my words on the page, but the author’s; if I wanted to read my own thoughts I’d consult my notebooks. Or, I suppose, this blog. My handwriting is too bad for me to be able to understand marginalia after a while and I don’t like being distracted by scribblings from the main body of the text. In truth, I don’t even much like footnotes – they interrupt the flow too much. If I must write in a book I do so on a post-it note and transfer the thought to my notebook, where it can be compared with other thoughts about other books much more easily. Books, to me, should be clean, and my thoughts, which are generally messy, must therefore be kept somewhere else.

I’m not saying that I think writing in books is wrong, just that I don’t like it. It’s a different style of study, and I disliked having the two methods compared as though one was inherently superior. Similarly, the spine cracking thing; she boasts of how much she sucks books dry, as though the more physical the act of reading is, the more meaningul it becomes – but then later in another essay complains about how her cherished paperbacks are falling apart. You can’t have it both ways. I’ve read some books so hard they’ve broken, and some books fall apart as soon as you look at them – my Life and Fate, for example – but generally if I like a book a lot I try to preserve it, rather than destroy it, in the process of reading.

(Although, to digress, it was useful that my Verso edition of Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama fell apart as soon as I opened it, as I just took out the pages I needed and kept them in my notebook while writing my MA dissertation, so I could refer to them incredibly easily. But this is an exception. I must remember to put them back.)

I dislike any sort of thing where there are two ways of doing something and a person looks down upon one just because they happen to do the other. The second thing that struck me was the essay ‘My Odd Shelf’ which states that everyone has an ‘odd shelf’ in their library, consisting of books that don’t fit in with the general subject matter of the rest of the library. Fadiman’s odd shelf consists of artic exploration books.

At first I thought, oh yes, that’s like my mum’s odd shelf of books about explorers. But then I couldn’t think what my odd shelf would be. My newly-developing collection of prewar travel writing? The books about medieval manuscripts? What would my boyfriend’s odd shelf be? His collection of books on fonts and typefaces, or on London? And I thought of several other stretches of my mum’s library that could qualify for hers… in other words, it struck me that an individual’s library is all odd shelves. Unless you happen to have a two-track mind which fills your house with books on botany and the Crimean War and nothing else, chances are you have many interests and your library will reflect that. This is what makes nosing through someone else’s shelves so interesting.

Don’t let these quibbling make you think I didn’t enjoy the Fadiman. Part of the reason why I enjoyed it so much is because I found things to disagree with; you really feel engaged with the writer as you read. I want the follow-up, At Large and at Small. Pity it’s so long until my birthday.