Ex Libris x 2: Who Wears It Better, Anne Fadiman or Michiko Kakutani?

When I heard about the new book by Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic of the New York Times, I rushed to put it on my wish list – though I ended up accessing it via the library instead. I also felt a hankering to reread Anne Fadiman’s essay collection by the same title, so I ordered myself a secondhand copy earlier this year. Both books are by (more or less) famous New York City bibliophiles and take old-fashioned bookplate designs as an inspiration. Here’s how the two fared in a head-to-head battle.

 

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (1998)

Like many a bibliophile, I have a soft spot for books about books. However, I’m also a real stickler about them, because all too often they make common mistakes: they’re too generic or too obscure in their points of reference, they slip into plot summary and include spoilers, or they alienate the reader by presenting the author as being on another echelon.

Fadiman, though, is a very relatable narrator in these expanded versions of 18 essays originally written for publication in Civilization, the Library of Congress magazine published from 1994 to 2000. (Can you imagine, your own bookish column in which you could write whatever you like?!) Her father was the well-known intellectual Clifton Fadiman. Theirs was a family of book-obsessed, vocabulary-loving, trivia-spouting readers, and she was also crafting her own with her husband and two young children.

I saw my family – especially my mother and me – in a number of these pieces: in “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” about the love of obscure words and word games played on a board or along with the TV (I was a spelling bee champion, and we’re all Scrabble fiends to a greater or lesser extent), in “Insert a Caret [Inset a Carrot],” about compulsive proofreading, in “The Catalogical Imperative,” about a build-up of print catalogues and the different selves one can imagine using the products therein, and in “Secondhand Prose,” about collecting used books.

There’s one respect in which I differ from the Fadiman family, though. Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books had reminded me of Fadiman’s division of readers into “courtly” and “carnal” lovers of books: the courtly ones keep a book pristine, while the carnal ones use and abuse them however they wish. She introduces this piece with an episode from a family trip to Copenhagen when she was a teenager. Her brother left a book open, facedown, on the bedside table at their hotel and the next day they found that the chambermaid had carefully put a marker at the right page, closed the book, and set a note on top reading, “Sir, you must never do that to a book.” I wholeheartedly agree. While I always say “your books, your rules” to other readers, I would have to suppress a cringe if I witnessed dog-earing, reading in the bath, cracking the spine, tearing out pages, doodling in the margins, and so on.

What I can get on board with, though, is the love of books as both narratives and physical objects. In the former camp, you get essays on books about polar exploration, sonnets, outdated guides to femininity, food literature, and reading aloud. On the latter, you’ll hear about her New York City apartment groaning with books absorbed from her husband’s and father’s collections, the good and bad of inscriptions, and Prime Minister William Gladstone’s tips for storing books.

Two essays have not aged well: one on a beloved pen (though she acknowledges that this was already multiply outdated by that time, by the typewriter and then by the computer she now uses for composition) and especially one on the quandary of gender-neutral pronouns (as opposed to “every man for himself” types of constructions) – nowadays we have no qualms about employing “them” for the unknown and the nonbinary.

My favorite essay overall was “You Are There,” about the special joy of reading on location. Additional irony points for Joe Biden being mentioned in the piece on plagiarism! I’d read this from a library some years before. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around, and certain essays will reward additional future rereadings, too.

My original rating (c. 2008):

My rating now:

 

Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani (2020)

In my more morbid moments, when I imagine how I would approach the remainder of my life if I knew that I was going to die young of a terminal illness, I think about self-publishing a selection of my best blog posts and book reviews. A personal greatest hits, if you would, and anyone could forgive the self-indulgence because, hey, she’s probably going to die soon. But then I open a book like this and realize that a collection of book reviews can actually be pretty tedious, even when written by one of the greats.

“Like all lists and anthologies, the selections here are subjective and decidedly arbitrary,” Kakutani warns in her introduction. What this means in practice is that: a) if I’d read a particular book, I didn’t need to read a ~1000-word review of it; b) if I hadn’t read the book but wanted to, I avoided the essay in fear of spoilers (e.g. she does reveal some specific incidents from Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, which I have on the shelf and was looking forward to; I’ll just wait until I’ve forgotten); and c) if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t want to (there is LOTS of history and politics here, with plenty of Trump jabs shoehorned in; you do know her only previous book was a diatribe against Trump, right?), I wasn’t interested. So, while there were a few pieces I appreciated, such as one on the enduring appeal of The Great Gatsby, which I recently read a third time for book club, not many caught my eye as I skimmed the book.

In any case, it’s not a book for reading all the way through but one for having on the coffee table to read the occasional essay. It is gorgeously put together, what with Dana Tanamachi’s illustrations in the style of vintage bookplates, so would still be a lovely reference book to have around. Think of it as a collection of amuse-bouches to whet your appetite to read the books you’ve always meant to pick up but haven’t managed yet (for me, that would be As I Lay Dying and Mason & Dixon). See Susan’s more judicious review here.

My rating:

 

I found plenty of other books on Goodreads with the title Ex Libris, such as this one, a compendium of library-themed fantasy and science fiction stories. (Yes, really.)

 

Have you read one of these? Which did you prefer?

34 responses

  1. I’ve read the Fadiman and kept it, so I must have thought I’d re-read it one day. I think that day might come sooner than expected now!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was well worth rereading. I hadn’t remembered any specifics about it — in fact, the one thing I thought I remembered (that she and her husband have signs reading “Owl” and “Lark” on opposite sides of the bed) didn’t appear here so must be in one of her other books.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the link, Rebecca. My partner bought me the Fadiman years ago and I enjoyed it very much. I’d agree, Kakutani’s book is much more a reference work rather than one to curl up with in an armchair. Wholeartedly agree about the treatment of books, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If the Kakutani is one of my delayed Christmas gifts from in-laws, I will happily keep it on the shelf to dip into from time to time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Fadiman appeals, but I’ve just checked and -no surprise – it’s not in our library system. And I’m not sure it appeals enough to buy it. So, we’ll see.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t remember where we lived where I happened to find it in a library. Possibly Surrey? Her books aren’t well known over here, so secondhand is probably the best option.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll keep my eyes open.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’ve read three of her four books, all bar her memoir about her father. The others were more essays, and investigative nonfiction about medical problems in the Hmong community.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah. Maybe more your thing than mine then.

        Like

  4. I loved the Fadiman, and would like to re-read it. I particularly remember the piece on combining book collections with her husband’s – which chimed with when my ex and I combined our lp collections back in the late 1980s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Forgot to say, the other book doesn’t attract me, so thanks for clarifying that!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was nice enough to flip through, but not enough of her book choices sparked my interest.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I do love that opening essay. My husband and I had it easy as he didn’t own many books and we had very few overlaps, just a few Dickens paperbacks, so we donated whichever was in poorer condition.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Laughed aloud at “compulsive proofreading”–it’s a habit that’s impossible to break! The Fadiman sounds good!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! I do it as a job so maybe it’s even worse for me — I can’t turn off the impulse when I’m reading for fun. My pencil is always at hand to make corrections, even in library books.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I feel that. I’m still laughing about the “sewn” versus “sown” gaff you mentioned not long ago. Funny, my memory for anything other than words is the worst!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, that one was SO bad, especially in a book about farming!

        Like

  6. I own a copy of the Fadiman, and your review has reminded me to do a re-read. I too enjoy books about books. I can read and re-read Alberto Manguel’s books happily.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read 7-8 of his books, but always from the library. I’ll have to see if I can get hold of The Library at Night to reread.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s one of my all-time faves too!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I like the sound of Ex Libris more.

    Like

    1. I would say ‘which one?’, but I’m sure you mean the Fadiman essays 😉

      Like

  8. Rebecca, I have to admit that I mistreat my books. I am always very careful with other people’s books though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re a “carnal” reader after Fadiman’s own heart, then! My motto is “your books, your rules” 🙂 I’m sure you treat library books nicely, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course! They aren’t mine.

        Like

  9. To me, the Kakutani is a good example of the distinction (sometimes blurry) between reviews and essays. Reading a bunch of pure book reviews collected in one place all at the same time probably wouldn’t do it for me, but I’d love to read a bunch of critical essays on literature–pieces on books I hadn’t read would be inspiring, and pieces on books I had read would hopefully provide illumination from someone else’s perspective. I should read more collected criticism, really.

    I’m afraid I’m a carnal reader, but I’m also very controlling: no one else can scribble or spill things on my books, just me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Julian Barnes is one author whose literary criticism I can read on any book or author, regardless of my familiarity. I’d recommend Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks. You might also enjoy (Hilary’s) Mantel Pieces and work by Michael Dirda and Alberto Manguel.

      Appropriate for the Nigella Lawson of bookselling 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! (And HA – you’re right, of course!)

        Like

  10. Even though they do have the same title, I’m not sure I could compare them and choose. They are for two different reading moods, for me. But Fadiman’s has been a longtime favourite, and one I’d enjoy rereading as well, I’m sure, so there’s that. Did the piece about the pen have a specifically dated aspect to it other than that it’s about a pen? There are stores here in Toronto that have dedicated pen sections, so there are definitely people who have a favourite pen, even still, although I’m sure they use computers for different things too. (Or, maybe not!)

    Like

    1. I have a couple more pairs and title word sets that I’ll do later in the year. I know you don’t like pitting books against each other, but the competitive spirit dies hard in me!

      I was briefly into pens and ink cartridges (e.g. the Levenger catalogue) as a teen, so between that and the Fadiman it feels to me like a 90s thing. Stationery shops must be struggling these days.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Neither of the two stores that I’ve shopped in, which specialize in pens, are close enough for me to walk to and support during the pandemic, but they are in very vibrant neighbourhoods, and maybe some people have taken up calligraphy and other crafts that could mean they’re doing okay. Since writing this, I’ve thought of two others, another paper shop with high-quality pens and an eyeglass shop that has an extremely lovely (i.e. far beyond my budget for a writing instrument) selection. Oh, yes, those Levenger catalogues. I only ever had one but it was fun!

        Liked by 1 person

  11. […] the urge to review them together (along with Rapp’s recent sequel) – although, unlike with my dual review of two books titled Ex Libris, I won’t pit them against each other because they’re such […]

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  12. I enjoyed reading your comparison! By the sounds of it, I think the Fadiman would win out for me. I love that book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Kakutani would be one to browse from the library: it is beautifully put together, and you could see what books catch your eye to read more about.

      Liked by 1 person

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