TSS: Review: Ex Libris

Ah, another Sunday! This week has been relatively low-key, considering we started the spring semester. I imagine that pretty much all of this has to do with the fact that I’m only actually IN a classroom on Tuesdays on Thursdays, and the homework level hasn’t hit critical mass, so my many hours of desk work have been able to lend themselves to repeated checking of the NY Times for updates on Haiti and marking up the wonderful books I’ve had the chance to work through lately! Today, as almost all Sundays, has been devoted to catching up on all the school reading I elected to NOT do on Saturday because, lets face it, homework and Saturdays just shouldn’t mix. At least, not if I have any hope of retaining any future sanity. This week has also been wonderful because it involved a rather intense (and embarrassing!) trip to the library where I took home the over TWENTY books I’d put on reserve. I doubt I’ll have time to read them all before the due date, but I love having a whole pile in the house to choose from. As if I didn’t already.

The first book I finished this week (which I, in all honesty, finished on Wednesday night and then had to put aside for digestion until today) was Anne Faidman’s Ex Libris, an absolutely wonderful book that I know by now most of you have read! This collection of essays focuses on a number of yummy, bookish things – everything from enjoying sesquipedalians (that’s “big words” for all of you not in the know!) to what is proper when it comes to the physical handling of books. That was probably the essay I enjoyed the most, the one entitled “Never Do That To a Book” which is all about whether or not it is ever okay to crack a spine, dog-ear a page, write in the margins, or whether all books deserve to be preserved in as pristine condition as they are. As far as I’m concerned, books were made to be read, and, even more than that, books were meant to become friends. And what friendship is ever kept in pristine condition? Without scratches, dents, markings, and the wonderful writing that is memory between two people (or, in this case, between person and book). I’ve long been a fan of the dog-ear, even more so than most people because I will dog-ear the top of a page to mark my place and will dog-ear the bottom of a page to keep track of passages I long to go back to later. Which often, I’m afraid, give my books a rather unbalanced quality of being thicker at the bottom than at the top. But I love doing it – it makes my books mine.

The other essay I enjoyed immensely (more-so than the rest of the book, which I loved dearly as a whole) was the one entitled “My Ancestral Castles”, which spoke of how important books are to have around the house for children to play with, crawl on, chew on, and come to love. This is how my house was. My mother has always been a reader (my father is a bigger fan of Time and Newsweek or newspapers as opposed to books) and my house was full of books when I was growing up. I used to take the books of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens (both of whom we have the complete ouvere of) down off the shelf and build buildings for my dolls. When my stuffed animals and I had school, they would sit on the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Tom Robbins. And I know (as much as one can without the power of time travel) that, had I not had these physical volumes to play with as I saw fit, I wouldn’t love books quite as much as I do. I would still love them, but an inherent quality would be missing. And it’s this same kind of love that Faidman translates through her wonderfully well-written essays.

Favorite passages:

“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves” (xi).

“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 it’s owner” (21).

“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).

“‘I had repaired to the King’s Arms, the pup closest to the Bodleian Library, with a fellow student, a dashing but bullheaded young Scotsman who proclaimed over coffee that Homer was vastly inferior to Virgil. As a Homeric partisan, I was much miffed, even though, as the conversation progressed, I had to confess that I had ever actually read Virgil. ‘If you think Virgil is so great,’ said I, the brash American, ‘why don’t you give me a copy?’ Soon thereafter, a blue volume arrived on my doorstep, inscribed on the flyleaf with thirteen lines of Latin dactylic hexameter – Virgil’s preferred meter.’…’So what happened?’ I asked Maude, who now teaches classics at Stanford. ‘I never slept with the boy,’ she said. ‘But I fell for Virgil, and I’ve slept wit the book many times’ (61).

“When he read Livy at Thrasymenus – in Latin, of course – Macaulay achieved a kind of Double Word score recognized by anyone who has ever read Wordsworth at Grasmere, Gibbon in Rome, or Thoreau at Walden” (64).

I also was thrilled to finish Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin this week, although I’ll leave off a review of that until a later time – this post is long enough as it is! This week on the reading pile? The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization by the Pulitzer-prize winning author Thomas Friedman and A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. Happy reading!


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andi
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 23:45:21

    I read this book in October and adored it, too. I wish I’d taken more notes at the time, but it was for the 24 Hour Read-a-Thon and it was a library copy. I guess that just gives me an excuse to buy my own personal copy, doesn’t it? 🙂


  2. Jeane
    Jan 20, 2010 @ 16:03:29

    I want to read this one again someday. I love books about books and reading. And in spite of my blog title, I rarely dogear books. I try and keep them nice just because they last longer for another read!


  3. Valerie
    Jan 20, 2010 @ 21:16:57

    “Ex Libris” is a book I keep hearing about — it really does look good. I’ll have to look at my bookcases to see if I really do have an “odd shelf” or not — intriguing comment!


  4. Nathalie Foy
    Feb 22, 2010 @ 16:11:41

    _Ex Libris_ was my first book about books, and though I’ve read dozens more since, and have a blog devoted only to books about books, everything else pales in comparison. I have given away many copies as gifts. Each essay is polished to perfection. Anne Fadiman has also edited a collection of essays called Re-Readings, a spectacular collection of essays about writers’ impressions of favourite books they have re-read. I recommend it highly.


  5. Rose City Reader
    Apr 10, 2010 @ 16:41:08

    I just finished this book posted my review on Rose City Reader.

    It is a great book for book lovers! And I really like your personal review. If it is OK for me to post a link to your review on mine, please leave a comment on mine with the link and I will list it. (I don’t like to add the link without asking first.)


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