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?
I should have another batch of summer books read and reviewed by Friday. To fill in until then, I’ve resuscitated a recurring post template that I haven’t used in over three years, looking at the random searches that have led people to my blog. (Previously surveyed in May 2016, October 2016 and June 2017.)
I keep a record of the most interesting or bizarre blog searches that show up on my dashboard. Some recent favorites are below. I may not have the dirt on a new Donna Tartt release, but some of those who came with an inquiring mind will have found answers to their questions on my site.
(Spelling and punctuation are unedited throughout!)
June 23: heart surgery vs brain surgery, elderberry cordial nancy Mitford
September 8: eve schaub rag rug
October 9: i hate elena ferrante
December 20: shaun bythell partner
December 27: philip carey leg
February 8: julia buckley journalist friend with a witchdoctor
March 30: was mel love with sharon animators
April 17: parker fiske – eleanor roosevelt’s cousin
May 31: is donna tartt writing another novel after the goldfinch
September 10: reservoir 13 who did it
October 22: sample inscription in cookbook for a bride
March 19: the heart’s invisible furies spoilers, culling books
January 19: vikram paralkar night theatre stinks, is megan phelps roper a jehovahs witness
March 30: miochel faber interview, did shaun bythell marry jess ica fox, why did mary give thatcher a gift in the novel unsheltered
April 17: bitter orange symbolism, books under 50 pages, cystic fibrosis stevenson helen, nuts in may louis macneice
April 28: essays on comparing the novels empire falls by richard russo and cat’s eye by margaret wood
July 6: christianne ritter aurhor what became of her and her husband
Lots of curiosity about Shaun Bythell’s romantic history – my review of The Diary of a Bookseller continues to be one of my most-viewed posts. I think my favorite search, though, is “i hate elena ferrante” (hate is too strong a word, but I do remain indifferent to her charms).
I regularly check my spam folder because, every once in a while, a regular commenter’s message goes astray there and I’d hate to miss anything genuine.
In the last month I’ve noticed hundreds of spam comments on my blog, all containing identical Spanish-language text (“Muchas gracias. ?Como puedo iniciar sesion?”) and usually appearing on one of four particular posts.
Any ideas about how I can get the Spanish spam to go away?
A couple of months ago we finally rescued the last boxes (we think) of our possessions out of my in-laws’ attic and storage cupboard…only five years after we moved out! As I was sorting through a box of my husband’s childhood books, I found a couple that he had won through school prizes – both of which seem to prefigure his love of British wildlife, and badgers in particular.
We also found another book he accidentally inherited from his school when the library burned down – along with the Gerald Durrell memoir and a paperback copy of Animal Farm, that makes three books that never made it back to the school even after they rebuilt. Oops!
I gave some thought to the other personal inscriptions in our book collection. Although we don’t have all that many examples in total, my mother (whom I generally call “Marm”) is the queen of inscriptions: you can count on her to write the date, the occasion, and a heartfelt message inside the front cover of any book she gives as a gift. It’s terribly sweet.
I got the Betty Crocker cookbook as a birthday present just as I was setting off for my Master’s year in Leeds – the first time I ever had to cook for myself. Over the last 11.5 years it’s gotten a lot of use, as the missing fragments of the ring binder show.
Another cookbook with some sentimental value to us is Delia Smith’s Complete Illustrated Cookery Course – a classic of English cuisine that we got as a wedding present. It’s extra special as the giver, my husband’s Auntie Joan (not actually an aunt, but a first cousin once removed or something like that), passed away earlier this year.
Do you like writing and/or receiving personal inscriptions in books?
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.