Don’t be fooled by the title, the author is no common reader. Daughter of well known American author, editor and radio and TV personality Clifton Fadiman and screen writer and world war II journalist Annalee Jacoby Fadiman, it is but natural that Anne Fadiman grew up breathing books and words. One of the most delightful books that I have read in the recent past, this is ‘a collection of 18 essays written over a period of four years.’
When you have a father who has written books like ‘Wally the Wordworm‘, ‘Reading I’ve liked‘, and edited the likes of ‘The World Treasury of Children’s Literature’, ‘The World of the Short Story:A Twentieth Century Collection‘ and so on, how can one not fall in love with books? And the cherry on the pie is getting married to another bibliophile, and together accumulating books,
‘on our shelves and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa and on top our refrigerator’
Each essay is about one aspect of books, reading, authors, even writing instruments, these are things that we usually think about in a normal manner,taken for granted as part of your routine life. But when someone starts talking about it, each of these seem to have a life of its own. The first chapter, ‘Marrying Libraries‘ is about how two libraries stand apart trying to retain their individuality, slowly start merging together while trying to keep at least their demeanors different, at last to find one day that they cannot distinguish where one ended and the other began. Just like any other marriage, isn’t it?
The hunger for new words – the more difficult, the better – comes out in the next chapter ‘The Joy of Sesquipedalians‘. The joy of what, you ask? Then wait for others like adapertile, agathodemon, opopanax and retromingent. I’d rather not spoil the joy by telling you what it is all about.
She then continues with the ‘Odd Shelf‘ – where books on subjects totaly unrelated to the others that you normally have, tend to gravitate towards – ‘Sonnets‘ and then “Never Do That to a Book‘. In this chapter she classifies love of books as ‘courtly‘ where
‘A book’s self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content’
and ‘carnal‘ where
‘a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel.’
The musings continue with ‘True Womanhood,’ where she talks about a book that was inherited from her great grandmother, ‘The Mirror of True Womanhood:A Book of Instruction for Women in the World.’ The author, one Reverend Bernard O’Reilly, seems to have been reborn in bits all over the world, the thoughts on how a woman should live hasn’t changed much over the years, for this was the bootomline:
‘Woman’s entire existence, in order to be a source of happiness to others as well as to herself, must be one of self-sacrifice.’
‘Words on a Flyleaf‘ is about the inscriptions that you add to a book that is gifted, and ‘You are There’ about the absolute thrill of reading a book in a place that the book talks about. ‘The His’er Problem‘ is about the cryptic word ‘Ms.‘ that refuses to divulge whether you are single or married, rightly so I would say. Why should you know that about a woman when a man is a universal ‘Mr.‘ ? Its also about how the word ‘man’, is universally considered to be about the human race in general, but how those authors has almost always have a ‘man’ in mind when they write about it.
‘r/ Inset a Car
rot e/’ is about her family of compulsive editors who
‘can imagine few worse fates than walking around for the rest of one’s life wearing a typo’
In ‘Eternal Ink‘, the author reminisces about and romanticizes the ink pen and its royal ancestor the feather and compares it to their insipid off spring, the computer. As she rightly says,
” When you’ve seen one pixel, you’ve seen it all’
I can hear my friends chuckling or even laughing out aloud when I say my favorite essay is ‘The Literary Glutton.‘ How can I not jut like, but absolutely adore an author who says,
‘ When I read about food, sometimes a single word is enough to detonate a a chain reaction of associative memories. I am like the shoe fetishist who, in order to become aroused, no longer needs to see the object of his desire; merely glimpsing the phrase “spectator pump, size 6 1/2” is sufficient‘
‘Nothing New Under the Sun‘ is a tongue in cheek array of observations on how it is impossible to have anything original in literature. Almost each sentence in this chapter has a reference attached to it. You nod your head vigorously as you read how a compulsive reader will settle for even a catalog that is lying around if she can’t get hold of a book, in ‘The Catalogical Imperative‘
‘My Ancestral Castles‘ is about how strong parental influence is in matters literary as it is in other matters in life. She bares her parents to us in these words,
‘My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.‘
‘Sharing the Mayhem‘ recollects the joys and perils of reading aloud and ‘The P.M.’s Empire of Books‘ is about the science of storing books. You have to read it to believe the exact measurements and structure of a library book case to hold eighteen to twenty thousand books. All it needs is a space of twenty by forty feet. You don’t trust Anne Fadiman? So, what if I say the proponent of this theory is
‘that Gladstone: four times British Prime Minister, grand old man of the Liberal Party, scholar, financier, theologian, orator,humanitarian, and thorn in the side of Benjamin Disraeli’
‘Secondhand Prose‘ takes the reader through those quaint and not so quaint shops where you find unkempt desks, dusty shelves that are almost on the verge of breaking down and if you are lucky as the author, you may find about 300,000 used books and also walk out with nineteen pounds of books in your hand. As she says,
‘Now you know why I married my husband. In my view, nineteen pounds of old books are at least nineteen time as delicious as one pound of fresh caviar.’
As if all this was not enough, she adds a final chapter of ‘Recommended Reading,’ references of more books about books.
Anne Fadiman has transformed something that could easily have been dull, bland and high brow into a dish that is so delicious that you want to devour it at once and also savor it bit by bit.
I felt totally inadequate and deliriously happy at the same time, never thought that would be possible. Impossible is nothing, you see 🙂
Verdict: If you are the kind of reader who romances, loves and lusts books, apart from breathing them, you just cannot miss this one.