Ex Libris – Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman is a book that I have been looking out for, as well as many others, for absolutely ages. If you are a fan of ‘books about books’ then many say that this is the holy grail of books about books. After having read a few this year like The Paper House (though that was fiction) and of course one of the most blogged about books of the year Howard’s End is on the Landing it’s a genre of books I like. So imagine my utter joy when last weekend one of my closest friends, the lovely Michelle, bought me a copy of this very book.

Anne Fadiman is a journalist and writer who comes from strong literary genes. Her father Clifton Fadiman is a literary critic and personality, her mother Annalee Jacoby Fadiman is an author. She is even married to an author (the first essay in this collection is a funny piece about the merging or marrying of two peoples book collections as it appears they are both book hoarders – I liked them instantly) the author George Howe Colt, so she is definitely about the books and about words. Ex Libris is a collection of essays which mingle memories and book thoughts from her life in the past and current perspective.

When I know a book is meant to be a book about books, I want it to be just that. Plain and simply I want book thoughts, book thoughts and more book thoughts. This doesn’t quite happen as much as you would think with this novel. In fact I would say the book is more a celebration of words both written and writing. There’s an essay on sonnets, some feminist essays and a few on writing, grammar and words. The thing is though I didn’t mind these slightly of the book subject essays because through her words I liked Anne Fadiman so much and wanted to read more about her. There are some great essays on books inside such as the marrying of books I mentioned before. She looks at reading in the places books are set, second-hand book buying joy (I am all for that) and you do leave with a list of books you want to read so all in all job accomplished.

It is her likeability that definitely sells this book and the bookish essays that are thrown in and make it such a little gem and if you are a fan of books then you really should have this on your shelves. You also need to read it to find out just what a ‘sesquipedalian’ is… its one of my new favourite words, I will see how many conversations I can throw that into today.

It has made me wonder, apart from the aforementioned Susan Hill book, just what books there are actually out there that are solidly about just books and reading and books. I don’t mind the And I don’t mean highbrow books where you sit and feel alienated because you haven’t read the entire works of Chekhov, Tolstoy or Dumas. I mean books where people read a gambit of material. I know there must be some out there I just seem to be missing them somehow. Any clues?


Filed under Anne Fadiman, Books About Books, Penguin Books, Review

27 responses to “Ex Libris – Anne Fadiman

  1. Verity

    Excellent! I’m so glad that you got a copy of this as I know you liked the sound of it when I wrote about it recently.

    • I did like the sound of it when you wrote about it and I think Simon Stuck-in-a-Book did a review about it too, I know some of you definately nailed it into my booksih subconcious. The fact it was a gift was an even bigger plus!

  2. Kals

    I’ve heard loads about this book. It seems like the kind I’d love =) Will put it on my TBR list now. Thanks for the review =)

  3. Another on my list of 50 books to read! I read Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop a while ago – it’s got quite a lot on books, but also about working for bookshops etc. Not so much about reading. You’re right – you’d think the market would be flooded with books on this topic, but I can think of so few.

  4. You might enjoy Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life. I haven’t read it for many years, but remember thoroughly enjoying it.

  5. Eva

    You mean you didn’t ingest Tolstoy and Trollope with your mother’s milk? 😉 I often thought this was a touch too highbrow at times. There were times when I was just thinking “snob, snob, snob!” inside my head: usually one or two sentences in an essay would make me a bit cranky. I enjoyed her other essay collection, At Large and At Small, more (it’s not about books though, and there are a couple essays in it that still had me rolling my eyes). She edited Rereadings, in which each essay is written by a different person on a book they’ve read multiple times, but I thought that one was more about pretentiousness than book love, with a couple of exceptions.

    For books that are just about books, have you tried Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda or The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby (which has two follow-ups: Housekeeping vs. The Dirt and Shakespeare Wrote For Money)? Those stay on topic and neither are highbrow (though Dirda has his moments…another collection of his book reviews, Bound to Please, felt snobbier to me, but Classics for Pleasure has a welcome variety of authors). The Child That Books Built strays more from just books, but it’s also lovely.

    • I didnt ingest Tolstoy and Trollope in the womb or in my mothers milk. My sister might have as when my mum was pregnant with her she read War and Peace and Anna Karenina hahahaha.

      Wowsers for the recommendations! Theres loads, you clearly are more up on books about books than me… I will have to catch up with you by reading these!

  6. chasing bawa

    This was such great little book wasn’t it? I loved it and plan on getting Rereadings as well. The chapter about marrying bookshelves made me laugh hysterically. I have Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer but haven’t attempted it yet.

    • It was very good. I am going to have to get my mitts on some of her other works as I wanted to befriend her hahaha. I had Francine’s book, it was too hardcore for me… and I am a writer, well in a journo way!

  7. Some great ‘books about books’ include The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, A Passion for Books by Harold Rabinowitz, and The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski. Oh, and also A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes.

  8. I love books about books – apart from HEIOTL! I’ve flicked through this but I haven’t ever read it properly. I think I will try and get hold of it again very soon after this review!

    If you search for this on Amazon and go onto ‘other readers bought’ tab when you’re on the Ex Libris page you come across some great books on books. When I did that I came across a book called ‘The Yellow Lighted Bookshop’ which sounds fantastic. I haven’t read it, but the description is wonderful!!

    • Do you know what Rachel I never thought to do that which is a bit silly of me. Thank you for that I shall go off to that certain special site and have a gander!

      The only book that I have got on the TBR about books is Reflections of a Bookshop Window which is no longer in print but looks like an absolute gem!

  9. I second the recommendations about the Hornby books – they’re lovely little tributes to reading, and I must confess that I’ve enjoyed them more than I do Hornby’s fiction!

    Another book you might consider is “13 ways of looking at the novel” by Jane Smiley, in which the author spends a year working her way through “the canon” in terms of books she feels have shaped the modern novel. I have a copy, though must admit I haven’t read it cover to cover, as I only dip in and out, reading essays on books I have read myself (I’m spoiler-phobic)! Also, not strictly about reading (despite it’s title), I really enjoyed “How to read a novel” by John Sutherland, who was a judge on the Booker committee at one point, I believe. He talks about the publishing industry and how books are meant to lure readers in, and I just found it a lot of fun!

    • I have to admit Steph that I have never read a word of Hornby’s fiction. For some reason he has never quite appealed (a bit like Tony Parsons – I think thats who I mean) but these books about reading and books sound wonderful. I will have a gander at your other recommendations too.

  10. I loved this book and am looking forward to her follow-up ‘At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist’. Other books about books that are on my TBR pile include ‘The boy that books built’ by Francis Spufford, and ‘Tolkien’s Gown’ by Rick Gekoski which is about the world of rare books. Oh and I’ve got the Nick Hornby too … Don’t we all love books about books!

  11. Ex Libris is one of my favorite books of all time. I don’t mind when books about books get into other things as long as I like the writer’s world–like I do with Anne Fadiman. And Helen Hanff. And it is perhaps this reason that I really did not like Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree. My overriding memory of that book was about his autisic son and secondly about Hornby’s inability to really get much read. Plus I like my book books to be cozy and there isn’t much that’s cozy about Hornby.

    And then there are books that kind of take a lit crit approach. But my interest in books on books focuses on gossipy little details about the obession of loving books and what that means in practical terms–like Fadiman’s first chapter.

    If you want a book on that is 100% about books, Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust is great, but it is really a book of annotated reading lists. You don’t get much if anything about the touch, look, smell of books etc. But you do get tons of reading enthusiasm and lots of great recommendations.

    But Simon, the real question is, why don’t YOU write your ideal book on books? You are a writer, you love books, you already have readers. I am serious, you should write this book. Jot down 20-30 things you want to read about books. And bam, you have your chapters. Then you just need to fill in the blanks.

    • Oh Thomas the fact you have the faith in me to write a book about books is very very kind. I just dont know if I could put myself out there for the critique of it! I would be bound to get slated for my love of some utterly unliterary books.

      Oh I must must must read Helen Hanff in fact I am going to dig out Charing Cross Road now. They had another one of her books in a charity shop the other day and can you believe it I didnt pick it up – I might be ill.

      Book Lust sounds interesting. I might ask my Gran if she can write a book on books with over 60 years of reading experience and 3 book groups she would be on fire, she also has a very dry and sometime cheeky wit hahaha.

  12. Curzon Tussaud

    Useful books not mentioned above are:
    Leave me alone, I’m reading, by Maureen Corrigan (NPR critic describes her journey through life with books) , How fiction works, by James Wood, and, primus inter pares (although I have not read it cover to cover, but refer to it often) The seven basic plots, by Christopher Booker., which does what it says on the tin.

  13. Mae

    I’ve been looking for this book (on and off for several years in fact!) and i’m glad to hear that it’s a pleasure to read. I love books about books. Have you checked out Nicholas Basbanes’ “A Gentle Madness”?

    • Thats another one that I havent heard of, thanks Mae! Blimey the list never ends. I have even thought of a few that I do actually own like Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff thanks to other peoples comments.

  14. I just read this book and posted my review on Rose City Reader.

    Your review is terrific. If you would like me to list it on mine, please leave a comment on mine with a link and I will add it. I don’t like to add a link without asking first, but I prefer a comment on mine to let me know because I forget to come back and look. 🙂

    If you are still collecting suggestions, I put in my vote for the Hornby books. I also enjoyed So Many Books, So Little Time by Sara Nelson (my review is here).

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