The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘Words On a Flyleaf’, by Anne Fadiman

On the essays shelf:

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

Along with marginalia, I am also a bit obsessed with book inscriptions. (No surprise then that this is one of my favorite sites on the net.) I am excited when I come across a really good inscription in a second-hand book, and naturally I have a couple of books given to me by old boyfriends (or, as I refer to them, “flames”, a label I prefer) with notes written in the front. It’s strange sometimes to come across such notes, so long after the relationship ended. It’s a relic, an epitaph. It’s odd. To read a heartfelt note from someone I don’t speak with anymore, someone I have lost track of. I know the importance of the inscription. This essay, by Anne Fadiman, is about book inscriptions and she opens with the story of a book exchange between herself and her husband, before they were married, before they had even hooked up, as the kids say today. They had clearly become closer, and gave each other books, and her analysis of the two inscriptions is so hilarious, so human!! When I was first starting to hang out with my first boyfriend, back in college, he had been telling me all about The Accidental Tourist and how I had to read it. Finally he just gave me a copy, with an inscription that made me go: “Huh. Is … something else going on here?” The inscription seemed to ….. say more than it said. It was his opening salvo. I was an insecure inexperienced girl but I knew an opening salvo when it hit me right between the eyes. This is how an inscription can be used. But use it wisely and well!

One of the things I love about Fadiman’s stuff is her breadth of references. She’s not just writing personally, she’s writing about the literary world as well, and she has bookshelves and bookshelves at the ready as her arsenal. There’s a great anecdote about Yeats and Hardy which I had not heard before. And a breathtaking story from a friend of hers who had a standoff in an Oxford pub with a “Scotsman” who preferred Virgil to Homer. The Scotsman ended up delivering a book to Fadiman’s friend with an inscription that catches my heart with its grandeur and awesomeness.

Long live the book inscription!

Here is an excerpt from her essay on inscriptions.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘Words On a Flyleaf’, by Anne Fadiman

Long ago, when George and I were not yet lovers but seemed to be tottering in that general direction, we gave each other our first Christmas presents. Of course, they were books. Knowing that I liked bears, George gave me The Biography of a Grizzly, by Ernest Thompson Seton. Modestly sequestered on the third page was the following inscription: To a new true friend. No Talmudic scholar, no wartime cryptographer, no deconstructionist critic ever scrutinized a text more closely than I did those five words, hoping that if they were just construed with the right emphasis (“To a new true friend.” “To a new true friend.” “To a new true friend.”), they would suddenly reveal them selves as a declaration of undying devotion.

Knowing that George liked fish, I gave him Old Mr. Flood, by Joseph Mitchell, a slim volume of stories about the Fulton Fish Market. The author had autographed the book himself in 1948, but did I leave well enough alone? Of course not. I wrote: To George, with love from Anne. Then I mistranscribed a quotation from Red Smith. And finally – on the principle that if you don’t know what to say, say everything – I added fifteen lines of my own reflections on the nature of intimacy. My cumulative verbiage, not to mention the patency of my sentiments, exceeded George’s by a factor of approximately twenty to one. It’s a miracle that the book, its recipient, and the new true friendship weren’t all crushed under the weight of the inscription.

Unfortunately – since George married me anyway and has retained his affection for both fish and Joseph Mitchell – my words were preserved for good. Unlike the card that accompanies, say, a sweater, from which it is soon likely to part company, a book and its inscription are permanently wedded. This can either be a boon or a blot. As Seamus Stewart, the proprietor of an antiquarian bookshop in Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire, has observed, “Imagine how delightful it would be to own an edition of Thomson’s The Seasons with this authenticated inscription: To my dear friend John Keats in admiration and gratitude, from P.B. Shelley, Florence, 1820. Imagine, too, how depressing to have an otherwise fine first of Milton’s Paradise Lost with this ball-point inscription scrawled on the title page: To Ada from Jess, with lots of love and candy floss, in memory of a happy holiday at Blackpool, 1968.

My inscription, a specimen of the candy-floss school, did not improve Old Mr. Flood in the same way that, for example, To Miss Elizabeth Barrett with the Respects of Edgar Allan Poe improved The Raven and Other Poems, or Hans Christian Andersen / From his friend and admirer Charles Dickens / London July 1847 improved The Pickwick Papers. In the bibliomane’s hierarchy, such holy relics of literary tangency eclipse all other factors: binding, edition, rarity, condition. “The meanest, most draggle-tailed, foxed, flead, dog’s-eared drab of a volume” (as the critic and bibliophile Holbrook Jackson once wrote) is instantly transfigured by a transcription with a sufficiently distinguished pedigree. Whose hands could fail to tremble while holding the well-worn copy of Corinne, by Madame de Stael, on whose flyleaf Byron wrote a 226-word mash note to the Marchesa Guiccioli that ends, I more than love you, and cannot cease to love you. Think of me sometimes when the Alps and the ocean divide us, – but they never will, unless you wish it. (Now that’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t have minded finding inside The Biography of a Grizzly.)

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘Words On a Flyleaf’, by Anne Fadiman

  1. george says:


    There’s so much to love about the writing in this short excerpt – I may have another crush.

    It’s posts like this (and the previous Fadimans (and the previous surveyors such as Didion)) that make me realize just how lucky I was to have come across your blog. It’s like being at a grand party and being introduced to the smart set – but better. Thanks for the introduction to Ms. Fadiman.

  2. sheila says:

    George – I am so pleased to have introduced you to her. She’s really special and I agree: quite worthy of a crush.

    And thanks for the nice words about my site! You know, I have this huge book collection – and I’m so glad back in 2006 or whenever, I started to do these book excerpts. I’m still not thru the collection!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *