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Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (thoughts on rereading)

November 14, 2011

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

30 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2011 8:27 am

    I love Ex Libris so much! It’s one of those books I loaned out and never got back. Wah! I want my book back!

    Odd shelf: I think it’s my baseball shelf, or perhaps my Korea shelf, but I was skype-ing with a friend and showing her my shelves and the one that made her eyebrows go up was my Canada shelf. “Why do you have a bunch of books about CANADA?” she said in a tone of genuine perplexment (maybe that’s not a word).

    • November 16, 2011 10:37 am

      I think it’s perplexity, but I love the sound of perplexment…so plump. :) Lol @ your friend!

  2. November 14, 2011 8:31 am

    I’m very glad you revisited Ex Libris I confess I also remembered your post from 2007 as less positive than it actually is, and the thought that Fadiman would be snobbish put me off a little bit. As you know I also love books about books, so I’ll have to pick this up sometime :D

    • November 16, 2011 10:36 am

      Isn’t that weird?! Of course, my 2007 self thought that Michael Dirda was a horrible snob too (I’ll have to reread him next), which you don’t agree with, so I think you’d love Fadiman! ;)

  3. November 14, 2011 8:42 am

    I don’t think I’ve ever read this collection in its entirety, but I know I’ve dipped into it and read a few essays here and there over the years. Some of them just appeal more to my inner bookworm than others, I suppose. Like you, I really loved the piece on her family’s love of weird words and the piece on merging her library with her husband’s (thankfully as the most bookish one in our relationship, I get to govern how our shelves are organized… though we have this one hardback copy of Steinbeck’s short stories that we both are adamant that we each brought into the relationship and clearly only one of us can be right about that… ;) ). I also remember enjoying her essay entitled “Never Do That To A Book”, and being both amused and horrified by it; the bit about someone ripping a book in half so that they can discard the bits they’ve already read for easier traveling (or perhaps to share with another person?) particularly sticks in my mind… Now you have me wanting to pick up this one again and see what essays I might love this time around.

    I’m not entirely sure what my odd shelf would be. I do have a shelf that I devote to books about books, as well as books about grammar and writing (though not really handbooks or style guides), so that might be it.

  4. November 14, 2011 9:34 am

    My odd shelves are a mix of 2 or 3 books on each of a variety of subjects (small-town Ontario archival-type publications, early Japanese history, thin volumes of photographs from different time periods, pamphlets on craft industries) most of which are connected to one-off courses in school. In all, they reveal my interest in history, but that’s only after their oddness has been registered and dissected.

    And, yes, I’ve read and loved this one, too! (Another reading memoir which has a chattier tone that is also a lot of fun for North American readers at least, is Maureen Corrigan’s. I think I’m due for a re-read of that one as well.)

    • November 16, 2011 10:40 am

      I’ve added the Corrigan to my wishlist. :)

  5. November 14, 2011 10:40 am

    If you do get the urge to revisit your love of sesquipedelia, double dactyls are a super-fun way to do it. David & I became obsessed with composing them for a few weeks last year, and started collecting appropriate 6-syllable words around which to build them. :-D And then Shelf Love Jenny actually wrote one about the Shackleton expedition, which supports your point!

    Flibberty gibberty
    Sir Ernest Shackleton
    Asked all his crewmen to
    Freeze for the cause;

    Answer was humble but
    Insisting their contract
    Provided for thaws.

    I like the idea of the odd shelf. I probably have several, although one that’s actually shelved separately is my collection of vintage mass-produced girls’ fiction (Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, Vicki Barr, etc.); I’m kind of fascinated by the bizarre level of formulaic, factory-style production that went into them, and the sociopolitical assumptions involved.

    • November 16, 2011 10:40 am

      Oh: I’ll go check it out! Jenny is a master. ;)

    • November 16, 2011 11:54 am

      Thanks to your link, I had to try my hand at composing! I came up with two versions; the first is a bit cheating (the second line has the stress on the end syllable instead of the beginning one) but I like it more. The second follows the rules but doesn’t flow as nicely.

      Lemony, limoney,
      Queen Marie Antoinette
      offered some pastry to
      substitute bread;

      France, as a brotherhood,
      answered quite loudly, and
      “Off with her head!”

      And the second:
      Queenly Marie thought to
      offer some pastry to
      substitute bread;

      France, as a brotherhood,
      answered quite loudly, and
      “Off with her head!”

  6. November 14, 2011 10:49 am

    This was a good book. I ought to re-read it myself. I remember the essay on marrying libraries with fondness. I haven’t ever been able to do such a thing myself; my husband and I still have separate bookcases for our collections.

  7. November 14, 2011 11:32 am

    Thank you for reminding me that I have this book on my bookshelf, I really must read it.

    My odd shelf is strangely enough my shelf with, what I’ve dubbed, modern literature. I’m not sure what else to call it. They are my books that aren’t non-fiction, not classics, not YA (although that shelf isn’t all that large either), not crime or fantasy. Many of the books were required reading in my Popular Literature class. I just don’t read that many books that fall into this category (and I don’t even have a satisfactory name for it).

    I think that people who know me would also be surprised that I don’t have more history books on my shelves.

    • November 16, 2011 10:43 am

      I don’t have a good name for that type of book either! Even though I know what you’re talking about. :)

  8. November 14, 2011 1:02 pm

    Great re-read review, Eva! I read this one a few years ago for Readathon, and while it was a WONDERFUL reading experience, I think this one also deserves to be revisited with a careful eye instead of the REALLYFAST pace of a readathon.

    Thanks for bringing me back to this one!

    • November 16, 2011 10:43 am

      I know what you’re talking about re: readathon reads! It’s like a blur, lol.

  9. November 14, 2011 4:41 pm

    I loved Ex Libris, which I think I must have read about the time it came out. I still want the cover image for a bookplate. The odd shelf resonated with me too, and for me it seems to be book about housekeeping, or books about pre-modern Japan.

  10. November 14, 2011 5:19 pm

    I ve just quickly look throuygh your review eva sorry just brought this the other week and looking forward to reading it one evening when I m off work ,all the best stu

  11. November 14, 2011 6:33 pm

    I loved this book and often find myself wanting to reread it (sadly, my copy is currently in storage). The odd shelf and the marriage of libraries are two of the things from Ex Libris that I still find myself thinking about, years after first having read about them. I wish I were eccentric enough to have an odd shelf of my own but, frankly, all my books make sense in relation to one another. Clearly, this is something I will need to work on in the future – I’d love to have a truly odd shelf to perplex visitors with.

  12. November 15, 2011 10:05 am

    This really makes me want to reread Ex Libris, too! I think I’ll pick it up again soon. Fadiman’s At Large and At Small was good as well, but it didn’t have the same magic as Ex Libris.

    • November 16, 2011 10:44 am

      I loved At Large and At Small when I read it, it’s what made me realise I needed to give Ex Libris another shot! I’m big on essays, though. :)

  13. November 15, 2011 10:12 am

    I read this before I was married and LOVED the chapter about married libraries. Alas, my husband is not a book collector. Oh, he’s a reader for sure, but just library or e-texts. So we didn’t have a lot of books to marry together. The physical books are, for the most part, my own, even the ones he brought to the table originally.

  14. November 15, 2011 2:18 pm

    I loved this book when it was first published, and the two essays that I still remember vividly are about a married library (I had just gotten divorced and was SO THANKFUL we never combined our libraries), and about different ways to mark your place in a book.

    I pulled this book off its shelf last weekend to reread, but then ran out of time and it’s still on my nightstand . . . I would have gotten to it eventually, but I will relish it even more knowing that someone else recently reread it as well.

    Also, I’m happily remarried – and we combined our libraries before even making it legal! A good sign, I think. Our preschooler has her own pint-sized library as well.

    • November 16, 2011 10:44 am

      The library combining does seem like a good sign! I’m glad it all worked out. :)

  15. November 15, 2011 4:49 pm

    Oh, yes! I l borrowed Ex Libris from the library years ago and loved it so much that I bought a copy. It’s definitely time for a reread… thanks for reminding me.

  16. November 15, 2011 5:29 pm

    I often find myself remembering books with more anger than I actually wrote about them. In my case, it’s more that I didn’t want to be a jerk when writing the post, than that I didn’t really feel all the negative feelings I remember feeling.

    My odd shelf is of course my Oscar Wilde books. There are a ridiculous many of them, and I love them with such doting affection.

    • November 16, 2011 10:45 am

      lol! Back in 2007, I had NO problems skewering books that made me angry (I think I called Michael Dirda an ass), so I don’t think that was it. Nowadays, I’m a bit more gentle in my word choice, but I’m still pretty upfront when I don’t like a book. ;)

  17. November 16, 2011 1:49 pm

    I loved Ex Libris too. I think it’s fascinating to re-read books because our experience with them changes as we change.

  18. November 16, 2011 8:48 pm

    Funny how memory plays such tricks isn’t it? Fantastic to be able to look back on earlier thoughts on a book and see if it was as you remember. I often remember books either more or less fondly in memory than I thought at the time.

    I really don’t know what my odd shelf would be, to be honest. I really just have so many of them at the moment ;) Seems I have a ton of unrelated types of books!

  19. Kathleen permalink
    November 19, 2011 7:01 pm

    This is why I love to reread. I think you gain so many insights in to yourself and I always discover amazing things.


  1. Giveaway – Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman | Reading Fuelled By Tea

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