When I was four, I liked to build castles with my father’s pocket-sized, twenty-two-volume set of Trollope. My brother and I had a set of wooden blocks as well, but the Trollopes were superior: midnight blue, proportioned to fit a child’s hand, and, because they were so much thinner than they were tall, perfect, as cards are, for constructing gates and drawbridges. I own them now. Before I wrote these sentences, I took down three of the volumes from my shelves, and before you could say Sir Raffle Buffle, The Last Chronicle of Barset had become a lintel balanced precariously atop the twin posts of Lady Anna and Doctor Thorne.

I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, and get her fingerprints all over them. It’s a wonder to me that the young Diana Trilling, who had to wash her hands before she extracted a volume of Twain or Balzac from her parents’ glass-fronted bookcase, grew up to be a booklover. Our parents’ model was the playground; her parents’ model was the operating room. By buying his set of leatherbound classics en bloc from a door-to-door salesman, Trilling’s father committed the additional heresy, unimaginable to us, of believing that a library could be one-size-fits-all rather than bespoke. My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.

Our father’s library spanned the globe and three millennia, although it was particularly strong in English poetry and fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The only junk, relatively speaking, was science fiction; the only wholly extraliterary works were about wine and cheese. My favorite shelf held the books he had written himself. I liked seeing my own name up there—FADIMAN FADIMAN FADIMAN—especially around the age of five, since it was one of the first words I learned to spell. When my reading skills improved, I remember imagining that Erasmus must have looked like Ed Wynn because he had written something called In Praise of Folly. My brother remembers thinking (more accurately) that Kierkegaard must have been a terrifying fellow because he had written The Sickness unto Death and Fear and Trembling. 

And we both believed that our father, because his books did, somehow managed to incorporate both folly and terror, as well as every emotion in between.

Our mother’s library was narrower, focusing almost entirely on China and the Philippines. Paging through A Primer in the Writing of Chinese Characters (published in Shanghai!) and I Was on Corregidor (it mentioned her!) was thrilling, like discovering one was the illegitimate offspring of Mata Hari. But the excitement was not unalloyed. Our father, who often boasted that he had never actually done anything except think, was still the same person he had been when he started collecting books in the early 1920s. He and his library had never diverged. Our mother, on the other hand, had once led a life of action. And why had she stopped? Because she had had children. Her books, which seemed the property of a woman I had never met, defined the size of the sacrifice my brother and I had exacted.

Between them, our parents had about seven thousand books. Whenever we moved to a new house, a carpenter would build a quarter of a mile of shelves; whenever we left, the new owners would rip them out. Other people’s walls looked naked to me. Ours weren’t flat white backdrops for pictures. They were works of art themselves, floor-to-ceiling mosaics whose vividly pigmented tiles were all tall skinny rectangles, pleasant to the touch and even, if one liked the dusty fragrance of old paper, to the sniff. Vladimir Nabokov once recorded in his diary that at the age of eight, his son associated the letters of the alphabet with particular colors. C was yellow; F was tan; M was robin’s-egg blue. To this day, imprinted by the cloth-covered spines of the books that surrounded me thirty years ago, I feel certain that Sophocles is terra-cotta, Proust is dove gray, Conrad is cinnamon, Wilde is acid green, Poe is Prussian blue, Auden is indigo, and Roald Dahl is mauve.

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 parents’ 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.

Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader


Last week, we saw the picture of how a literate family in Victorian Europe looks like from the accounts written on the Van Goghs regarding their reading habits. This week, Anne Fadiman paints us an equally vivid account of her own memories of growing up in a book-loving American household in the mid-twentieth century, and the long lasting impact it has on her.

Anne Fadiman is one of my favourite modern day essayists, and I think no book lover would want to miss out on the pleasure of reading her collection of essays on her love affair with books and reading, in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.    The excerpt above is taken from one of her essays in the collection, ‘My Ancestral Castles’. Her parents’ library of seven thousand books must have been such crucial ‘building blocks’ in both her literary playground, as well as in life.

I think the love of books and of reading, has to be one of the most priceless legacies that any parent can leave behind for their child.

4 thoughts on “Friday Feature: The Reading Family (2)

  1. I love Anne Fadiman, too, and have a copy of Ex Libris on my shelf–one of the many “books about books” that I’ve read and enjoyed. I continue to hope that my son will one day discover reading for pleasure–we’ve done everything we can think of to encourage it, most especially furnishing just about every room in the house with books!


    1. I am sure your son will be able to appreciate all that the both of you have done for him, someday. Must be great to grow up in a house with rooms filled with books!


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