A Not So Common Reader

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman ★★★★

Author Anne Fadiman has book love well anchored in her genetic pool. A cursory glance at wikipedia tells us she is the daughter of the renowned literary, radio and television personality Clifton Fadiman, who among other things, was in charge of The New Yorker’s book review section between 1933 and 1943, while her mother is author and former World War II correspondent Annalee Jacoby Fadiman. She  also attended Harvard University, graduating in 1975 from Radcliffe College. I would say therefore, that I have one major grudge with this book: that the title “Confession of a Common Reader” is quite misleading, if the word is taken to mean  “ordinary”. But my grudge won’t hold. True to her scholarly and literary background, Fadiman’s title pays homage to Virginia Woolf’s essays written under the title The Common Reader.  A 1925 review of Woolf’s Common Reader in The New York Times stated: “Anything that Virginia Woolf may have to say about letters is of more than ordinary interest, for her peculiar intelligence and informed attitude set her somewhat apart.” and also: “Mrs. Woolf is no common reader, try as she may to be one.” These words could equally be applied to Anne Fadiman.

This is a delightful collection of eighteen essays by an enthusiastic bibliophile (as we’ve properly established), based on her own life and experiences, as well as those of her fascinating circle of friends and family members. To begin with, we get a good glimpse into her married life with the first essay, Marrying Libraries, in which she explains how after five years of marriage (and ten years of frequenting one another), she and her husband finally undertook the project of combining their books:

“Promising to love each other for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health—even promising to forsake all others—had been no problem, but it was a good thing the Book of Common Prayer didn’t say anything about marrying our libraries and throwing out the duplicates. That would have been a far more solemn vow, one that would probably have caused the wedding to grind to a mortifying halt.”

In the essay The Joy of Sesquipedalians I was equally amused and mortified by the fact that I would never have qualified to play along with what they call Fadiman U, composed exclusively of Fadiman’s brother and parents, who actively seek out long and obscure words which would no doubt earn many points at Scrabble, a game I never seemed to have a talent for. That being said, she does come up with some fascinating words, a few of which I was somehow able to work out for myself (being fluent in French and having some very basic notions of Greek no doubt helping). There is a bounty of delightful observations, but my personal favourite was beyond a doubt the essay called The Catalogical Imperative, in which Fadiman makes the following admission: “There is one form of literature, however, that I would sometimes prefer to [Dante’s] Paradiso. It is—I realize that I am about to deal my image a blow from which it may never recover—the mail-order catalogue.” Now there’s a girl after my own heart.

p.s. This small paperback volume was sent to me by a very kind LibraryThing friend, and I’ll gladly pay it forward and send it to anyone else who may be interested, though family members and RL friends do get first dibs!

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