Saturday, July 5, 2008

Book Review: Ex Libris

Although I liked The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, until recently I was unfamiliar with Anne Fadiman's essays. However, on a recent trip to the bookstore, one of the booksellers rhapsodized over Ex Libris, a collection of Fadiman's essays on books and reading. The bookseller's glowing description and excitement were almost tangible, and I found myself buying Ex Libris along with several other books. I found myself reading the book and finishing it three days after I started.

Ex Libris, which is Latin for "from the books of," is an incredibly fitting title for these essays. Since these essays are about books, this collection is literally "from the books of" Anne Fadiman. On the other hand, if you (like I) are not familiar with Latin, it is a seemingly incomprehensible title that has a slight whiff of intellectual superiority. This is not unlike the book itself. While Fadiman jokes about her family's prowess at academic minutiae, obsessive need to proofread menus, signs, and other books, and attempts to one-up each other finding esoteric words, I got (perhaps incorrectly) the feeling that behind the gentle self-mockery is a sense of self-satisfaction. Regardless of the difficulty of the question, the prices on the menu, or the obscurity of the words, the family prevails. Fadiman's acknowledgment that her family's eccentricities are annoying (at least to other people) seems to carry with it a great deal of pride (in a less literary work, the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility" would undoubtedly show up in regards to her family's intellectual gifts and the world's inability to fully comprehend them).

If I sound affronted by Fadiman's essays, please know that I mention these things with the knowledge of my own sense of both my academic snobbery and my shortcomings. As a lover of literature and learning, I wish that I had the discipline to create a book categorization system as compulsive as the one Fadiman describes. I too get annoyed at the more egregious typos and mistakes I see on signs. I share some of Fadiman's dispositions, particularly in terms of how to treat books (she encourages interacting with them, annotating them, and even occasionally using them to the point of destruction) and her obsession with literary meals. However, I also realize that I am not a grammar or style savant (readers of this blog will be able to attest to this) nor do I have the wherewithal to presume and correct everyone else's spelling and diction mistakes. Consequently, when I notice the aura of intellectual smugness in Ex Libris, perhaps I am just acknowledging my own smugness and my inability to completely embrace it.

With all of that said, it is a compulsively readable book. It is a thought-provoking collection of essays that causes the reader to reflect on his or her own relationship with books and compare it (favorably or unfavorably) with Fadiman's. Furthermore, even if I do get a bit of an inferiority complex with faced with Fadiman's academic quirks and compulsions, they also make me feel a little bit more normal (especially when I cringe upon seeing misused possessives).