The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘Marrying Libraries’, by Anne Fadiman

On the essays shelf:

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman

This slim volume has great sentimental value to me, and to my family. My father introduced us to it, and gave it to us all as gifts. On the front pages is an old-fashioned bookplate, with a space for a name. There, in my father’s handwriting is: “Sheila Kathleen O’Malley. From Dad.” I brushed my fingers over the writing this morning. I had forgotten he had written in it. We have a thing about bookplates in our family. I wrote about it here. My father loved this book, and passed it on to us, and you only have to look at the title to understand why. I had so much fun talking and laughing with my dad about these essays (Anne Fadiman can be hilarious). We related to it. It was a book made specifically for us.

Reading Ex Libris is how the marvelous Anne Fadiman came to my attention. Once you start looking for her, though, you’ll find her everywhere. She came from writer parents, and is married to a writer. She is young, but she has already had an illustrious career. She founded Civilization, the Library of Congress magazine, and she was also the short-lived editor of The American Scholar, one of my favorite literary magazines. There was some controversy surrounding her ousting, but she now is a Writer in Residence at Harvard. She writes, teaches, lectures, and I love her. Her writing flows, she is often laugh-out-loud funny, but can also be heartfelt and poignant. She is one of my idols, and one of my guiding stars in my own personal essays. If I have felt stuck in writing an essay, I often pick up Ex Libris and read one of hers, just to remind myself how it’s done, to get out of my own way. Her stuff appears all over the place, as I said, but she only has two collections of essays out, and one compilation that she edited. Ex Libris may seem esoteric but to the O’Malleys it described to us what life actually feels like, as a giant voracious lifelong reader. Fadiman doesn’t treat it preciously or pretentiously. She deals with the practical aspects of it. What it is like to be the kind of person who involuntarily copyedits restaurant menus. (Guilty as charged.) How about writing in books? She devotes an entire tortured essay to the different theories of defacement. How about placing a book face down, open? She shivers at the thought. These essays are memoir-based, often, and her parents emerge as very real characters, as does her brother. Books, books, books is the thing that holds us together.

I come from a family where after someone says, “How are you?” they ask, “So what’ve you been reading?”

And in the first essay in the book, she writes about getting married to another huge reader, and what it was like to have to merge their libraries.

She’s so funny. For example: “After five years of marriage and a child, George and I finally resolved that we were ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation.”

I suppose if you have a literal outlook, and therefore lacking in a sense of humor, you may be put off by that sentence. If so, you certainly aren’t my kind of person, because to me that sentence is hilarious. Merging libraries is a “more profound intimacy” than having a child or getting married. Funny. And it’s funny because to a book collector, there is a grain of truth in it.

Also, as someone who agonizes (literally) about book organization I relate to this essay! (Should Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad go in Non-Fiction, should it go in Travel, or should I just lump him in with his Fiction books? Putting “Innocents Abroad” next to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an imperfect solution, one that still bothers me. But I like to keep an author’s work together – and it is annoying when they write in many different genres. Joan Didion gives me a heart attack, with her novels and memoirs and essays. I finally just gave her her own damn section and be done with it. I get separation anxiety just looking at A.S. Byatt’s literary criticism placed an entire room away from her fiction. This is a problem that cannot be solved. Believe it or not, I have thought of buying multiple copies of certain books – so that they can live in BOTH sections. This way madness lies.)

There is one anecdote in the excerpt below about organizing books chronologically within an author, ie: publication date. Back in Chicago, Mitchell and I had a chaotic move to another apartment, and we were still young, so we had our friends helping us move. My friend Ann Marie was so much a part of our move, helping us pack, unpack, that by the end of the experience she decided to move herself. She said she went home after helping us move, to her apartment she had had no thought of leaving that morning, and looked around at her possessions, thinking, “Wonder how long it’ll take to box all this up.” She had helped me unpack my books. She is a cataloguist at heart. She asked me how I liked to organize. I said to separate out the fiction and non-fiction, and to alphabetize (naturally) by author. I hesitated to ask her to do the next part, but I knew I would just have to re-organize if I didn’t make my request. I said, “And in the cases where I have a ton of books by the same author – like Madeleine L’Engle or L.M. Montgomery–” Ann Marie finished the sentence, “Organize by publication date. Got it.”

I still have an image of Ann Marie surrounded by a mound of L.M. Montgomery books, flipping each one open to the copyright page to check the publication date. Glorious friends!!

Ex Libris is one of my cherished volumes, because it was a gift from my father, and it provided us with many hours of things to talk about. So thank you, Anne Fadiman.

Here is an excerpt from the first essay in the collection, ‘Marrying Libraries’.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘Marrying Libraries’, by Anne Fadiman

A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together. We had known each other for ten years, lived together for six, been married for five. Our mismatched coffee mugs cohabited amiably; we wore each other’s T-shirts and, in a pinch, socks; and our record collection had long ago miscegenated without an incident, my Josquin Desprez motets cozying up to George’s Worst of Jefferson Airplane, to the enrichment, we believed, of both. But our libraries had remained separate, mine mostly at the north end of our loft, his at the south. We agreed that it made no sense for my Billy Budd to languish forty feet from his Moby Dick, yet neither of us had lifted a finger to bring them together.

We had been married in this loft, in full view of our mutually quarantined Melvilles. Promising to love each other for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health – even promising to forsake all others – had been no problem, but it was a good thing the Book of Common Prayer didn’t say anything about marrying our libraries and throwing out the duplicates. That would have been a far more solemn vow, one that would probably have caused the wedding to grind to a mortifying halt. 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 child’s play compared to sharing my copy of The Complete Poems of W.B. Yeats, from which I had once read “Under Ben Bulben” aloud while standing at Yeats’s grave in the Drumcliff churchyard, or George’s copy of T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, given to him in the ninth grade by his best friend, Bob Farnsworth, who inscribed it “Best Wishes from Gerry Cheevers.” (Gerry Cheevers, one of Rob’s nicknames, was the goalie of the Boston Bruins, and the inscription is probably unique, linking T.S. Eliot and ice hockey for the first time in history.)

Our reluctance to conjugate our Melvilles was also fueled by some essential differences in our characters. George is a lumper. I am a splitter. His books commingled democratically, united under the all-inclusive flag of Literature. Some were vertical, some horizontal, and some actually placed behind others. Mine were balkanized by nationality and subject matter. Like most people with a high tolerance for clutter, George maintains a basic trust in three-dimensional objects. If he wants something, he believes it will present itself, and therefore it usually does. I, on the other hand, believe that books, maps, scissors, and Scotch tape dispensers are all unreliable vagrants, likely to take off for parts unknown unless strictly confined to quarters. My books, therefore, have always been rigidly regimented.

After five years of marriage and a child, George and I finally resolved that we were ready for the more profound intimacy of library consolidation. It was unclear, however, how we were to find a meeting point between his English-garden approach and my French-garden one. At least in the short run, I prevailed, on the theory that he could find his books if they were arranged like mine but I could never find mine if they were arranged like his. We agreed to sort by topic – History, Psychology, Nature, Travel, and so on. Literature would be subdivided by nationality. (If George found this plan excessively finicky, at least he granted that it was a damn sight better than the system some friends of ours had told us about. Some friends of theirs had rented their house for several months to an interior decorator. When they returned, they discovered that their entire library had been reorganized by color and size. Shortly thereafter, the decorator met with a fatal automobile accident. I confess that when this story was told, everyone around the dinner table concurred that justice had been served.)

So much for the ground rules. We ran into trouble, however, when I announced my plan to arrange English literature chronologically but American literature alphabetically by author. My defense went like this: Our English collection spanned six centuries, and to shelve it chronologically would allow us to watch the broad sweep of literature unfold before our very eyes. The Victorians belonged together; separating them would be like breaking up a family. Besides, Susan Sontag arranged her books chronologically. She had told The New York Times that it would set her teeth on edge to put Pynchon next to Plato. So there. Our American collection, on the other hand, was mostly twentieth century, much of it so recent that chronological distinctions would require Talmudic hairsplitting. Ergo, alphabetization. George eventually caved in, but more for the sake of marital harmony than because of a true conversion. A particularly bad moment occurred while he was in the process of transferring my Shakespeare collection from one bookcase to another and I called out, “Be sure to keep the plays in chronological order!”

“You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?” he gasped. “But no one even knows for sure when Shakespeare wrote his plays!”

“Well,” I blustered, “we know he wrote Romeo and Juliet before The Tempest. I’d like to see that reflected in our shelves.”

George says that was one of the few times he has seriously contemplated divorce.

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12 Responses to The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘Marrying Libraries’, by Anne Fadiman

  1. april says:

    “This way madness lies.” hahaha I feel your pain.

  2. bybee says:

    I read a novel once (can’t remember the name) in which one of the characters died suddenly. Her four best friends went to her apartment and were at first mystified at how she organized her books. Then they realized it was by relationships. For example, Plath, Hughes, Sexton and A. Alvarez would have all been grouped together.

    The more you write about your father, the more I mourn his passing.

    • sheila says:

      // For example, Plath, Hughes, Sexton and A. Alvarez would have all been grouped together. //

      hahahahahaha I love that!

      and thank you for the kind words on my father. This is a rough time of year, in general, and he is very present and we miss him very much.

  3. Dan says:

    //This is a problem that cannot be solved. Believe it or not, I have thought of buying multiple copies of certain books – so that they can live in BOTH sections. This way madness lies.//
    Why I love this blog.

    I read and loved this book. I loved it so much I gave a copy of it (annotated, and how that memory makes me cringe) to the woman I was in love with at the time. It ended badly and whenever I see this book I think of that train wreck.

    I think I resent her more for ‘tainting’ this book than for the heartbreak.

  4. sheila says:

    And I should have known you would have loved this book too, Dan. :)

  5. Dan says:

    I don’t know if it can be taken back, but I think that may be just the cost of being a book person – the books you read become forever associated with particular times in your life, which can be good, like the books I read on my honeymoon, or bad, like books read in times of heart ache or depression.

  6. JessicaR says:

    It’s funny, I remember seeing a picture of her books when you posted pictures of your bookshelves a while ago. The distinctive covers stuck must have stock in my memory, because a few months ago I spotted a copy of Ex Libris at a used bookshop and decided to take a gamble on it since she obviously was one of your favorites (not a creeper! well, not much of one anyway.) I loved it, and went back for the copy of At Large and At Small next to it the following week. I definitely get that kind of book love. I moved up to Maryland to be with my boyfriend and it’s going great. But it didn’t really feel “real”, like I was living here and not just on vacation until we finally went to Ikea to get a bookshelf for me. I feel in limbo if my books are boxed up.

  7. Martin says:

    I organize chronologically, but I also group all novels by one author together, choosing a place in the timeline that ‘feels’ about right for that person, so all my Joyce comes after my Woolf, even though they were contemporaries. After 1940-ish the chronological system becomes, as mentioned in this article, irrelevant, so I still keep my authors together, but but all the sci-fi in one place, the fiction of my lifetime roughly together, and so on, then colour-code the extraneous books if they’re black, white or fit into a pinky-green spectrum. Then, of course, a handful of books that don’t fit any of these rules. And the poetry. And the non-fiction. When my collection is bigger I’ll certainly be dividing by nationality for pre-1940’s. Thanks for this read.

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