The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘My Odd Shelf’, by Anne Fadiman

On the essays shelf:

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

I have an “Odd Shelf” too. Or I have a couple of “Odd Shelves”: books on topics that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of my collection. I have a “cult” shelf, for example. I have multiple books on brainwashing. I have memoirs from people who escaped from cults. I have books from psychologists about the brain and its susceptibilities. These books should not be dispersed throughout the rest of my collection, say, placed in Non-fiction by author. No. They need to be lumped together. They represent an abiding (and at this point, lifelong) interest of mine, and so they need to be together. They are my “odd shelf”.

Anne Fadiman’s “Odd Shelf” is filled with books about polar explorations, successful and non- (although she has more affection for the unsuccessful voyages, the ones who DIDN’T make it). She goes into why (in her typically funny prose – “sympathetic hypothermia”? I love her). And she loves her “Odd Shelf”. To disperse the books throughout her larger collection, into the memoir section, or the science section, would be wrong. She knows it. I know it. Book lovers will understand. My father feels very close to me when I look through these essays. It’s been a long time since I have read this book.

Here is a bit on Anne Fadiman’s Odd Shelf.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘My Odd Shelf’, by Anne Fadiman

My ardor for the choice minimalism of extreme latitudes began so early that it would take years on an analyst’s couch to exhume its roots. I cannot remember a time when I did not prefer winter to summer, The Snow Queen to Cinderella, Norse myths to Greek. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I read C.S. Lewis’s recollection of the central epiphany of his childhood, the moment he stumbled across a Norse-influenced poem by Longfellow that began with the lines

I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”

“I knew nothing about Balder,” wrote Lewis, “but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, [and] I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote).” When I read that passage, I shivered with a combination of sympathetic hypothermia and passionate recognition.

As I grew up, my yearning for what Lewis called Northernness (the Arctic) began an antipodal yearning for Southernness (the Antarctic). Neither ultima Thule was easily accessible, so for a time I worked with a mountaineering instructor, on the theory that high altitudes were a reasonable substitute for high latitudes. A few years later, I managed to persuade a softhearted editor to send me twice to the Arctic, once to write about polar bears and once about mush oxen. Each time I feared that my protracted pre-imaginings would poison the reality; each time the reality went one better. And each time, as soon as I returned home, I ran to my Odd Shelf, which instantly uplifted me back into Lewis’s huge regions of northern sky. It was in this way that, over time, my crush on Balder the Beautiful was converted into a crush on Ross, Franklin, Nares, Shackleton, Oates, and Scott.

I should mention that all of the above explorers were unqualified failures. Not coincidentally, they were also all British. Americans admire success. Englishmen adire heroic failure. Given a choice – at least in my reading – I’m un-American enough to take quixotry over efficiency any day. I have always found the twilight-of-an-empire aspect of the Victorian age inexpressibly poignant, and no one could be more Victorian than the brave, earnest, optimistic, self-sacrificing, patriotic, honorable, high-minded, and utterly inept men who left their names all over the maps of the Arctic and Antarctic, yet failed to navigate the Northwest Passage and lost the races to both Poles. Who but an Englishman, Lieutenant William Edward Parry, would have decided, on reaching western Greenland, to wave a flag painted with an olive branch in order to ensure a peaceful first encounter with the polar Eskimos, who not only had never seen an olive branch but had never seen a tree? Who but an Englishman, the legendary Sir John Franklin, could have managed to die of starvation and scurvy along with all 129 of his men in a region of the Canadian Arctic whose game had supported an Eskimo colony for centuries? When the corpses of some of Franklin’s officers and crew were later discovered, miles from their ships, the men were found to have left behind their guns but to have lugged such essentials as monogrammed silver cutlery, a backgammon board, a cigar case, a clothes brush, a tin of button polish, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield. These men may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentlemen.

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5 Responses to The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘My Odd Shelf’, by Anne Fadiman

  1. Iain says:

    I’m a sucker for books about books and/or reading, and this is one of my favourites. I re-read it just last month, and it reminded me – at a time when my recently-acquired Kindle seems to be taking over my life – how much pleasure there is in owning and reading actual books. Her love of the written word and of the actual, physical book itself has had me going off and rediscovering things in my library that I’d forgotten I had. Of course, when I did remember I had them, it then took me ages to find them because – woe is me! – I have no system in place.

    Hmm, looks like I’ve just found myself a project for the holidays…

  2. sheila says:

    Iain – ha! It is so difficult to get a really good workable satisfying system where you can FIND stuff.

    I am so pleased to hear how many other people love this book!!

  3. sheila says:

    If you had to say – even though you may not have an actual “Odd Shelf” – what is on your Odd Shelf?

  4. JessicaR says:

    I would love a library, but I live in constant fear of clutter so I’m constantly winnowing my books down. That said I’m ready for a second bookshelf. If only because I could finally have my Odd Shelf, which would be whatever books I needed all together for a current project. Right now it’s fairy tales, originals, retellings, critical commentary and history of folklore type of stuff.

    • sheila says:

      Jessica – cool, I love your Odd Shelf – very interesting!!

      I fear clutter too. Recently, I went through a pretty severe purge, and donated 7 boxes of books to a local second-hand bookstore. SEVEN BOXES. I just suddenly felt like some of the books were a weight on me – I would never read them again – they had served their purpose and I didn’t need them hanging around.

      I love my library – and I love the fact that I have an apartment where I can have a “study” – but I still need to really keep on top of this collection. I cleared out what amounts to an entire bookshelf, and I am still proud of myself for my fortitude!! I don’t miss one of those books.

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