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.
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?
In two of the books I currently have on the go, items found in books are a key element. First there’s Swimming Lessons in Claire Fuller, in which one strand of the narrative is told via a series of letters Ingrid hid in various thematically relevant books from her husband’s overflowing collection before she disappeared 12 years ago.
I’ve also been skimming Reading Allowed, novelist Chris Paling’s book of mildly amusing anecdotes from his time working in a public library. As little interludes he records the items he’s found being used as bookmarks in library volumes: a postcard, a shopping list, a meal plan, a CV, and so on.
In my years working in bookshops and libraries I found lots of proper bookmarks left behind in books; this photo shows the ones I’ve kept (others I’ve given away, recycled or donated to the library basket).
This doesn’t account for all the train tickets, receipts, newspaper clippings, etc. that were serving as makeshift bookmarks. The strangest thing I think I ever found in a book was an old-fashioned faux pearl-topped hatpin marking a place in a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s collected poems.
And then there are the written messages I’ve found in books: other people’s bookplates (I especially like the one that appears in the front of each volume of my 1919 Chapman & Hall set of the complete works of Dickens – such an enviable reward for good attendance!);
a heartfelt message of friendship in the copy of May Sarton’s The Fur Person I got free from Book Thing of Baltimore;
a young lady’s thoughts strewn across the selected poems of Ted Hughes;
and a dead-simple recipe for a tropical fruit drink pencilled on the back cover of Patricia Volk’s memoir, Stuffed.
For me, the random objects and messages you might find are all part of the fun of buying secondhand books.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever found in a secondhand book?
“They say books about books are profitless, but they certainly make very pleasant reading.”
(W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Book Bag,” 1951)
A Book Addict’s Treasury by Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy was my bedside book for the first half of the year. I like having a literary-themed book to read a bit of daily, rather like a secular devotional. Last year John Sutherland and Stephen Fender’s Love, Sex, Death and Words filled that purpose. The authors have chosen a huge variety of quotations from fiction and nonfiction, ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day. The chapters are loosely thematic, with topics like lending and borrowing, organizing one’s library, bad book habits, and so on.
Here’s a sampling of the quotes that meant the most to me:
- “I can remember when I read any book, as the act of reading adheres to the room, the chair, the season.” (Guy Davenport)
- “To read good books is like holding a conversation with the most eminent minds of past centuries.” (René Descartes)
- “How useful it would be to have an authoritative list of books that, despite the world’s generally high opinion of them, one really need not read.” (Joseph Epstein)
- “I am all for the giving and receiving of books at Christmas, though not keen either on giving or receiving ‘gift books’, the kind of tarted-up books which appear at this time of year and no other. I agree that the only thing you could do with such books is to give them away.” (Daniel George)
- “As often as I survey my bookshelves I am reminded of Lamb’s ‘ragged veterans’.” (George Gissing)
- “Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy.” (Germaine Greer)
I also came across two controversial reader habits I’m not sure how I feel about:
1. “The outward and visible mark of the citizenship of the book-lover is his book-plate.” (Edmund Gosse)
I do have two packs of book-plates featuring a rather nice black-and-white engraving of a puffin on a rock, but I’ve never used them. For one thing, my collection seems too changeable: what if I decide, after reading a book, to resell it or pass it on to someone else? I also wouldn’t know how to choose which lucky 20 books get a bookplate. (Probably only those monolithic hardbacks I’m sure to keep as reference books for decades to come.)
2. Harold Nicolson’s habit of labeling passages from books with “F and C” (= “very feeble and cheap”) and “G.B.” or “B.B.” (= “Good Bits” or “Bad Bits”)!
I’ve never annotated my books, apart from a few textbooks in college. It just seems like defacement; are my thoughts really so important that they need to be preserved forever? Instead I use Post-It flags to mark passages I want to revisit, and usually copy those out into my annual book list (a huge Word file).
My current bedside book fit for a bibliophile is So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson. Favorite quote so far:
“Part of the appeal of books, of course, is that they’re the cheapest and easiest way to transport you from the world you know into one you don’t. … dollar for dollar, hour per hour, it’s the most expedient way to get from our proscribed little ‘here’ to an imagined, intriguing ‘there.’”