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

On the essays shelf:

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

This essay really hits home for me. It hit home when I first read it (I grew up surrounded by books), but especially now, when my mother is organizing my father’s vast book collection to be donated to various institutions. It’s emotional. These books were part of my landscape growing up. My mother and I were talking about the collection and she said, “If there’s anything you can think of that you want …” The only book I could think of was this one. That was a rare lucid moment near the end, and what a moment. I won’t say anymore. But my father’s books are on our minds these days.

This essay is about Fadiman’s parents’ books, and the childhood associations she has with them. She remembers building castles with these huge volumes of Trollope. Her parents did not treat books as though you needed to be careful with them. They were precious, sure, but they also made good castles for an imaginative little girl. I suppose if you did not grow up with people obsessed with books, this essay may be like visiting a foreign land. To me, it’s like visiting my house, my childhood, my family. I have these odd memories and sensations attached to my dad’s books. Omoo. The pink Maud Gonne biography. The Jack Yeats books, which were confusing. Is he … the other Yeats? The shelves of Francis Stuart. The first essay I wrote that got published, in The Sewanee Review, was about my father and his books. This is powerful ground.

I thank Anne Fadiman for putting it into words. To her, her books ARE her father. They help explain him, they helped her as a child understand him (outside of being her father), and now … she wonders what to do with his books. Should his library be kept intact? Should the books be dispersed?

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘My Ancestral Castles’, by Anne Fadiman

Our father’s library spanned the globe and three millennia, although it was particularly strong in English poetry and fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The only junk, relatively speaking, was science fiction; the only wholly extraliterary works were about wine and cheese. My favorite shelf held the books he had written himself. I liked seeing my own name up there – FADIMAN FADIMAN FADIMAN – especially around the age of five, since it was one of the first words I learned to spell. When my reading skills improved, I remember imagining that Erasmus must have looked like Ed Wynn because he had written something called In Praise of Folly. My brother remembers thinking (more accurately) that Kierkegaard must have been a terrifying fellow because he had written The Sickness Unto Death and Fear and Trembling. And we both believed that our father, because his books did, somehow managed to incorporate both folly and terror, as well as every emotion in between.

Our mother’s library was narrower, focusing almost entirely on China and the Philippines. Paging through A Primer in the Writing of Chinese Characters (published in Shanghai!) and I Was on Corregidor (it mentioned her!) was thrilling, like discovering one was the illegitimate offspring of Mata Hari. But the excitement was not unalloyed. Our father, who often boasted that he had never actually done anything except think, was still the same person he had been when he started collecting books in the early 1920s. He and his library had never diverged. Our mother, on the other hand, had once led a life of action. And why had she stopped? Because she had children. Her books, which seemed the property of a woman I had never seen, defined the size of the sacrifice my brother and I had exacted.

Between them, our parents had about seven thousand books. Whenever we moved to a new house, a carpenter would build a quarter of a mile of shelves; whenver we left, the new owners would rip them out. Other people’s walls looked naked to me. Ours weren’t flat white backdrops for pictures. T hey were works of art themselves, floor-to-ceiling mosaics whose vividly pigmented tiles were all tall skinny rectangles, pleasant to the touch and even, if one liked the dusty fragrance of old paper, to the sniff. Vladimir Nabokov once recorded in his diary that at the age of eight, his son associated the letters of the alphabet with particular colors. C was yellow; F was tan; M was robin’s-egg blue. To this day, imprinted by the cloth covered spines of the books that surrounded me thirty years ago. I feel certain that Sophocles is terra-cotta, Proust is dove gray, Conrad is cinnamon, Wilde is acid green, Poe is Prussian blue, Auden is indigo, and Roald Dahl is mauve.

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2 Responses to The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘My Ancestral Castles’, by Anne Fadiman

  1. george says:

    Sheila,

    “I feel certain that Sophocles is terra-cotta, Proust is dove gray, Conrad is cinnamon, Wilde is acid green, Poe is Prussian blue, Auden is indigo, and Roald Dahl is mauve.”

    I feel certain there are more ways to see things, books included, than there are synapses in the brain to accommodate the seeing. Perhaps that’s why there are so many different people, writers included, in the world -to make up for our individual limitations.

    What a beautiful thing, to see the writers in their colors. They’re all spot on but ‘Conrad is cinnamon’ is just so perfect it makes me envious.

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