Bibliophiles come in as many stripes as the books they love. Some are collectors of pristine first editions, while some are literary hedonists whose dog-eared volumes are marked with the splotches of intimate companionship. The specific scent of a new book and the musty redolence of a used one mark addictions to the written word as varied and individual in expression as romantic love. Anne Fadiman is a gifted lyricist whose present collection of eighteen short essays sings the love of words and books in the most concrete and personal terms. These essays were written as regular contributions to the magazine Civilization. They are defined as personal rather than scholarly in tone. The collection is arranged in nearly the order of publication. In many of the essays the changing family life of the author may be glimpsed, from early marriage to middle age with two children.
Fadiman’s tone is generally light, marked by self- deprecating humor and blithe admissions of literary quirkiness. There is no hint of intellectual pomposity, although the author certainly possesses impressive credentials. She has already published one widely reviewed volume of serious journalism, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1998). Entirely different in subject from Ex Libris, this first book documents the often-tragic failures in communications attendant on the intersection of modern science with traditional societies. Her parents, to whom she dedicates Ex Libris, are both professional writers, as is her husband, George Howe Colt. So many familiars of the Colt-Fadiman ménage are authors that a section of their home library is devoted specifically to the production of friends and family. Readers of Ex Libris are expected to sympathize with a book-centered lifestyle and to come equipped with broad general culture and a large active vocabulary.
“Marrying Libraries,” the first essay in this collection, quickly establishes the hallmarks of the volume: humor, personal details, and an abiding passion for the nitty-gritty of books, their classification, and their housing. In Fadiman’s world, well-loved books are portable friends, each one redolent of the moment in which it was first read. Her husband, too, is alive to the power of the individual volume to inspire loyalty. When they first set up housekeeping, each brought many beloved books into the same New York City loft, but somehow they avoided the greater commitment of coshelving. In fact, they were married for five years and had shared in producing a child before they could agree on sharing book shelves. Colt’s “English-garden” style of cataloguing mingles time period and literary genre according to his own logic. Fadiman arranges her “French- garden” library chronologically and by genre. Once the decision is made to accept one cataloguing style, subsequent negotiations must deal with weeding of unworthy and duplicate volumes. Two outwardly identical volumes are individually precious to their owners, imbued with a fragile and particular essence of the past. Fadiman’s light-hearted, self-deprecating explanation of the process reveals a great deal about her marriage and the importance of books in her life.
From earliest childhood, Fadiman has lived and breathed words. Certainly Ex Libris celebrates books and reading, but its enthusiasm extends to the smallest units of language. “The Joy of Sesquipedalians” introduces the reader to a childhood friend, Wally the Wordworm, a denizen of bedtime stories told to Fadiman and her older brother Kim by their father. Wally, as an alter ego for the senior Fadiman, seeks out and devours extremely long words, the “sesquipedalians” of the title. With a collector’s fervor, the adult Anne Fadiman still pounces on new words, savoring their particular history and poetic ring. Her childhood family relished any kind of competition in information. They spent family evenings in front of the television watching the College Bowl and competing as “Fadiman U.” In adult life, when Fadiman discovers an author whose work is replete with unfamiliar vocabulary, her first thought is to test friends and relations with these delicious tidbits. She develops individual word scores keyed to background and profession, as well as her own theory about what kinds of words are current in the late twentieth century. She even provides a key at the end of the essay so that her readers may score themselves, a sort of invitation to matriculate in a branch of Fadiman U.
Picture the family of wordworms gathered together in a restaurant, their heads bent over the menu. Are they seeking novel culinary experiences? No, they are busily acting as copy editors, perusing the menu in search of misspellings and florid misuse of grammar and vocabulary. Fadiman admits to reading everything, from catalogues to car manuals. She views every written text as a chance to savor language, as well as to proofread and emend usage. One essay probes this compulsion to read and correct, and profiles several other...
(The entire section is 2061 words.)