Ex libris

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common ReaderEx Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
by Anne Fadiman
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780374527228
Publication Date: November 25, 2000
Pages: 162
Genre: Books and Reading
Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux

Anne Fadiman is--by her own admission--the sort of person who learned about sex from her father's copy of "Fanny Hill," whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate's 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice. This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story.

Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father's 22-volume set of Trollope ("My Ancestral Castles") and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections ("Marrying Libraries"), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony--Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners.

Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, "Ex Libris" establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.

I loved this from first word to last. A collection of essays first published in Civilization, each about some facet of the love of books or the written word.

Her first essay, Marrying Libraries started the collection off on a high note with me; after 10 years together, I still can’t quite embrace the marriage of my books with MT’s: he has his shelves and I, mine. I’ve only recently (last weekend) catalogued his books in my database software; until that point neither of us knew what he had or didn’t.

Other highpoints of the collection for me included Never Do That To a Book, My Ancestral Castles and Secondhand Prose. Fadiman’s essay on plagiarism was…interesting. I’m fairly sure it’s heavily satirical, (it’s 10 pages long and has 38 footnotes, some rather absurd) but reading it, it is clear that she has strong feelings about the theft of other people’s work. I was left with the feeling that she felt conflicted about such a sticky subject. She has also written an outstanding essay on compulsive proofreading, whose title includes those handwritten edits that are impossible to reproduce on a screen with nothing but a keyboard. But it’s one of my top three favourites of the book.

Ex Libris wraps up with a small chapter of recommended reading; a list of books about books; a list I’ll be using in the next few days as I look for more titles to add to my TBR.

Happily Ever After

celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice
By Daniel Klein

ISBN: 9780711233744
Format: Hardcover

I bought this one awhile ago after quickly flipping through it and was looking forward to what its subtitle promised: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

What I got was very little of how Pride and Prejudice came to be written (which is specifically what the inside flap says I’ll get) and a whole lot of literary dissection. There is one entire chapter (9 pages) on nothing but the first sentence of the book, breaking it down almost word for word. What are the philosophical implications of “It is a truth”? (OMG!) What might Austen have meant, by “universally acknowledged”? (Seriously?)

I’m being a bit catty here and a lot of readers might be genuinely interested in this kind of literary examination, and I respect that; this is the book for them. But like magic acts, I prefer not to break it down and analyse it: doing so diminishes the magic for me. I got to this chapter and immediately thought “THIS is why teen-agers don’t want to read, because this is what English Lit consists of.”. Plus, I think if you have to explain the first sentence of P&P, it’s probably not the book to read.

There is some interesting historical material here, but it’s mostly drowned out in the speculation (often disguised as fact, which was irritating) over characters and style. A section towards the end on adaptations, pastiches, and mash-ups was moderately interesting but the author didn’t try to hide her bias and at one point declares that Jane is “rolling in her grave”. Frankly, given Austen’s love of the absurd, I’d bet she’s laughing.

I had high hopes, but this is not the book I was looking for.

Housekeeping vs. the dirt

by Nick Hornby

Published: Sep 13, 2006 by McSweeney’s
ISBN: 9781932416596
Format: Paperback / softback | Trade paperback (US)


I gave Hornby’s first collection of critical essays, The Polysyllabic Spree, 5 stars because I thought it was excellent. Well-written and hysterically funny, he writes about books like he’s a book lover, not a critic. I liked it so much I went immediately to McSweeney’s website and bought the next three collections. This is the second book and takes place pretty much where The Polysyllabic Spree leaves off.

Here’s the problem: I like this one even better. At the risk of blowing what little meaning ratings have, I sort of need another 1/2 star to add to the 5 I’ve already given it.

The 14 essays contained in Housekeeping vs. the Dirt are the same format as The Polysyllabic Spree – a list of books bought, books read, and a chatty narrative about his thoughts on those reads. But this time the essays are even smoother, like Hornby found his groove at this point. Also, and I’m sure it’s not coincidental to my added enjoyment, he had titles on his list that I’ve actually read (although he doesn’t discuss any of them in this book). He includes 4 excerpts from the books he read and loved, and one of them I’ve added to my own list (Assassination Vacation).

It’s going to be hard putting off diving directly into the next collection, but I’m trying to pace myself to string out the pleasure as long as I can. If you think you might enjoy critical essays that aren’t very critical and have a bit of fun at the expense of pretentiousness, I definitely recommend giving Hornby’s essays a try.

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Shakespeare Wrote for Money

by Nick Hornby

Published: Dec 01, 2008 by McSweeney’s
ISBN: 9781934781296


I’d been in the mood for a book about books and started reading The World Between Two Covers, but it’s turning out to be more a thesis of, than ode to, reading, so I switched to a sure thing and picked up Nick Hornby’s third collection of columns from the Believer magazine.

Shakespeare Wrote for Money covers two years, from 2006-2008, and purports to be the last one, as Hornby left the Believer after his September 2008 column. As it turns out the leave was temporary, as I already own his fourth collection, but this one does seem to lack the enthusiasm that over-flowed from the first two books. It was still highly entertaining and thought-provoking, but there was a hint, in comparison, of a going through the motions.

I still highly recommend it and thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to the fourth collection; perhaps after his self-imposed hiatus he’ll be back in top form.

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By Daniel Klein

ISBN: 9780744544787
Format: Hardcover


My name is book and I’ll tell you the story of my life.

This little guy is probably getting judged unfairly; judged based on the shelf I found him on in the library, which was in the adult non-fiction section.

Based on that shelf, this book was juvenile and cloyingly written.

But if this had been shelved appropriately, for young readers, I’d say it’s a fun book with solid information about the history of books, starting from oral tradition. The eye-catching illustrations add visual interest and the interspersed quotes and poetry about books could send those kids in new reading directions.

So, if you know of a young bibliophile in the making and you see this book, it might be worth a look.

A Passion for Books

A Book Lover`s Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Lore, and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring for, and Appreciating Books
by Harold Rabinowitz

Published: Jan 23, 2001 by Three Rivers Press
ISBN: 9780812931136
Format: Hardcover (US)


The Subtitle for this book is pretty much the most accurate synopsis of the book possible. It’s an excellent collection of bits: cartoons, lists, quotes, poems and essays that range in length from one page to twenty. I think there’s even a curse upon those who steal books in here somewhere.

Everything included revolves around the simple love (or obsession) for books, as objects more than the stories they contain. That’s not to say the joy of reading isn’t part of the whole, but this collection focuses on the joy, the need, of owning the books themselves. Readers who’ve gone wholly digital, or prefer a minimalist housekeeping approach won’t find much to love here.

As with any collection of writings from various authors and times, some are better than others, but there were very few I just didn’t care for and then only because I either found the writing too dense or dated or the subject matter not quite interesting enough to enthral me. There were maybe three all up that I wouldn’t have missed if they were left out. Given the table of contents runs to two and a half pages, that’s a pretty good ratio.

The authors also include a 6 page bibliography at the end of other books about books, with the ones they used to create A Passion for Books marked with an asterisk.

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The book of lost books

by Stuart Kelly

Published: Sep 27, 2005 by Viking UK
ISBN: 9780670914999


I tried, I really did. 6 weeks and 3 library renewals, but ultimately I just ended up skimming through the last half, flipping through and reading bits about certain authors.

I was hoping for something more anecdotal, but this book is much denser and much more targeted at people who take literature Seriously. The writing is dryer than I like and almost academic.

The book deserves a higher rating; it’s obvious the author is passionate about his subject, I’m just not the proper audience for it.

The Haunted Bookshop


Oh how I didn’t like this book. I should have DNF’d it, but it was called The Haunted Bookshop! I’d have thought it impossible for any book with that title to be so disappointing.

Where to start… the characters – the two main characters – are each in their own way incredibly irritating. Roger Mifflin, the bookshop owner, constantly reminded me of Walter Mitty: living in his own dreamworld with grandiose ideas about the power of literature. Just about every time he opens his mouth, it’s to deliver a long ultimately irritating panegyric on the fantastical powers of books. I love books and I believe the world would be a much better place if everybody read more, but Mifflin takes this idea too far and the result makes him look foolish.

Aubrey Gilbert, on the other hand, is actually foolish. An idiot really. He spends the book either spouting off sales rhetoric that sounds like an Amway pitch or flying off half-cocked chasing dust-devils and flinging about insane accusations. Remember the Dick Van Dyke Show? Gilbert is like Dick Van Dyke only without rational thought or a sense of humour.

The plot… sigh… the plot was good, what there was of it. Sadly it only accounted for about 1/10th of the book itself. The audiobook I listened to was 6 hours long and I swear if you edited out everything not directly related to the plot itself it would run less than 20 minutes. Tops.

The narrator did a good job, although he sounded so much like Leonard Nimoy I kept picturing Spock reading to me, except I’m pretty sure even Spock would have lost patience with the book after a couple of hours.

The best part of this experience? This was a library loan and it didn’t cost me anything but the time I spent listening to it and the energy I spent yelling at my car’s audio telling Mifflin to shut up already.

Ah well, moving on.


This book isn't in your Library! Please check the ISBN/ASIN number you provided.
or, Mr. Gilbar’s book of books & catch-all of literary facts & curiosities
by Steven Gilbar

Published: Jan 01, 2005 by David R. Godine
ISBN: 9781567922950


A quirky little reference/trivia books concerning many things book related. Mostly lists; many useful, many filler (authors listed by the University they went to, for example). It was fun to browse through will occasionally be useful, although by its nature it will quickly become outdated.

Still, a fun addition to my bookshelves.

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Jane Austen Cover to Cover

200 Years of Classic Book Covers
by Margaret C. Sullivan

Published: Nov 11, 2014 by Quirk Books
ISBN: 9781594747250


I’ve been lusting after this book for a few months now and it finally arrived today.  Nothing else got done as I promptly flopped onto the couch and dove it.

There’s more to this book than I originally expected, with thoughtful and sometimes downright snarky commentary about each cover.  The quality of the covers in each time period range from tasteful to tasteless to downright tacky and all a lot of fun to look at.

If you are a Jane Austen fan, this one is a keeper, although now I want to go out and search for some of these old editions (the original Peacock edition: yes please!).

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