I love books about books, but this is probably the first time I’ve read one so purely about the love of reading. Ex Libris is a collection of essays about the reading, storing, and sharing of books, something I imagine many people would find incredibly dull, but I love it. If you’re someone who spends their spare time reading book blogs, you probably will too.
It begins with one of my favourite essays, Marrying Libraries, which recounts the compromises and sacrifices that go into the merging of two personal libraries. The bookshelves in the Loose Logic household are still currently segregated, but our reading doesn’t tend to cross-over into each other’s books very often, so it still works for us.
That essay was also an interesting look at the personal connections people can develop with certain editions, and the pain of having to choose which copy to keep when both people own the same book. I don’t think I have many specific editions that I’d have a hard time giving up, although if forced to make the decision, I might feel differently. There are a few signed copies, but almost none of those were signed in person, so that probably doesn’t matter. The main books I wouldn’t be able to give up are my tattered Lord of the Rings novels that my father used to read to me and my siblings. In fact, I already have two separate copies of the trilogy on the shelf, because those books from my childhood are starting to fall to pieces.
I loved hearing the bookish stories of Fadiman’s childhood, as so much of it reminded me of my own. She describes her childhood house as having thousands of books covering the walls, and how naked other people’s houses felt to her when they lacked bookshelves, and I remember feeling that as well. She had a father who wasn’t precious with his books, who would let her build forts out of them, and I can remember huddling under a propped up blanket, peeking out from behind walls of science-fiction hardcovers. My love of reading largely developed from being surrounded by books as a kid and watching my father sit down with one every single night. He never once urged me to read; it was just something I picked up through osmosis.
There must be writers whose parents owned no books, and who were taken under the wing of a neighbor or teacher or librarian, but I have never met one. My daughter is seven, and some of the other second-grade parents complain that their children don’t read for pleasure. When I visit their homes, the children’s rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parent’s rooms are empty. Those children do not see their parents reading, as I did every day of my childhood. By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says ‘PRIVATE–GROWNUPS KEEP OUT’: a child sprawled on the bed, reading.
This was such a joy to read, and I know I’ll be returning to it from time to time in the years to come.