October 15, 1998
BOOKS OF THE TIMES'Ex Libris': To the Bookshelf Born
By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT
Confessions of a Common Reader
By Anne Fadiman.
162 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $16.
She and her older brother would vie to see who could find the longest words; she writes that he won "with paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde," the word for "a smelly chemical that we used to sing to the tune of 'The Irish Washerwoman.' "
With their parents, both writers, they used to compete with the contestants on the old weekly television program "G.E. College Bowl," a quiz show in which two teams of four students, each representing a different college, competed for scholarship money. Calling themselves Fadiman U., she admits with some chagrin, "in five or six years of competition, we lost only to Brandeis and Colorado College."
The four of them, "compulsive proofreaders," loved to catch people's mistakes in print. "I know what you may be thinking," she writes: "What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!" But she's really just being polite here in the same way as when she berates herself for once proofreading a paperback edition of Nabokov's "Speak, Memory" and sending her list of misprints to the author, who surely must have been grateful. (She reports that Vera Evseevna Nabokov wrote to thank her on her husband's behalf for her "thoughtfulness.")
Besides, Fadiman can't help herself. As she writes, her urges are probably genetic. She was bound to her destiny, being the child of Clifton Fadiman, an editor, anthologist, book reviewer and former judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club, and Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman, a World War II correspondent with Time magazine and the co-author, with Theodore H. White, of "Thunder Out of China," a 1946 best seller on China's role in World War II. She has been compelled to read omnivorously and to write "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 1997.
J. Ross Baughman/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux
In "Never Do That to a Book," she identifies those who revere books physically and are therefore believers in "courtly love," and those who underline, make marginal notes, tear pages out or keep reading books until they fall apart, and are thus believers in "carnal love." She allows that the world has room for both.
In "Words on a Flyleaf," she considers what to do if you should find in a secondhand shop a book you've inscribed to a friend. When Shaw once came across one of his books, inscribed "To -- -- -- -- with esteem, George Bernard Shaw," he bought the book and returned it to -- -- -- -- , adding the line, "With renewed esteem, George Bernard Shaw."
And in "Eternal Ink," she considers how writers might record ideas that occur to them when they are not at their desks. "One day, when Sir Walter Scott was out hunting, a sentence he had been trying to compose all morning suddenly leapt into his head. Before it could fade, he shot a crow, plucked a feather, sharpened the tip, dipped it in crow's blood, and captured the sentence."
When she is not addressing practical matters, she is merely very charming, whisking us up odd literary byways -- like the sonnet writing of William Kunstler, the late radical defense lawyer, or a theory that the scarcity of first editions of "Alice in Wonderland" can be accounted for by the fact that so many of them were eaten by children.
First published in slightly different form in a column called "The Common Reader," written by Fadiman for Civilization magazine, these essays also breathe new life into such seemingly tired subjects as reading aloud, secondhand books, plagiarism and how children regard their parents' libraries. (Fadiman reports that her daughter thought that John Updike's "Rabbit at Rest" was a story about "a sleepy bunny.")
Her purpose in writing them was to go to what she considers the heart of reading: "not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books, the ones we have lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colors and smells have become as familiar to us as our children's skin."
In "Ex Libris" Fadiman has produced a smart little book that one can happily welcome into the family and allow to start growing old.
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In At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman returns to one of her favorite genres, the familiar essay--a beloved and hallowed literary tradition recognized for both its intellectual breadth and its miniaturist focus on everyday experiences. With the combination of humor and erudition that has distinguished her as one of our finest essayists, Fadiman draws us into twelve of her personal obsessions: from her slightly sinister childhood enthusiasm for catching butterflies to her monumental crush on Charles Lamb, from her wistfulness for the days of letter-writing to the challenges and rewards of moving from the city to the country.
Many of these essays were composed "under the influence" of the subject at hand. Fadiman ingests a shocking amount of ice cream and divulges her passion for HÃ¤agen-Dazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip and her brother's homemade Liquid Nitrogen KahlÃºa Coffee (recipe included); she sustains a terrific caffeine buzz while recounting Balzac's coffee addiction; and she stays up till dawn to write about being a night owl, examining the rhythms of our circadian clocks and sharing such insomnia cures as her father's nocturnal word games and Lewis Carroll's mathematical puzzles. At Large and At Small is a brilliant and delightful collection of essays that harkens a revival of a long-cherished genre.