You never forget your first. That’s why Anne Fadiman holds a special place in my heart.
Her splendid essay collection, “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” ignited my powerful passion for books about books. I was so enthralled by her descriptions of her literary life—of the books she has loved, the challenges of merging libraries after matrimony—that I was eager to follow her anywhere.
She laid out our next rendezvous in the section “Recommended Reading.” “My favorite book about books,” she wrote, “happens to be called ”The Book About Books: The Anatomy of Bibliomania.” It is a monumental compendium by Holbrook Jackson.”
I thought: Who he?
Turns out he was an English man of letters (1874-1948) whose masterpiece contains 200 lively chapters that draw on a wealth of classical and modern sources to describe “Books and Their Most Excellent Qualities,” “The Proper Time for Reading,” as well as “The Joy of Book Hunting,” “Perils of Fire and Water” and “On Choosing a Library for a Desert Island.”
After devouring that classic, I consumed the rest of Jackson’s oeuvre, including “The Reading of Books,” “The Fear of Books” and “Bookman’s Pleasure.”
Learning that Jackson had modeled “Bibliomania” on “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” I hunted down Robert Burton’s 1621 classic. It was a revelation. While I was recommending “Ex Libris” to a friend, he told me about a helpful little book by the author’s father, Clifton Fadiman, “The New Lifetime Reading Plan.” That led me to still more works as my bookshelves began to moan with delight under the weight of booky books: “Why Read the Classics?” by Italo Calvino, “How to Read and Why” by Harold Bloom and “The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading,” edited by Michael Dorris and Emilie Buchwald.
“Ex Libris” was the best kind of book: a Gateway Book that opened doors to works, and worlds, beyond itself. Like Alice’s looking glass, Gateway Books beckon us to take the plunge. Like Russian nesting dolls, they always seem to contain one more surprise. They earn our trust, so we follow their lead. They fire our curiosity, making us greedy for knowledge.
Gateway Books take us on curious excursions—such as a recent journey that began with Alexander the Great and ended with Wilt Chamberlain. A while back I was enjoying John Prevas’ superb biography, “Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great’s Ill-fated Journey Across Asia.” That book mentioned Plutarch’s portrait of the Macedonian conqueror in “Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans.” After reading that chapter, I perused the Roman writer’s chapter on Cicero. That reminded me of the book by the Roman statesman sitting on my bookshelf, “On Duties,” which my dermatologist had suggested two years before. While pulling that down, I noticed the collection of plays by Aristophanes next to it. Soon my mind was stoked by ancient fires. When a new biography, “Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore” by Bettany Hughes, arrived on my desk I made a date with the face that launched a thousand ships.
Thanks to Helen, I looked at my pile of review copies with new eyes. A series of recent works on historic women jumped out, including “The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism” by Megan Marshall and “The Solitude of the Self: Thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton” by Vivian Gornick. They reminded me of a recent book on another great American, “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America,” by Stacy Schiff. Franklin was one of my childhood heroes. So was Wilt Chamberlain. He is featured in John Taylor’s new history, “The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball,” which I am reading now, thanks to Alexander.
While Gateway Books may lead to wild adventures, they can also be like serpents that swallow their own tails. My college-era plan to read a book by every single Nobel Prize winner got sidetracked when I came to “The Growth of the Soil” by 1920 laureate Knut Hamsun. What a discovery! Suddenly, it was all-Hamsun all the time as I pleasured my way through “Mysteries,” “Pan,” “Hunger, “Victoria,” “On Overgrown Paths” and many other of the Norwegian’s books. When I came up for air I devoured 1968’s winner, Japan’s Yasunari Kawabata, whose “Beauty and Sadness,” led to “The Snow Country,” “Thousand Cranes” and “The Sound of the Mountain.”
And on it goes in a process of marvelous discovery. Gateway Books remind us that no work is an island; each is a tiny realm connected to ever expanding worlds. We readers are little Columbuses of the mind who know that our journey with a book often begins after we close its covers—and open another.
This column appears in my new book, “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture.”