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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

In amongst all the exciting and suspenseful novels I have reviewed, I came upon a funny, interesting little book Ex Libris” Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman.  This slim volume of a mere 162 pages is full of humor and wisdom.  According to the cover, “Ex Libris recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language.”  Anne is the editor of The American Scholar.  She has won a National Book Critics Circle Award and has written for numerous magazines.  She now resides with her family in western Massachusetts.


My favorite essay in this collection is “Marrying Libraries.”  Anne writes, “A few months ago, my Husband and I decided to mix our books together.  We had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, been married for five.  Our miss-matched coffee mugs cohabited amicably; we wore each other’s T-shirts and, in a pinch, socks; and our record collections had long ago miscegenated without incident” (3).  This intro is eerily close to the experience of my wife and I over the last twenty or so years.

The essay—as a close second—was “Never Do That to a Book.”  She writes, “I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, so is there more than one way to love a book.  […]  To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.  Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy” (38).  At this point, I was about to close this book and banish it forevermore.  But I returned despite the possibility of further sacriliages. 

Anne writes, “I confess to marking my place promiscuously, sometimes splaying, sometimes committing the even more grievous sin of dog-earing the page” (39).  Yikes!  My wife and I are travelers, and we once printed a bundle of paper strips with the admonition, “Please do not fold, tear, or otherwise damage a book.  This bookmark is a gift to mend your ways!”

Another interesting essay is “My Ancestral Castles.”  Anne Writes, “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; whenever we left, the new owners would rip them out.  Other people’s walls looked naked to me.  Ours weren’t flat white back drops for pictures.  They were works of art themselves, floor-to-ceiling mosaics whose vividly pigmented tiles were all skinny rectangles, pleasant to the touch and even if one like the dusty fragrance of old paper, to the sniff” (125).  This is precisely why we will never move from this lovely ‘floor-to-ceiling-book-shelves-home and our collection. 

Anne also relates lots of fun and interesting stories about book owners—particularly the obsessive variety—and collectors.  She lists an amazing array of William Gladstone’s, a former British Prime Minister.  He invented a system of rolling shelves to house his collection of 60,000 books.  Anne Fadiman’s neat little book, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader will interest anyone who owns even a single book.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!