I know of so many people who have read this, and I wanted to be one of them. I kept seeing it at the library and one day I brought it home – reading it would kick off my new ‘books about books’ project.
Admittedly, I was a little disappointed. I love the idea of the author’s “list of betterment”, and it was funny in places, but at times, I felt bored – and, in fact, skimmed through the last couple of chapters. I wondered if it was because I hadn’t read most of the books he wrote about? But the same was the case for the next book I read, The Shelf, and I loved that one. So, it’s a mystery. But I’m happy to have read it. It will no longer be calling to me and tempting me on its shelf at the library.
Miller includes three delightful lists at the end of the book: “The List of Betterment”, “The Hundred Books Which Influenced Me Most”, and “Books I still Intend To Read”. I wonder if he’s read them by now?
A couple of good lines:
This was not reading for pleasure, it was reading for dear life.
A book is like a guest you have invited into your home, except you don’t have to play Pictionary with it or supply it with biscuits and stollen.
I chose this book next, because a friend from work lent it to me and I should probably return it soon. I kind of wish it was mine – the cover is so pretty. I love what’s between the covers, too. Even though I haven’t read any of the books she covers in The Shelf, I found it intensely interesting and felt like I learned so much.
Phyliis Rose chose – using a set of strict rules and limitations – a shelf at the library to read through (LEQ to LES). She hoped it would provide her with a more random sample of reading than what she was used to, her reading usually so driven by study or work. It was a joy to discover along with her the surprises and disappointments, the page-turners and the slogs. Not only do we get to hear about each book but we also learn about the authors and the circumstances surrounding the writing of their books. A few books in particular inspired her to reach out to the authors, and me to the google bar. (I’ve also spent a lot of time since reading her book thinking about which shelf at the library I would choose for a project like this.)
In her essays, Rose covers more books and authors that are present on her shelf; authors like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Cather; and V.S. Naipaul, Jonathan Franzen, and Jodi Picoult. Especially interesting to me were her essays: “Libraries: Making Space” and “Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege”. And the question: how do you judge/define “literary merit”?
We give the name “reading” to many different activities, and the only one that matters to me is the one in which attention is fiercely focused, each word has weight, and each sentence makes me more aware of the world I am reading about than the one in which I actually live. In this sense every successful reading experience for me is escapist.
… if you feel strongly about a book, you should go to every library you have access to and check out the volume you care about. Take it home awhile. Read it or don’t… Let it breathe the air of your home, and then take it back to the library, knowing you have fought the guerrilla war for physical books.
The merit doesn’t lie in the genre. It lies in an author’s approach to the work.
Detective fiction is so popular that the New York Society Library, in order to give its members what they want to read, routinely buys as many copies of this genre as it does all other fiction combined.
Emotions are like muscles. They like to be used and are strengthened by use.
I am grateful to all writers for the research they do and for fictionalizing matters that otherwise I wouldn’t know enough about.
Every time you read a work of fiction, you are committing an ‘acte gratuit’, a gratuitous act that proves your freedom.
As much as I loved The Shelf, Ex Libris is my favourite of this bunch. Less intellectual, more personal. Like a conversation with a bookish friend.
Fadiman is able to seamlessly connect books and reading with her personal life – the family she grew up with and the family she has now. Her father introduced Anne and her brother to “Wally the Wordworm” and let her make castles with his collection of Trollope books. (“I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, and get her fingerprints all over them.“) And she writes an entire essay about the process of combining her books with her husband’s, rather than keeping them on separate shelves.
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.
Fadiman writes about book inscriptions (“a book and its inscription are permanently wedded“), the comfort of books, the historical value of books, the power of food in literature (“sometimes a single word is enough to detonate a chain reaction of associative memories“), and her love of secondhand book shops.
In a secondhand bookstore, each volume is one-of-a-kind, neither replaceable from a publisher’s warehouse nor visually identical to its original siblings, which have accreted individuality with every change of ownership. If I don’t buy the book now, I may never have another chance. And therefor, like Beecher, who believed the temptations of drink were paltry compared with the temptation of books, I am weak.
Some favourite lines (besides just the whole book)…
… just as there is more than one way to love a person, so is there more than one way to love a book.
Marriage is a long-distance course, and reading aloud is a kind of romantic Gatorade formulated to invigorate the occasionally exhausted racers.
Pen bereavement is a serious matter.
The more I’ve read about plagiarism, the more I’ve come to think that literature is one big recycling bin.
I’d rather have a book, but in a pinch I’ll settle for a set of Water Pik instructions.
Have you read any books about books lately? Do you have a favourite?