Thoughts While Reading Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Today has been a beautiful day.  My significant other and I went out for brunch and stopped by Barnes and Noble – a dangerous place for our wallets.  True to form, I couldn’t leave empty handed.  While browsing, I found a copy of Ex Libris:  Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman, a collection of essays about loving books.  As I flipped through it to see what it was about, I realized I was straight up reading one of the essays.  It totally sucked me in.  I am now on page 45.  I have read now read five of the essays.


It is a beautiful book with a lovely simple cover.  It is slim and portable.  After reading the first two essays while my significant other got his hair cut, I took it home, and settled into it with some Ceylon tea.


The first essay, “Marrying Libraries” is wonderful.  I love that the merging of the writer’s books with her husband’s was such a pivotal moment in her life.  I smiled and chuckled through the next several essays, and have just finished “Never Do That to a Book”.  So far, it is my favorite.  Fadiman presents the two types of book lovers, courtly and carnal, with such a human and personal touch, that I can’t help but reflect on how I, and those around me, treat my books.  Is it a sacred object which must have weights pressed upon it to regain that never opened look it had before reading?  or is it a badge of honor to have memories recorded within by way of margin notes, folded pages, broken spines, and random ephemera floating about in it?

I tend to do both.  There are some books that MUST NEVER HAVE A MARK INTENTIONALLY MADE that was not placed there by the publisher, and must be guarded against circumstances of nature.  These books are usually the hardback books.  The beautiful hard back classics that B&N has begun selling fall into this category with their gilded, tissue-thin pages, the beautiful and elaborate cover art, and the corresponding patterns on the end papers.  These are sacred texts that are to be enjoyed for their exteriors as well as their contents.

Then, there is my copy of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire.  It is possibly my favorite book of all time, and one of the most beat up in my collection.  The corner was chewed on by my dog when he was a puppy.  There are marinara spots on one of the pages.  I wrote in the margins where some of the characters discuss the origins of evil in the world.  I was inspired by my Catholic Philosophy class I was taking at the time.  The spine is crinkled and broken in with use.  The pages are warped from inadvertent contact with water.  Each time I read the book, it acquires a new layer of meaning for me, and all of these marks remind me of how I related to it in the past.  Eventually, I’ll want to get a new, fancier hardback copy of the book, but I’ll never throw out my first copy.

There is also the copy of a Hercule Pierrot novel by Agatha Christie, I picked up when desperately searching for something to fill the void after reading Laurie R. King‘s Mary Russell series.  It was desperately disappointing.  I feel like a heretic writing this.  Mystery novels, and PBS Masterpiece theater adaptations of such novels have been omnipresent in my life, thanks to my mother.  However, this particular book was incredibly frustrating to me, especially the court case.  The defense attorney made the palest imitation of a real attempt, that I grabbed the nearest pencil and started writing out what he should have argued instead.  He totally could have won the case – or at least made a decent attempt if he had even tried.  After finishing this book (I had to finish it – I had to know that I was right in supposing who did it), I left it on my parent’s bookshelf and forgot about it until my mother commented that she loved the annotations I made to it.

Other books that I am apt to write notes in are books I read for classes or papers, books that elicit some kind of strong negative reaction that I just have to put into words, and books I feel could have had certain sentences restructured to make the intended meaning more apparent.  Many of the history books I read for classes have brackets around certain paragraphs and words like “No!” or “Yes!” or “But [other author] says this…”

I used to be one of that number who marks their place by putting the open book face down, that is until my copy of The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien completely broke when someone put a moving box on it.  The spine cracked and when I picked up again, pages fluttered out.  I never finished that book, nor did I read the Return of the King.  They are still on my book shelf, waiting for the day I pick them up again, The Two Towers taped back together.  Now, I am a devoted book mark user.  I have used many things as book marks: post-it notes, receipts, folded notebook paper, paperclips, and even a (clean) tissue once.  Let me tell you, there is no greater way to safeguard your book from grabby-hands than to use a kleenex to mark the pages.  I will always find something to mark my pages, but I will never, ever resort to folding the corners to mark the page.  Never.  Ever.  Despite the abuse my copy of Wicked has endured, I will never dog ear her pages.

Last year, I stumbled upon these great bookmarks with titles at the top like “Yes, I am Actually Reading This” and “You Are Here”.


As my New Years resolution was to finish more books, I like to fill these bookmarks out and paste them into my art journal.  It also gives me a place to make my notes without defacing the book.  I can look at the short notes I made, and write more in my journal.  If I had written all of the above in the margins of Anne Fadiman’s book of essays, the original text would impossible to find.

How do you treat your books?  As sacred objects or repositories for thoughts and reactions to the text at hand?


Filed under Read it

6 responses to “Thoughts While Reading Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

  1. Rachel S

    I think I treat my books like I treat my car: until that first dent it is prized above all else, but thereafter I’m using it to bump shopping carts- or, more precisely, scribble streams of consciousness, questions, and shopping lists. I will say that books I have received or borrowed from others seem more sacred to me when I can read handwritten notes on the pages. I like seeing the original and the interpretation.

    • You’re right: books with handwritten annotations from friends or family create a shared experience of the book, and thus makes it more precious. It’s just hard sometimes to break in the initial white page with a thought of your own.

  2. Amber

    Aside from college textbooks/academic works, I rarely write in my books. I mark notes in my head or sticky notes but I cannot write in them. I don’t know why but I feel as if I’m defacing some glorious work (even if I didn’t like it) that an author has devoted so much time, energy, and love into and I don’t like doing that.

    On the other hand, I’m an avid dog-ear tabber. I know it’s kind of a contradiction to what I previously said but I almost never have anything with me to mark my page. When I dog-ear tab a book though I usually do a minuscule tab. I also love the “You are Here” bookmark. It’s a great idea! Sometimes I don’t get the opportunity to read as frequently as I would like and that would help me keep track. Where did you find it?

    You should really finish the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I finally finished it after obsessively watching the films and there is so much more beauty in his writings than I ever expected. I get a little teary eyed thinking about it. Oh, the feels.

    What books are you currently reading?
    I’m switching between three books (1) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2) The 3-5-7 Model by Darla Henry [work book] (3) andddd I can’t remember the tile but it is the memoir of women who was part of the Westboro Baptist Church!

    • Hi Amber! I got the bookmark from Barns and Noble, though I’m considering making my own version to print out (the ultimate customization).

      I am currently working my way through Ex Libris and A Clash of Kings. However, the Oscar Wilde anthology is calling my name, and the Sherlock Holmes short stories are staring at me from the bookshelf, beckoning me to take a second read. Oh, and the third Earthsea book is on my list too.

    • How is Gone Girl? I feel like I should read it.

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