Monday, August 10, 2009

An Uncommon Reader

I haven't been getting that much reading done in the last few weeks as work has been pretty crazy in the lead-up to my trip to Canada. Instead, I've been re-reading a few favourites and slowly working my way through A Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan--a memoir about cancer that is so sad in places that I can only handle one chapter at a time.

Last weekend I returned to one of my favourite essay collections, Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. I love books about reading and bookworms because for a very long time as a child I really thought I was the only one--the only really crazy one, I mean. On the first page of Fadiman's introduction she says, "There is a certain kind of child who awakens from a book as from an abyssal sleep, swimming heavily up through layers of consciousness toward a reality that seems less real than the dream-state that has been left behind. I was such a child." So was I; and I find Fadiman's dry and witty stories about her own particular brand of mania the ultimate reassurance regarding my own dubious addiction (because hers is ten times worse!).

Fadiman is the daughter of the famous literary critic and scholar, Clifton Fadiman; her Mother, Annalee, was a foreign correspondent in World War II; and she is married to American author George Howe Colt. I love her descriptions of her family's shared book-insanity and constant discussions of all things literary. One of my favourites in the collection is "Marrying Libraries" which recounts her and her husband's attempt to consolidate their vast libraries, decide whose extra copies should be discarded, and above all, choose how everything should be sorted:
"'You mean we're going to be chronological within each author?' he gasped. 'But no one even knows for sure when Shakespeare wrote his plays!'
'Well,' I blustered, 'we know he wrote Romeo and Juliet before The Tempest. I'd like to see that reflected on our shelves.'
George says that was one of the few times he has seriously contemplated divorce.
Another good essay is "Never Do That to a Book", which compares people that asthetically love books with people that carnivorously devour them with no qualm against defacing the book in the process (guess which one I am?). Equally interesting is "Nothing New Under the Sun" which explores the topic of plagiarism in all its forms.

Fadiman also delves into the topic of gender, always a draw for me, in her essays "True Womanhood" and "The His'er Problem". The latter was particularly good reading and had me in stitches when Fadiman described a job interview she had once for a summer job at the New Yorker where the editor asked her what sorts of magazines she would like to work for. When she got to the new woman's magazine "Ms.", she realized she didn't know how to pronounce, the then new neutral female word and instead referred to it as "em ess". The editor, rather than point out her error, proceeded to discuss that particular magazine without ever once referring to its title:
"Since that time, whenever I have heard anyone talk about civility, I have thought of Mr. Shawn, a man so civil that, in order to spare me embarrassment, he succeeded in crossing a potential minefield of potential Ms.'s without detonating a single one... After I left the building I called a friend. ('How do you say that new little word?... Oh my God, no!') That was a terrible moment, but as Mr. Shawn had surmised, wanting to die in a telephone booth was greatly preferable to wanting to die in his office."
The rest of that essay explores Fadiman's conflicting feelings regarding gender neutral language that is at once fair, but not necessarily poetic.

There is also a recommended books section at the back of Confessions of a Common Reader that I found very useful, with many of Fadiman's own favourite books about books. If you consider yourself a bookworm, this volume is definitely worth owning.
"Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?"