The joy of reading

There is a wonderful little book by Ann Fadiman called Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader – a series of essays about her love of books. In one chapter, ‘The Catalogical Imperative’, she describes devouring even a mail-order catalogue or the Yellow Pages when there is no other reading matter around. If you think that’s boring or sad (and she does point out the number of catalogues reaching her addressed to ‘Sadiman’) , then take this passage:

Who could read the Garrett Wade tool catalogue without thinking, “This is a poem”? Not I. In fact, here it is. The following syllabically impeccable haiku consists entirely of items you can order by calling (800) 221-2942:

Joiner’s mash, jack plane.
Splitting froe? Bastard cut rasp!
Craftsman dozuki.

I hope you noticed the Japanese touch in the final line, which refers, of course, to Item No. 49117.01, a saw whose blade “has a very smooth action with a very narrow kerf”. (I am currently composing a villanelle inspired by the word kerf.)

The sensuous pleasure she takes in the words captures well the second theme of Oxford’s bid ‘The joy of reading’. I first came across Ann Fadiman’s book when a friend lent it to me — he has two copies, one to keep and one to lend, and in his experience the lent copy usually results in an additional purchase – as it did for me.

I feel very sad at the thought that for some people reading plays no part in their lives. (Once when househunting I looked around a house with absolutely no books visible but a TV that would not be out of place in a cinema in the (small) living room and a sunbed in the spare room. It seemed an empty home in more senses than one.)

Jorge Luis Borges wrote in Poema de los Dones, ‘Siempre imaginé que el Paraíso sería algún tipo de biblioteca’ — ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’; but in a lecture on poetry in 1977 he put a rather different nuance on that sentiment, when he said ‘The fact is that poetry is not the books in the library . . . Poetry is the encounter of the reader with the book, the discovery of the book.’ I think Ann Fadiman proves that he was right.


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