Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (thoughts on rereading)
Memory plays funny tricks, doesn’t it? I first read Ex Libris back in 2007, and as I remember it, I thought that while it was nice and bookish, I didn’t terribly enjoy the book due to an impression of intellectual snobbery. I was all set to write a post about how my twenty-one-year-old self had just graduated from college, and obviously wasn’t had a few insecurities, and thus took Fadiman’s stories more highbrowed upbringing as some kind of personal attack. Then, I would have described how at the ripe old age of twenty-five, I’ve become so much more comfortable with who I am, and thus I was able to really love the book and just smile at the Fadiman family antics. A good story, right? In fact, a near-perfect illustration of why rereading is so fascinating.
But then this morning, I went and actually read my original post from 2007. Yes, twenty-one-year-old Eva mentioned feeling occasionally alienated by Fadiman’s upbringing. But she also said: “Fadiman has a wonderfully polished style; I suspect if she wrote an essay on paint drying, it would be beautiful.” And the post as a whole is pretty positive, more so than my memory led me to expect.
I definitely love the book now in a way I didn’t before, and I definitely believe that’s due to feeling much more secure in myself as I grow older. But I also love it for the same reasons I loved then: Fadiman’s stunning style and her unabashed bibliophilic tendencies. “My Ancestral Castles” and “Marrying Libraries” were still two of my favourite essays from the collection, but this time around “The Joy of Sesquipedalians” joins them. When I was younger, before I went to college, I loved speaking with a far more extensive vocabulary than I do now. It was a bit of a running joke amongst my friends and family, actually! I didn’t do it to show off, but simply to revel in the richness of English, a language that loves to borrow words from everyone else and then coin some new ones on top. And then at college I didn’t want to appear as a snob, so I began to tone things down; these days, I rather miss my young teenage self and her word games. That essay brought all that delight and joy to the forefront. And who knows? I might try to revive my own inner sesquipedalian lover! ;)
Finally, I want to mention the essay “My Odd Shelf,” simply because the idea of it has followed me since my original reading. At the beginning of the essay she writes:
It has long been my belief that everyone’s library contains an Odd Shelf. On this shelf rests 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.
Fadiman’s is polar expeditions, a topic with which I have minimal sympathy (I think it’s criminal the way that most of the British exploreres behaved, getting all of their men killed, since Norwegian Amundsen’s expedition shows that the environment itself is not to blame; I know my opinion isn’t a popular one, though). But over the years, I’ve occasionally looked at my own bookcases and wondered about my own odd shelf. I think it would be ghosts, although I’m not quite sure that’s entirely unrelated to my loves of fantasy and mystery genres. ;)
Do you have an odd shelf yourself (even if it’s hypothetical rather than physical)? And have you read Ex Libris? If not, what are you waiting for?
Suggested Companion Reads
- The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller (Another wonderful book about books.)
- Complications by Atul Gawande (Gawande is one of the most incredible essayists I’ve ever read; this is his first collection and centers around medicine.)
- Alone! Alone! by Rosemary Dinnage (Another wonderful essay collection with an elegant, intellectual style.)