Confessions of a Common Reader
by Anne Fadiman
–Review by Teri Hyrkas
Are you smitten with books? Do any of your favorite books make you hungry every time you read them? Would you rather go to a antiquarian bookstore than anywhere else on your birthday? If you answered yes to even one of these questions, it is a safe bet you will enjoy Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman. Published in 1998 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, I rexently heard about this thoroughly enjoyable book by listening to the bookish podcast narrated by Anne Bogel called, “One Great Book.” https://modernmrsdarcy.com/onegreatbook/
You might be familiar with author Anne Fadiman from her 1997 award winning book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. The Spirit Catches You is a biography of Lia Lee, a Hmong child with a debilitating seizure disorder who was at the center of a cultural clash between the Hmong community in Merced, California and the way medicine was practiced in American hospitals in the 1990’s. The Spirit Catches You is a serious, sometimes disturbing book, and “is often assigned to medical, pharmaceutic and anthropological students in the U.S.,” according to Wikipedia, to assist the students going into these fields in gaining cultural competency.
Ex Libris, on the other hand, is a winsome book of eighteen essays which revolve around Fadiman’s lifelong love affair with books and all things related to books, including but not limited to: definitions of obscure words, uncut page edges in new publications and a family game called “Fadiman U.” Fadiman’s writing is erudite but it is also full of surprises and her take on books and book culture is often laugh-out-loud funny.
The author’s command of the English language and her expertise in the history of literature is impressive. Indeed, there were several occasions when I was very glad to be reading Ex Libris on my Kindle which has a built in dictionary feature. Thankfully, Fadiman, who is obviously not a common reader at all, has written Ex Libris in a congenial, self-deprecating style and never takes herself too seriously. Her deft pen made the stories of her foibles, family stunts, career escapades, and book amour a captivating and highly amusing read.
That does not mean Fadiman sugarcoats weighty issues. In one essay, Anne writes of the devastating vision loss endured by her father, Clifton Fadiman. Clifton Fadiman was a celebrity and a accomplished scholar in his own right, being active in radio and television from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. In addition to Fadiman’s radio and TV career, The New York Times Magazine notes:
“[Clifton Fadiman] was The New Yorker’s book reviewer for 10 years. He wrote many introductions to the Modern Library editions of classic works of literature. And he was a longtime member of the editorial board of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and once read (or skimmed) every edition of the encyclopedia, going back about 200 years, in order to compile the 700-page ”Treasury of the Encyclopedia Britannica.” He is said to have read 80 pages an hour and to have remembered most of what he read; and he appears to have read (starting at age 4) nearly all the time.”
In her essay about her father’s blindness, titled “Scorn Not The Sonnet,” Anne Fadiman describes how quickly her 88-year old father lost his sight. “Over the period of a week, he had, for mysterious reasons, gone from being able to read The Encyclopaedia Brittanica to being unable to read the E at the top of an eye chart.” In the following excerpt from the essay, Anne and her father are at the hospital. As Anne tried to console her father on the loss of his sight, she mentioned that the great poet, Milton, had written Paradise Lost after he had gone blind.
‘”So he did,”‘ said my father. ‘”He also wrote that famous sonnet.”‘
‘”On His Blindness,”‘ I replied.”
The older Fadiman asked his daughter to, as soon as she arrived home, look up the poem and read it to him over the phone.
Anne Fadiman relates, “There was no way to know at the time that over the next year my father would learn to use recorded books, lecture without notes, and gain access to un-guessed inner resources… All these things lay in the future, but that night in Miami, Milton’s sonnet provided the first glimmer of the persistent intellectual curiosity that was to prove [my father’s] saving grace. When I returned home, I called him at the hospital and read him the sonnet:
‘When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.'”
‘”Of course,”‘ said my pessimistic, areligious father. ‘”How could I have forgotten?”‘
If you are a book enthusiast looking to read a book about books, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is an excellent choice. Anne Fadiman’s slim volume is a gift for the book lover’s heart and a worthy addition to any book shelf.
Note: Clifton Fadiman lived to be 95 years old. He retired from his work as a general editor and book reviewer just a few months before his death.