A Week in Books: A happy family of constant readers
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 24 April 1999
Even in richer climes, books may do much more than furnish a room. In Ex Libris (Allen Lane, pounds 9.99), Anne Fadiman collects 18 charmingly obsessive essays about her lifetime of bibliophilia. Fadiman (who edits The American Scholar) is the sort of print junkie who can spend "many a lonely night in small-town hotel rooms consoled by the Yellow Pages". Even in the week of her first child's birth, she got stuck into an 1877 primer on "distaff virtues" by a priest. Then she asked her husband to grade her on Father O'Reilly's scale - "religious fervour, 0; thrift, 3"... but "kindness, 10; truthfulness, 10".
As those scores suggest, this witty book can sound a teensy-weensy bit smug. Fadiman is one of those elegantly upmarket US journos who seem so much less grubby than their Brit peers. Writers' memoirs and early novels often tell a tale of learning snatched from the jaws of poverty or mockery. Not so Fadiman, who hails from a book-worshipping family and still cherishes the teenage marginalia in her copy of Middlemarch ("page 37: `Grrr'; page 261: `Bullshit'; page 294: `Yccch'").
My delight in a fellow addict's printed pleasures withered only once: as she remembered her folks clustered around the US equivalent of University Challenge, trouncing all the jocks up on the screen. This cute foursome called itself "Fadiman U." and only lost to their rivals on the TV twice "in five or six years of competition". One feels (unlike the author) somewhat lost for words - except, perhaps, "Grrr", or even "Yccch".
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