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?
Later today we’re making a pilgrimage to Bookbarn International,* one of my favorite secondhand bookshops in the UK, on the way (ish) to seeing friends in Bristol and Exeter for the weekend. In the past we’ve managed to drop in to Bookbarn annually, but it’s been nearly 2.5 years since our last visit. At that special Harvest Supper and Scrabble** tournament in October 2017 (which I wrote about here), I got to meet William Pryor, the chairman of Bookbarn, and he gave me a copy of his grandmother Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece.
Raverat was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin (the first child of his son George) but never got to meet him as he died three years before her birth. Her book has the subtitle “A Cambridge Childhood,” which perfectly conveys the aim. This is not a comprehensive family history or autobiography, but a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a particular time and place. Raverat was born in 1885, but she begins two years earlier, when her American mother, Maud Du Puy, was 21 and in England for the first time to spend a summer with her great-aunt and -uncle. She had three suitors during that time, all of them Fellows of Trinity College. The rules had only just been changed to allow Fellows to marry, so George Darwin would be among the first married members, and Gwen was in the first batch of offspring.
Period Piece is a charming, witty look at daily life from the 1880s through about 1909 – ending with the marriage of her cousin Frances, which seemed to signal a definitive end to their collective youth. Raverat focuses on everyday sights and sounds but also points out life’s little absurdities. She proceeds thematically rather than chronologically, taking up topics like her mother’s parenting theories; her boarding school education and budding love of art; visits to Grandmamma at Down House, Kent; childhood fears and ghost stories; the five Darwin uncles; religion; sports and games; clothing; and social events such as dances.
Writing towards the end of her life and in the middle of the twentieth century, Raverat neatly draws contrasts between old-fashioned propriety and modern mores. For example, as a child she was often called upon to act as a chaperone to courting couples, and when ladies boated past a watering hole where boys swam naked, they would cover their faces with parasols. She herself managed to avoid the matter of sex entirely until she was an adult, though she does remember looking to an encyclopedia to find out where babies come from.
The utter reliance on servants, a profusion of buttons on every garment, and forced trips to church are a few elements that might strike today’s readers as alien. One incident felt eerily contemporary to me, though: once, walking home alone at around 10 p.m., Gwen saw a gang of dodgy-looking undergraduates carrying a drunk or dead young woman down the street and into a pub. After much internal debate, she decided not to say a word about it to her parents.
I often wonder how novelists and filmmakers get a historical setting just right. The answer is, probably by reading books like this one that so clearly convey quotidian details most people would leave out, e.g. a list of every piece of clothing a lady wore or a rundown of the steps to getting her mother out the door to catch the 8:30 train for a day out in London. Those who have visited or lived in Cambridge will no doubt enjoy spotting familiar locations. There are also amusing cameo appearances from Virginia Stephen (Woolf) and E.M. Forster.
Raverat, a wood engraver, peppered Period Piece with her own illustrations (I have photographed one favorite, at left, but you can see them all in the archive here) – a lovely supplement to the highly visual text. Not just an invaluable record of domestic history, this is a very funny and impressively thorough memoir that could be used by anyone as a model for how to capture childhood. It has never been out of print, and still deserves to be widely read.
*They’ve recently had a renovation that I helped to crowdfund; I’m looking forward to seeing the results. I’ll also be sure to report back on my book haul.
**I was especially delighted to see that the Darwin family had a favorite word-making game, described in the middle of the “Sport” chapter, that sounds a fair bit like Scrabble – except that you only added one letter at a time and could scramble the letters to change the meaning.
Some favorite lines:
(describing one of her mother’s early letters home to America) “They got [rooms for the night] at last at ‘the St Pancreas Hotel’. I was delighted to find this spelling so early, as, to the end of her days, my mother always considered the saint and the internal organ as identical.”
(of their French nurserymaids) “By a provision of Providence they were always called Eugenie, so that when a new one came she could be called Newgenie.”
“The faint flavour of the ghost of my grandfather hung in a friendly way about the whole place [Down] – house, garden and all. … In fact, he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas.”
I read the 2014 Collector’s Library edition, an attractive pocket-sized book with gilt edging and a built-in red ribbon bookmark.
I manage about an annual trip to Bookbarn International, one of my favorite secondhand bookshops in the UK. Apart from the stock in their newly opened Darwin Rare Books room and the 50-pence children’s books, everything in the shop is £1. I never fail to come out with a great stack of finds. Our trip on Thursday was extra special because we were going for the café’s Harvest Supper and Scrabble tournament, held as part of The Great Bath Feast.
We played one 45-minute game against another team of two, broke for an excellent vegetarian supper of squash, spinach and goat’s cheese pie with mashed potatoes and baby roast vegetables, then played a second match before dessert (vegan plum crumble with custard or gluten-free fig brownie with ice cream). Over the years my husband and I have become quite the Scrabble fiends, and together on one team I’m afraid we were unbeatable. Our bingo starting off Game #2 helped, but we worried we were at an overall advantage because the other boards each had three teams playing.
It was a special pleasure to meet William Pryor, the chairman of Bookbarn. Last year he spotted my blog posts about Bookbarn and offered me a copy of his memoir, The Survival of the Coolest. It’s a wonderful book about growing up a descendant of Charles Darwin but going off the rails and ending up addicted to heroin in his 20s:
This family of mine! On the one hand you have the royalty of science and Bloomsbury, on the other the fading world of the English landed gentry. … We had no religion but Darwin.
The months ran into each other as a blur of the chase for relief, the wheeling and dealing … One of the most striking aspects of hell is that it goes round and round; the same torments over and over again.
Mr. Pryor let me have a sneak peek at the Darwin room after the shop closed and kindly gave me a copy of his grandmother Gwen Raverat’s memoir, Period Piece. Over pudding we chatted about literary festivals, the Bookshop Band, his failed idea to return a portion of secondhand books’ resale value to the authors, and the latest Nobel Prize winner.
As to that book haul: I feel like I have fiction coming out of my ears, so with our hour of book browsing time I mainly focused on biographies and memoirs. Here are my finds:
Biographies and essays on writing biography:
(Two of my purchases will go especially well as pairs with books I already own.)
General memoirs (I was especially pleased to find the sequel to Cobwebs and Cream Teas, which I bought at Bookbarn last time and read early this year):
Plus two poetry books (one of them signed!):
And two novels I happened to grab on the way to the till:
My unexpected freebies. The Raverat is a lovely small-format hardback with gilt-edge pages and a maroon ribbon bookmark; on the right is our prize for winning the Scrabble tournament:
I’ve already had a peek inside a few of the books I bought and found some excellent passages. Leonard Woolf’s memoir opens with an extraordinary passage of almost biblical language about existence and non-existence; one of Marge Piercy’s poems struck me right away for its description of a Jewish holiday and the line “there is no justice we don’t make daily / like bread and love.”
My husband came away with three natural history books, and we also found a few children’s books to give to nieces and nephews.
Thanks to this book haul plus a trip to Book-Cycle in early September and some charity shopping last week, I’ve had to start a double stack on my biography/memoir shelves. There’s already a double stack on one of my unread fiction shelves. Next week is my birthday, so the book acquisitions are only likely to continue…