ex libris“When the Irish novelist John McGahern was a child, his sisters unlaced and removed one of his shoes while he was reading. He did not stir.”

My obsession with books only grows stronger with each passing moment, so the idea of reading books about books is not new. It’s also not the first time I have done so. In 2011 I read Title Deeds by Gary Dexter, a book about how famous novels got their titles, to name one of many. I have neither the time nor inclination to list more in this category, the third in the Chaos Walking series is glaring at me.

So let’s cut to the chase: this is a book about books and it’s marvellous.

Anne Fadiman grew up with bibliophile parents – both writers – and can seemingly not imagine a life where books are not the most important thing going. In this collection of essays written in the nineties, she discusses various aspects of being a booklover, from plagiarism to poetry, in drily witty, charming and magical prose.

The essays focus on the following topics: meshing together libraries with your spouse, the joy of long words, the “odd shelf”, sonnets, marginalia, changing attitudes towards women, inscriptions, reading books in the places they’re set, why there is no gender neutral term for “his” and “her”, proofreading, pens, books about food, kleptomania in authors, catalogues, books as playthings, reading aloud, book organisation and secondhand books. If there’s nothing in there that grabs your attention, then I would seriously reconsider some things in your life.

Fadiman is unapologetic in her love of the printed word, and it is refreshing to see someone not feeling like their enthusiasm must be hidden. We live in a world now where it seems to be cool to hate things, but that’s a poor way to live as far as I’m concerned. We must be excited and unashamed to big up the things we love! Fadiman hits on some wonderful points about how single tomes can return us to the place and time where we first read them, how proofreading becomes a way of life (her father would correct menus and hand them to the maitre d’ upon leaving the restaurant), and how language changes so wildly that we lose the use of wonderful words like “grimoire”, “mephetic” and “opopanax” (respectively, “book of magic spells”, “foul-smelling” and “a fragrant plant”).

We don’t agree on all points, however. She is a big believer in writing in the margins and annotating texts, whereas I cringe at even the notion of seeing a broken spine. (If you ever find yourself in my house and observe my bookshelves closely, you will notice that they mostly appear unread, which is far from the truth.) But to each their own! I was particularly fond of the essay on the “odd shelf”. In this, Fadiman claims that every person’s library contains a shelf that houses a whole selection of books that are otherwise unrelated to everything else in said library. For her, it’s books on polar exploration. For me, it’s Greek mythology. What’s yours?

This is a delightful book for anyone having a love affair with literature. It’s fifteen years old, but the love of books is timeless. It’s obviously written prior to the rise of the e-book, and I wonder what Fadiman makes of them… It’s taken me long enough to come around to the idea, but I live happy in the knowledge that physical books aren’t going anywhere.

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