On the essays shelf:
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman
Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman, is a book about reading, for readers. Serious readers. People who have an opinion about whether or not is morally correct to lie a book face-down, open, on the bedside table. People who actually have opinions about whether or not you should write in the margins of your books. It’s THAT kind of reader Fadiman addresses, in prose that is thoughtful, sometimes very moving, and often quite funny. My family and I (who are all readers like Fadiman is) just clicked with it, roaring about her descriptions of family vacations, with everyone packing clothes, sure, but really agonizing about how many books to bring and which books to bring. One of the long-standing jokes between me and my sister Jean, which has spilled out into the rest of the family, is that when she and I flew to Ireland to visit my sister Siobhan who was going to school there, I had in my carryon bag, five paperbacks. There was room for my wallet, my passport, and five books – but they kept spilling out onto the floor of the airplane. There really wasn’t enough room in my purse for those books and they kept driving me crazy during the flight. Jean didn’t judge, she understood, but the battle between Sheila and the five books she brought to Ireland became an ongoing joke. At one point, I looked down at the paperbacks bursting out of my purse, and murmured hopelessly, “Toooo many books.” The phrase “toooo many books” has entered the family lexicon ever since, and it’s amazing in how many situations this phrase applies. We weren’t going to Ireland for two months. We were going for 10 days. And even then, the five books I had weren’t enough. I was through with them halfway through the trip. The Horror!
But if you’re a book person to that degree, you’ll get it, you’ll relate, you’ll find it funny, you’ll have your own ridiculous stories about the crazy things you’ve done in order to have enough books around you at all times. And they have to be the RIGHT books. Although I’m with Oscar Wilde, suffering in jail without his books: I would beg the warden, too, to allow me to have books, any books, anything to read, even religious tracts, in such an environment. A life without books? Unthinkable. Heaven won’t be Heaven if I can’t read up there. Sorry.
In this essay, which is short, but sweet, and ends with a beautiful final image – Anne Fadiman takes on what she calls “You Are There reading” – reading a book about a place while in that very place. You know, sitting on the banks of Walden Pond, reading Thoreau. Wandering through Dublin, holding your copy of Ulysses up in front of you. Or … traveling to the Antarctic, with a copy of Endurance in your bag. Robert Kaplan went to the Balkans, holding up Rebecca West’s copy of Black West and Grey Falcon, and followed in her footsteps (Kaplan’s book from that experience is Balkan Ghosts). Or reading Civil War history while standing on the field at Gettysburg, trying to picture what had happened there, looking down into the book and then looking back up at the landscape. Trying to put yourself “There”.
I grew up in a little New England town where George Washington actually slept. My first job was in the local library, which looks like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, and next to the library is a little stone building where the library’s records are kept, but back in the day, Washington would meet with local leaders of the Revolution in that very building, on his way here, there, and everywhere. So when I had to go into that little stone building to get something (and I was high school age), not once did I walk the 20 feet from one building to the next without also imagining guys in heavy wool coats and tricorn hats and white wigs, with shuffling stamping horses’, breath showing in the frosty air, right in that very spot. It would give me goosebumps. I had relatives in Quincy, Mass, and every year we would go there for Thanksgiving, driving by the Adams farm. (I know I’ve mentioned that “John and Abigail” were mentioned so often when I was a kid, and so casually, with no last names, that originally I thought they were relatives.) Every place has history, I suppose. I was fortunate to have parents who knew of such history and told us stories, but Rhode Island is steeped in history. My inclination, even as a teenager, was to try to imagine myself “there”, into the history books I had read, and the stories I knew about … because right there in front of me was “There”.
But reading a book describing an event/place IN the event/place is a whole other level. I did re-read “The Dead” once, while I was in Dublin. Cliche, perhaps, but certainly a worthwhile endeavor, especially because Joyce was so insistent on putting the street names into everything (I think it was Sam Beckett who said that you could re-build Dublin if it was ever destroyed by using Joyce’s books as a guide – it’s all there, cross streets, intersections, alleyways!) When I read Ron Chernow’s magnificent biography of Alexander Hamilton, there were times when I would take mini field trips, book in hand, to go see some of the places described in the book. Hamilton was a New Yorker (or … he adopted New York as his home base). Much of lower Manhattan is still … well, not the same … but you can find a lot of those old places. The financial district. I rarely go down there, but the way it is described – as a warren of streets, crowded with banks and homes and brothels … it really feels the same way down there, especially if you’re there when it’s deserted (like, on a weekend).
And if I ever do get my ass to the Balkans, or to Iran, I know what books I’ll be bringing. Not just for background, but so I can read the description … and then … look up and around me.
Here is part of Fadiman’s essay about “You Are There” reading.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘You Are There’, by Anne Fadiman
I’ve never equaled the sensory verisimilitude of my friend Adam, who once read the ninth book of the Odyssey, in Greek, in what is believed to be the Cyclops’s cave, a Sicilian grotto Homerically redolent of sheep turds. But I have read Yeats in Sligo, Isak Dinesen in Kenya, and John Muir in the Sierras. By far my finest You Are There hour, however, was spent reading the journals of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first expedition down the Colorado River, while I was camped at Granite Rapids in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
In one crucial aspect, I bested Macaulay. Alone on his grand tour, he had no one with whom to share the rapture of Thrasymenus except the shade of Livy. In the Grand Canyon, I had George. It was our first vacation together, and it was full of revelations: that George was afraid of mice; that I never went backpacking without my baby pillow; that we both loved skinny-dipping in water so cold it gave us headaches.
Alone on a beach of almost Caribbean whiteness, walled in by cliffs of black schist and pink granite, George and I had washed each other’s hair in the Colorado River and then settled ourselves next to the churning rapids with The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. “G. reads from Powell,” I wrote by candlelight in my journal that night, “holding the book on his bare legs. Amazing to hear of Powell’s equipment and food and how hard it was for him to run the rapids, with the rapids right in front of us!!” There was an engraving of Granite Rapids in the book. Nothing had changed.
“We are now ready to start our way down the Great Unknown,” read George. “Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river . . . . We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.” We had no idea at the time that these are among the most famous sentences in expedition literature. We thought we had discovered them.