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Book Review: Ex Libris

You know what a bookplate is right? Yeah, me too, though not since prep school have I used the decorative label to put my name in a book. And I have not really thought about them until this current book, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman. Unlike ‘bookplate’ I had to look up what ‘ex libris’ meant – “used as an inscription on a bookplate to show the name of the book’s owner” according to And that tells you something about this book right off the bat – I was looking up new words for me throughout the book.

Yet it was an enjoyable read. It’s a small book by author Anne Fadiman who grew up in a family of readers. They read as a family, her parents read to each other, they played word games constantly, and discovered later in life that all four family members edited menus! Then she married another avid reader and the habit flourished. Ex Libris is a collection of essays written over a four-year period and they all relate to books, whether it’s reading them, organizing them, various uses of them, devouring them, or relating the words written in them to daily life. Each essay is unique, often laced with humor, and had me looking at books and how I read them a little bit differently.

I haven’t been able to decide which story I liked the best. Anne starts of with the marrying of her library and that of her new husband, how it took five years before the idea of even placing them near each other started to materialize, and the negotiating that took place to be “ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation.” In the essay, Never Do That To A Book, she describes all the different ways one can treat a book. I’m one of those people who never write in the margins, though in some books I will highlight text, yet even when the book is sixteen years old it looks like I bought it yesterday – hmmm…could it be because I also covered it? Anne, by contrast, says, “The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. 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.”

One of the most interesting concepts to come out of the essays for me is how the self of the reader is shown on the shelves of their bookcases. In terms of what they like to read, yes, but also in how they are arranged on the shelf – which book sits where and how. She describes the libraries of a number of people in My Ancestral Castles. Children, for instance, can see a sliver of their parents through the books on the shelf. I, for one, started reading self-help from my parent’s library as a youngster when I pulled out a book by Catherine Ponder. In some cases books can span generations with notes and ideas once tucked away between the pages showing up when a book is opened by the next generation.

Ex Libris was a gift I received before my last move and my friend said that she hoped the shorter stories would work when I was tired from the unpacking. It certainly has, beautifully. To sit for thirty minutes and have a complete story – bliss. I highly recommend this book. Anne’s love of reading comes through in every story and her descriptions are humorous. Who else, but a reader, would say, “I’ve never read two sexier sentences”? In talking about catalogues that show up in her mailbox Anne says, “Although it is tempting to conclude that our mailbox hatches them by spontaneous generation, I know they are really the offspring of promiscuous mailing lists, which copulate in secret and for money.” Haha!

If you have never read a book about books and reading books, this is a great place to start!

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