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Books about Books - getting it right
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It was only after I read Nancy Pearl’s BOOK LUST, a book I love, that I sort of discovered books about books.. It’s been a mixed bag, not nearly as wonderful as I somehow expected or hoped. I think somehow I expected that booklovers were, well, we shared common ground. And while certainly we do – book lovers love books, duh, we have an odd, in many ways, passion – to my surprise, it’s not enough.

Given the statistics about book ownership and all those sad reports we read about the waning popularity of books, the average number of books in the American household, all those dire “books are dying, damn television/computers/the internet/the 21st century” most of us have some sense of being odd. Eccentric. Not mainstream. I always claim that part of the reason I have an odd crick in my neck is my lifelong tendency to read titles on bookshelves – sideways of course – and the tendency to be at a bus stop, T stop, airport, and be bending every so subtly (yeah, right) to try to catch the title of the book the person near me is reading.

After Katrina devastated so many homes, I learned that one friend and one friend of a friend both reported that while they lost furniture, clothing, while the house was damaged, that the books survived. And I suspected many people would have found the celebration that followed odd. I did a virtual happy dance for both people. Yes, books are replaceable, mostly, but for us, us booklovers,, they are precious. They are friends, they are important.

I was asked by one editor to review SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME. A book with which I lost patience. I admire the author for deciding to read a book a week for 52 weeks, but I tired of her pretend wide-eyed “gee golly, I’m such an ignoramus” style along with some of her assumptions. (I got incensed at her statement that those of us who reread do so to “trumpet our intellectual superiority” a statement with nothing to back it. And of course it couldn’t be farther from the truth, at least for moi.) But I kept trying. I tried LEAVE ME ALONE, I’M READING. I thought I would connect some with the author. And I kinda did but much of her passion for a certain sort of literature didn’t click with me so once again, here I thought we’d be sisters in ink and I ended up feeling let down.

But on I went; hurray. I don’t know if it’s that we are the same age and thus clearly share some references (that was true of Corrigan as well I believe) but I’m reading EX LIBRIS by Anne Fadiman and I’ve already ordered a copy on line. I’m on page 57 (it’s only about 158 pages) and I’ve giggled at least a dozen times. And stuck bookmarks in several places to quote things. And went out to ask Stu if he’d read it and read some of it to him, and I was on page 4. This one works.

I like Anne Fadiman. I like her husband George. I think Stu and I would enjoy having dinner with the two of them because there is a whimsy in the relationship between those two that I recognize. I rolled my eyes in total understanding with chapter one – the “we were together for years before we merged our books” chapter because a) I know other people who’ve done that and because Stu and I have been together going on what 16 years and still have separate book collections. Okay, and record collections. And CD collections. Now granted MUCH of that is practical, having to do with what I can and cannot reach, but it didn’t start out that way. We always have had separate collections. We have very separate interests – we both read sf and mystery, but very different parts of the genres. And unlike Anne F and her husband, neither of us maintain huge collections of American or English literature over which to fuss.

The first thing I read in EX LIBRIS when I picked it up out of the library box was, I admit, the chapter about errors in books, where the author describes dinner with her brother and parents where they’re proofreading the menu. Snort. Yup. Stu and I admit to cheap laughs from Chinese restaurant menus but we do understand the nature of English as a second, and hugely challenging, complicated and nasty written language. Still, he got me recently by reading an item off a new menu: “Human Beef”. Yum.

And when Anne’s brother talks about the 364 page software manual he read that repeatedly discussed “inserting a carrot”, which meant that neither author nor editor was even familiar with what the term is supposed to be, well, I felt so at home.

I like the chapter when Anne discusses a book she read by Carl Van Vechten which was replete with unfamiliar words. Was the author an esthete? Was he highly educated? Showing off? Did people have different vocabularies 80 years ago? Yes, maybe, no? I liked that Fadiman thought it worth discussing. And that she found it both fascinating and embarrassing to not even recognize so many words. Granted, her father is Clifford Fadiman, a, if you will, KNOWN intellectual. He was an editor, the host of a radio show “Information Please” and he co-wrote something called THE LIFETIME READING PLAN, a guide to the “great books”. She was BORN to it. So the fact that she shared my hesitation, my sense of interest and of uneasiness at not knowing words when, darn it, WE’RE intellectuals, WE’RE well read, darn it.. It felt comfortable.

Anne says that yes, they DID finally combine the books - the rather freeform George, whose books just sorta were there and Anne, who wanted her books organized in ways even I found excessive, but understood. I knew for SURE that I’d like them both when, as Anne reports, after a short time, some books migrated. (they’ll do that) Anne and George had a section in their home of :Books by friends and relatives” and I get that. But when left to their own devices, eventually the Shakespeares got all messed up and a copy of DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE ended up on the friends and family shelf, George explained “Well, Gibbon and I were like THAT.”

That’s why I have to own this book.

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