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Non-Fiction Books by Book Lovers

December 20, 2007

This is one of the posts I handwrote when my computer died. :)  If you look to the left, you’ll see a pretty Bookworms Carnival button: that’ll link to the December bookworm carnival until the January one goes up.  So if you haven’t checked out the fun non-fiction round up, click away!  Now on to the post…I’ve read two non-fic books by obvious reading afficiandos, Sixpence House by Paul Collins and Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman.

Ex Libris is a collection of essays, all focused on aspects of reading.  exlibris.jpgFadiman has a wonderfully polished style; I suspect if she wrote an essay on paint drying, it would be beautiful.  Take this passage from “My Ancestral Castles,” where Fadiman discusses growing up among her parents’ bookshelves

Our father, who often boasted that he had never actually done anything except think, was still the same person he had been when he started collecting books in the early 1920s. He and his library had never diverged. Our mother, on the other hand, had once led a life of action. And why had she stopped? Because she had children. Her books, which seemed the property of a woman I had never met, defined the size of the sacrifice my brother and I had extracted.

Isn’t that last sentence exquisite? So, obviously, her book was a pleasure to read.  Nevertheless, I can’t say that I loved it.  Why?  Well, Fadiman is a child of priviledged intellectuals, and her background often comes through in her writing. Honestly, it alienated me a bit. Usually, it would only be a sentence or two in the midst of a great, enjoyable essay, however the entire piece of “Nothing New Under the Sun” fairly screamed “Look at me, aren’t I precocious?”

Despite this drawback, much of Fadiman’s thoughts really resonated with me: from the dilemmas of book organising to the magic of the perfect pen to the fun of obscure, long words, I often found myself nodding my head and smiling. I think my favourites were “Marrying Libraries” and “My Ancestral Castles.” Not the kind of book I could lose myself in (since I kept being brought up short by those few annoying sentences), but a valuable read.  Sixpence House, on the other hand, was exactly the kind of book I get lost in.  Sixpence HousePaul Collins is an American who, along with his wife and infant son, moved to Hay-on-Wye, Wales.  For those who don’t recognise it, this is the town with the highest bookstore:resident ratio in the world (1:38).  Collins hopes to start a new (cheaper) life there.  Sixpence House is part travelogue, part memoir, part ode to book love.  I adored it because of Collins’ ability to really bring day-to-day, somewhat trivial events to life.  I also adored it, beacuse it reminded me of being an American in England.  At one point, Collins even eats Weetabix!  (My favourite cereal ever, despite his less-than-flattering description)  He has this magical talent to instantly bring a scene to life…look at how he transforms a simple dialogue

“Hi. We’re looking for a house.” I say this as if a house has grown legs and bolted from the paddock.
A flustered young man bolts up from his desk and shakes our hands nervously. “You’re the fellow who called from San Francisco?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“I’m Martin, Martin Like.”
He is a nice, stammering, bespectacled fellow, for Britain is a realm of nice stammering fellows: Hugh Grant has immortalized them for all posterity.

I think Collins is one of those everymen who many readers willl connect to.  I couldn’t put this one down, I was so curious to find out Colins’ next escapade.  The interweaving of bookish thoughts and love with regular life was a neat change from most books about books. :)

Favourite Passages (from Sixpence House):
I poke around the store a little more. Pemberton’s is not large, though it is efficiently packed. But I start to notice a pattern: certain bestsellers are altogether missing, whil other writers-Maragaret Atwood, say, or Bruce Chatwin-are represented in abundance. The longer you look at the shelves, the more you suspect that what you are looking at is a sort of personal library, a living room with a cash register. There is a person behind the selection here, guiding you with a not-quite-invisible hand. (51)
There is an implicit code that customers rely on. If a book cover has raised lettering, mellatic lettering, or raised metallic lettering, then it is telling the reader: Hello. I am an easy-to-read work on espionage, romance, a celebrity, and/or murder. To readers who do not care for such things, this lettering tells them: Hello. I am crap. Such books can only use glossy paper for the jacket; Serious Books can use glossy finish as well, but it is only Series Books that are allowed to use matte finish.
Diminutively sized paperbacks, like serial romances or westerns or or dieting and astrology guides, arm aimed at the uneducated. But diminutively sized hardcovers are aimed at the educated-excepting those that are very diminutive, which are religious books aimed at the uneducated-and unless they are in a highly rectangular format, i nwhich case they are point-of-purchase books aimed at the somewhat-but-not-entirely educated. However, vertically rectangular diminutive softcover books, which tend to be pocket travel guides, are aimed at the educated. But horizontally rectangular diminutive soft-cover books-a genre pioneered by
Garfield Gains Weight-are not.
Then there are the colors. Bright colors, and shiny colors, are necessary for the aforementioned books with raised lettering. Black will work too, but only if used to set off the bright and shiny colors. Because, remember, with the customer base in mind, the book will need to be a bright and shiny object. Conversely, a work of Serious Literature will have muted, tea-stained colors. Black is okay here too, but onlu if used to accentuate cool blue and grays and greens.
Woe and alas to any who transgress these laws. A number of reviewers railed against
The Bridges of Madison County because it used the diminutive hardcover size and muted color scheme of, sya, an Annie Dillard book-thus cruelly tricking readers of Serious Literature into buying crap. Not to be outdone, the Harvard University Press inssued Walter Bejamin’s opus The Arcades Project with gigantic raised metallic lettering. One can only imagine the disgust of blowhard fiftysomethings in bomber jackets as they slowly realized that the project they were reading about was a cultural analysis of nineteenth-century Parisian bourgeoisie-and not, say, a tale involving renegade Russian scientists and a mad general aboard a nuclear submarine. (111-2)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2007 5:53 pm

    FUNNY! I love that you type in passages… I like to note great prose, too. Thanks, Care

  2. December 20, 2007 8:15 pm

    thanks for this great information. I just hope I can find these books in our local bookstores. Thank you.

    Book Lover, Web

  3. December 20, 2007 8:17 pm

    thanks for this great information. I just hope I can find these books in our local bookstores. Thank you.

    Book Lover Web ^_^

  4. December 21, 2007 7:39 am

    I was also a big fan of the essay Marrying Libraries in Fadiman’s Ex Libris book. Although not quite an issue in my marriage, my hubby and I have mostly different reading tastes, I think we only had one book in common!

  5. December 21, 2007 8:42 am

    I enjoyed Sixpence house as well. I’d love to take a trip to that town! Did you know the author has since written a book dealing with autism which his son has?

  6. December 21, 2007 7:45 pm

    Care, yeah-I type the passages for myself (that’s why they’re at the end); it’s replaced my old spiral quote book. :) I really need to proofread better, though!

    Web, no problem! Good luck finding the books…if you stay tuned, I’ll be hosting a book give away pretty soon for my first year anniversary. Hint, hint. ;)

    Alisia, that makes life simpler! I think it’d be easier to give up copies of some the books I have than compromise on my organisational system, lol. Very attached to organising!

    Tara, it would be a fun place to visit! I did know about the autism book, but I’m a little hesitant to read it; such different subject matter! Did you enjoy it?


  1. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair
  2. Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (thoughts on rereading) « A Striped Armchair

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