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A lighthearted book about the joy of books
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Web posted on: Monday, October 12, 1998 12:39:58 PMEDT
(SALON) -- At age 4, Anne Fadiman was building castles out of the 22 volumes of her father's set of Trollope. As a teenager watching the TV quiz show "College Bowl," she and her family believed, with good reason, that "Fadiman U. could beat any other U." As a young woman hiking the Sierra with her future husband, she lugged, alongside mountains of camping gear, the collected works of John Muir. Call Anne Fadiman a certified bibliomaniac, and she'll own up to it.
Clearly, this was no ordinary family and Anne Fadiman no ordinary reader. Her father is Clifton Fadiman, the legendary critic, anthologist and former Book of the Month Club judge. Her mother, Time magazine correspondent Annalee Jacoby Fadiman, co-authored "Thunder Out of China" with Theodore White. Their apartment had room for 7,000 books and not much else. Little wonder that their daughter has gone on to take over the helm at the American Scholar and to write the prize-winning "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," which chronicled a young Hmong epileptic's encounter with the American medical system.
"Ex Libris," a compilation of essays that Fadiman wrote as a columnist for Civilization magazine, is an unapologetic confession of raging bibliophilia. No need to be scared off by the Latin title. The book is a modest, charming, lighthearted gambol among the stacks. It serves up neither ideas nor theories but anecdotes about the joys of collecting and reading books.
Like Calvin Trillin, Fadiman believes that family members, however lovable, are best considered as joke material. There's George, the husband excoriated as "an incorrigible book-splayer" for leaving books overturned and open to page 322 and thus fated to early destruction. Preschool-age daughter Susannah wonders if "Rabbit at Rest" is a tale about a sleepy bunny. Her 2-year-old brother, Henry, is outed as an unrepentant bibliophage for gnawing on "Goodnight Moon."
The essayist herself admits to an uncontrollable urge to read anything in sight, mail-order catalogs included. How else, she contends, could she possibly educate herself about such essential stuff as the Ultrasonic Wave Cleaner (via Sharper Image) or the three parts of a 16th century soldier's helmet (courtesy of Design Toscano Reproductions for Home and Garden)? Fadiman's wit also touches down on more conventional book-related topics such as flyleaf inscriptions, marginalia, reading aloud, a delight in big words (sesquipedalianism), plagiarism, compulsive proofreading and the art of writing bad sonnets. When the author reveals that she and her husband have finally merged their previously his-and-hers book collections -- no more duplicates, alas, of "Catcher in the Rye" or "War and Peace" -- we know in our bones that they really are married. They're no longer just book lovers, but spouses.
Dan Cryer is a book critic for Newsday.
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