Rory's Reviews > Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
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's review
Feb 01, 2007

it was amazing
Recommended for: Book lovers
Read in July, 2006

The subtitle, "Confessions of a Common Reader," is modest at best. I only wish I were the sort of reader Anne Fadiman is. She consumes every book that comes her way, from large volumes of classic literature down to the owner's manual for her car. Her vocabulary is extensive; as a sort of strange game, I dug out my highlighter with the small post-it flags, and flagged every instance where I had to retrieve a dictionary. I ran out of flags, but visited the dictionary no less than 32 times in the reading of this book, which may say more about the size of my vocabulary than it does hers. I enjoyed finding another life so shaped by words and books, so in love with the physicality of books as well as their content.
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Lorraine I frankly thought the vocab was ok but you make an excellent point. It's extremely ironic, I realise, to say that these are the confessions of a common reader. Though this book actually dismisses the academic debate about "the common reader", I think the division does exist. Obviously not all "common readers" do this stuff. Not all "common readers" spot spelling mistakes in Nabokov's writing, actually inform Nabokov's wife, and get a reply. I mean, who knows that ultra-long word her brother came out with?

Anne Fadiman's family is not "common", and neither is she. I see this less as a statement made out of modesty than the pathos generated by the title (so that hopefully, we will have some sense of imagined empathy and praise her!). The intended audience here is obviously some bunch of bookworms. And I have said in my own review that she's right on many of the habits that book-addicts (for it's not wise to call us anything else) have. I do think, however, that some dichotomies are inaccurate and some exaggerated.

While it is true that the physicality of books probably counts for something, especially in this age, where there are ebooks available, perhaps not all of us are "carnal" or "courtly" lovers. Ethically, as a reader, sometimes I feel that she misses the point. What matters, I think, is a love of language, and not fluttering over scribbles made in books 15 years ago. I think she is in danger of falling into the trap of viewing the novels too much as hers. By that, I mean that she is in danger of caring more about what a book did for her at a particular time than the actual beauty of the text.

Finding out weird words for the sake of finding out weird words is fine, but it does not demonstrate a love of language, but rather, a love of knowledge. Where's the love that makes one read? I find too few examples of this: I remember only one instance, in fact, that of Keats's letters to Fanny, where she actually quotes him and says he must be such a sexy guy (she's probably right on that). It's the love of the sound of words, and the images words can bring, that is the essence of the reader I think. Or even (for those not into this), the love of plot, of characterization, its relevance to human life in general, and not just one human life -- Anne Fadiman was an English major -- she knows this. For every book we empathise with, it's because we've been through the same thing. We know that it says something not just about ourselves, but about human experience in general. To me though, there's not much elaboration on this aspect of reading at all.

And her family makes me jealous. :P

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