Slightly Foxed: on ‘Being in Thrall to Books’

In this debut guest post from Slightly Foxed, Liz Robinson introduces Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, and examines some of the problems associated with the terminal condition of ‘Being in Thrall to Books’.
Titled ‘Kindred Spirits’, this was the very first article in the very first issue of Slightly Foxed‘s excellent quarterly review magazine which, uniquely, covers great books old and new, not just those that are currently fashionable.  You can subscribe to it here.

Do you treasure ancient paperbacks, spines gone, pages browning, brittle and crumbling, held together (or not quite) with perished elastic bands, simply because you also treasure the memories they evoke as much by their physical appearance as by their contents? Do you have to fight the urge to correct typos in library books and in menus, and wince over the ‘Palma’ ham that appears with such distressing frequency in the pages of The Spectator? Do you like to read Persuasion while standing in Milsom Street in Bath or on The Cobb at Lyme, and Wordsworth in the Lakes? Do you read aloud to your children, and do they often see you curled up with your nose in a book? If the answer to one or more of these questions is even a hesitant ‘Yes’, then you will find in Anne Fadiman a kindred spirit, and in the pages of Ex Libris you will recognize yourself.

A writer and editor, married to a writer, Anne Fadiman grew up with books. At the age of 24 her father was ‘the entire proofreading department . . . at Simon & Schuster’; he made up stories for his children about a bookworm named Wally – a ‘wordworm’, really, who ‘savored such high-calorie morsels as ptarmigan – which tasted pterrible at first, until he threw away the p’ – and he allowed Anne, aged 4, to use his set of pocket-sized Trollope as building blocks. Her mother, a Far East correspondent for Time in the Second World War, in her later years clipped typos from her local paper ‘with the intention of mailing them to the editor when they achieved a critical mass . . . There were 394. (What kind of person would count them? The daughter of the kind of person who would clip them, of course.)’ Small wonder, then, that these essays should so felicitously illuminate so many of the more idiosyncratic by ways and manifestations of that curious condition that is Being In Thrall To Books.

Take marriage -specifically, marriage between two people who both possess quite a number of books: ‘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 probably have caused the wedding to grind to a mortifying halt.’ Throwing out the duplicates would seem to present the bigger challenge – actually getting rid of some books – but in fact it’s a problem that is easily shelved (as it were) by simply postponing any particularly difficult decisions. The crunch – the deal-breaker – is the arrangement of the conjugal library, especially if, like Ms Fadiman and her husband George, one of you is a ‘splitter’ and the other a ‘lumper’. Anne scores early points, George being reasonable enough to concede that while ‘he could find his books if they were arranged like mine . . . I could never find mine if they were arranged like his’, but runs into trouble over her need to ‘arrange English literature chronologically’ to reflect its broad sweep but ‘American literature alphabetically by author’ . Worse is to come when it is revealed to George that Anne rather expects the books to be arranged chronologically within each author: ‘George says that was one of the few times he has seriously considered divorce.’

When we married thirty-odd years ago, my husband and I were constrained by Army regulations – only 6 MFO boxes of stuff, and if I ever knew what ‘MFO’ stands for I’ve long since forgotten – but in any case we had only three or four yards of books between us. In the small towns of the Lüneburg Heath and the NAAFIs of the bases that squatted thereon it was quite hard to acquire more books, but we must have done so, for I well remember one young subaltern’s wife remarking to another in tones of mingled disgust and horror that ‘Mark and Liz give each other books for PRESENTS!’ Now, after more than a quarter of a century in the same house, the book crisis seems to be insoluble. We’ve pretty much run out of walls against which to build bookshelves, apart from a couple of north-facing ones crammed with water-colours and prints that need to be kept out of the sun. My husband has plans for replacing the clothes-cum-linen¬press in the hall with shelves, but (quite apart from the coats and the linen) it’s awfully dark down there – I’ll never find anything.

Not that I’ve been able to find much since the last set of bookshelves went up in the living-room. I’m in the ‘lumper’ class, by and large, and the living-room books tend to be loosely grouped by subject, though there’s quite a lot of what-fits-where, and but-that’s¬ always-been-there going on too. A good many are reference books, and those are easy enough to find if they come in multiple volumes – like the Dictionary of National Biography, long yearned-for but quite unlooked-for, a spectacular present and a most selfless piece of nest-fouling on my husband’s part. The Oxford English Dictionary, all twenty volumes of it (plus Supplements), was a naughty present to myself, feelings of guilt only partly assuaged by my daughter’s assertion that she was looking forward to inheriting it; happily, I’ve used it much more than I’d dared to expect (and it was half-price) – but when it was reshelved I did think I might have to make it cream parchment dust jackets, because the four-foot-long slab of dark blue seemed oppressive. I’ve got used to it now.

No, it’s all the odd things that go astray in a non-alphabetical rearrangement – books one consults perhaps two or three times a year, or even only every two or three years: yet how wonderful it is to have them to hand . . . if only they were, because they’re no longer where you remember seeing them last, and I’ve lost count of the number of hours I’ve wasted looking for a short, stout blue book that turns out, when eventually run to earth, to be tall, thin and red. And never forget fading – I once spent three days searching for a book that really was stout and red . . . but its spine (I had forgotten) was faded to a light biscuity colour.

As to biscuits, in another essay Anne Fadiman recalls that Charles Lamb ‘once told Coleridge that he was especially fond of books containing traces of buttered muffins’, which not only reminded me of the cocoa stain in my own much-loved copy of Pride and Prejudice but also sent me off to hunt out Lamb’s Essays of Elia (shelves in the bed room on the left of the window, the small ones on the top, specially designed for Victorian and Edwardian ‘pocket’ editions – I can find some of my books).

Poor old Lamb has now joined the ill-disciplined heap that lurks beneath my bedside table. Anne Fadiman also reads in bed, but if her pillow-books live in chaos, she’s not admitting to it in print. Or not quite. ‘Books wrote our life story,’ she says of the period of four years during which the essays in Ex Libris were written, ‘and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?’

From Slightly Foxed Issue 1.
Coming soon… The Dabbler has an exclusive competition to win a year’s subscription to Slightly Foxed. Keep an eye out for it…
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10 thoughts on “Slightly Foxed: on ‘Being in Thrall to Books’

  1. Worm
    October 11, 2010 at 08:48

    Excellent! I’m so very glad that my wife doesn’t read at all (apart from Gracia) I have complete bookshelf lebensraum. I sometimes order my books in pleasing patterns using the spine colours, or even just differing sizes. None of that alphabetical tyranny!!

    October 11, 2010 at 09:28

    More please, much more. Personally I follow the Victorians, buy ’em by the yard.

    I mean Metre.

    All spine colours must of course match Ikea white.

  3. Brit
    October 11, 2010 at 09:31

    Malty – if you want more you’d be well advised to subscribe to Slightly Foxed!

    October 11, 2010 at 13:49

    Palma ham’s the least of it – The Spectator is surely the worst subbed ‘serious’ magazine in the known universe, riddled with errors of all kinds every week.

  5. Brit
    October 11, 2010 at 15:00

    riddled with errors of all kinds every week

    Yes Nige – for a start it employs Rod Lidl.

    October 11, 2010 at 15:12

    Rod eats baking sandwiches, not Pama ham.

  7. Gaw
    October 11, 2010 at 15:13

    The Spec has been poorly subbed for as long as I’ve been reading it. It’s a job traditionally done, along with a bit of typing, by the editor’s best friend’s niece between a season as a chalet girl and university. Perhaps they’re now settling for less qualified input.

    What I really take exception to (in addition to Lidl, of course) is that large parts of it now read like an inflight magazine – unsurprising as articles often appear to be ‘sponsored’ in some way. Also the essays at the front aren’t as informed and original as they used to be.

    I bet circulation’s never been better.

  8. Worm
    October 11, 2010 at 15:46

    I used to really love the Spectator, esp. Rory Sutherland’s wikiman. But now it just leaves me annoyed at R. Lidl and the way the ink on the watch advert on the back cover always comes off on my fingers and means that I exit the train at Marylebone with a big blue smear next to my nose.

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