Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

I’ve been reading a book lately by a woman who is the wife of the gentleman who taught my favorite class at Smith College (though I think I say that about a lot of classes I took there, this one was REALLY great). The instructor’s name is George Colt, his wife Anne Fadiman. She wrote a book which I believe hit the bestseller lists called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. If I’m wrong and it was not ranked among the best selling books of 1997/1998, then there’s just a lot of people who missed it, or a lot of people who bought second hand copies. The book is a detailed account of the misunderstandings between the American doctors and a sick young girl, the daughter of Laotian refugees; misunderstandings as a result of a language and cultural barrier. Making more of an attempt as a journalist to understand the life of the Hmong family than the doctors caring for the girl for years, Anne Fadiman manages to write a heart-wrenching account of her life, with a structure striking a perfect balance between informational and emotional. Ms. Fadiman has won many awards from people and organizations who felt the same way.

The book that I’m reading by this talented author right now, though, is called Ex Libris. Aside from the delight I take in having met Ms. Fadiman, and having been mentored in the craft of writing by her likewise-talented husband (who is responsible for my understanding of hyphenated adjectives such as ‘likewise-talented’ among more serious and style-related skills), this book tickles me at every possible opportunity as a “common reader” as the subtitle indicates. I’m no more or less likely to love this book than any other can’t-get-enough-written-material-type, despite my experience with the writer and her family. (I don’t think I’m the only one who reads cereal boxes over and over again during breakfast day after day because they’re perfectly designed to sit right in front of your face as you eat.)

The book is broken down into essays – 18, written over a 4 year period – and perfectly fits my reading schedule (a chapter or two before breakfast, a small bit while the potatoes are boiling, anything I can before sleep, and so on). I read one this morning that struck close to home. It is called “Insert a Carrot” and is the account of the author’s inability to pass up a typographical error or problem in grammar. Now, this may be a damning thing to say as we all make mistakes, but I find myself firmly rooted in her camp here. She admits that she takes it to a new level – and that she comes by that honestly as her parents are both perhaps more extreme than she is – and acts to look for mistakes actively, rather than identifying them as they come into her life.

When I make a typo (and those of you who are postal patrons in Big Sur have been privy to several glaring mistakes) I generally don’t see it. When someone else makes a typo, it’s almost as if that person has written it in neon pink ink to my eye. I feel a certain pride about pointing them out. Grammar issues are less of an annoyance to me and more of a puzzle. One of my hobbies is figuring out how I would re-write a sentence or paragraph if the author asked me to. Then again, I didn’t really have friends as a child.

Ex Libris is a delight. I’m sorry to say you can’t stroll into the Henry Miller Library and walk out with your own copy, but as long as you don’t mind books whose spine is broken in several places and pages dog-eared and marked up, you can absolutely borrow my copy.



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