Monday, March 14, 2005

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

I’m certain all of us have heard much about the therapeutic and cleansing powers of confession. This morning I want to make my confession to you and to pass along as well Anne Fadiman’s, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Ms. Fadiman and I share what she calls a carnal love of books, as opposed to the courtly love so often prescribed by librarians and anxious bibliophiles. To the courtly lover,
A book's physical self was sacrosanct, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was a Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us a books words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.
Ah, what music to this reader who only knows if a book has been read by checking for underlining and marginalia; if there are no marks, I can be sure I haven’t read the book. I have always hidden behind the excuse of being a teacher, an unmarked book is useless when attempting to teach the content of a book to others. Anne Fadiman encourages me to leave the closet, to admit that I mark up mysteries and first editions, children’s books and, dare I say it, even the occasional library book (though restraining myself to the faintest marks in #2 pencil, meaning always to erase at journey’s end). I loved hearing Sylvia Ashton Warner’s description of the word cards she made up for her Maori children, the cards dirty and worn from passionate use. She knew that the word-cards that were not mangled were not being used, and she quickly withdrew those cards from circulation. So too with my books and Fadiaman’s; she quotes a friend who confesses to her that when he found Boswell’s journals, he “sucked them like a giant mongoose. I didn’t give a damn about the condition of those volumes. In order to get where I had to go, I underlined them, wrote in them, shredded them, dropped them, tore them to pieces, and did things to them that we can’t discuss in public.” My students laugh and offer to pony up the money for a new copy when I bring my old tattered copy of Nietzsche’s Will To Power to class, remove the rubber bands that keep it together, and sort through the pieces searching for important passages. Little do they know how valueless a new copy would be, naked and innocent and needing to be marked all over again. In even worse shape is my Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, and so many other volumes that have been literally loved to pieces.

The essays in this little volume of Fadiman’s could each be read on its own, just a chapter a night for the busy city-reader. And each chapter is bound to stir the passions of reading addicts who will know that they have found a kindred spirit. She confesses that she and her husband had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, and been married for five before they could finally bring themselves to merge their libraries. “We were both writers, and we both invested in our books the kind of emotion most people reserve for their old love letters. Sharing a bed and a future was a child’s play compared to sharing my copy of The Complete Poems of W.B. Yeats.” Finally, when his books became her books, she knew they were really married.

I have confessed before that when I am asked by others what I DO, my response, almost invariably is to say, “I read.” The conversation that follows is almost always worth the confusion and/or disbelief that my response initially engenders. The only time that I really envy a writer, really wish I had written the words, is when those words are about reading. Lynne Sharon SchwartzRuined By Reading, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, these are books I wish I could have written. Fadiman tells us that her parents had a library of 7,000 books, and I feel less guilty about my inability to get rid of books. I remember the near incredulity of my partner when I announced at retirement that I intended to bring home my entire office library, crowding them somehow into the downsized house we had moved into, one wall of which had already been knocked out to increase the size of my study and, more importantly, to provide more wall space for bookshelves. Now that my teaching career was winding down, she pleaded, did I really think I would need all these books? Would I really be teaching Kant or Sartre again, would I need to research Homer or Heraclitus? And how about all those science fiction books, not to mention the mysteries ignominiously housed in the garage. But who knows when my nephews and nieces might need these books? Who knows when I will need to finger them, read over forgotten titles once more, take down a Jane Austin or Thomas Hardy? Fadiman tells us that parents of her daughter’s second grade classmates sometimes complain to her that their children don’t read for pleasure.
When I visit their homes, the children’s rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parents’ rooms are empty. Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood. By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says PRIVATE—GROWNUPS KEEP OUT; a child sprawled on the bed, reading.
Fadiman insists that she and her brother, also an avid reader, an addict for those who insist on naming the condition, discovered the unknown selves of their parents by perusing the shelves of books in their house. “Their selves were on their shelves.” And not only their present being-parents selves, but the selves they had occupied long before they had married or had children. While her father seemed not to have changed that much from when he first began collecting books in the ‘20s (a person who boasted that he had never done anything except think), she discovered an exotic and unknown mother who had once lived a life of action and travel. “And why had she stopped? Because she had had children. Her books, which seemed the property of a woman I had never met, defined the size of the sacrifice my brother and I had exacted.”

I remember the shock I felt some years ago when a loved colleague died and some few weeks after his death I found many of his books scattered through the vast piles at Powell’s Books. It seemed somehow so sad, so out of context, to scan his marginalia, knowing that never again would his terse comments on Heidegger occupy the same shelf as his wise overviews on Wittgenstein. Fadiman quotes a student who works in a bookstore and has the task of packing up the library of a deceased historian whom he had heard lecture.
Dispersing his library was like cremating a body and scattering it to the winds. I felt very sad. And I realized that books get their value from the way they coexist with the other books a person owns, and that when they lose their context, they lose their meaning.
Okay, so I confess, I mean to keep my hodge-podge library together, to dump it finally on a niece who is a fellow reader, a fellow addict. I love books; sometimes I feel that, like Fadiman’s young son, I could eat them. And if you are the sort who likes to devour books and who is willing to confess to book worship, you will love Anne Fadiman.

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