06 January 2013

Treasured Books, No. 2: Clifton Fadiman's "Reading I've Liked"

My collection of books by Clifton Fadiman and his daughter, Anne Fadiman live
on my coffee table, ready for perusal the moment the fire is lit. You may notice I have 2 copies
 of "Party of One": recently,I found a copy inscribed by the author, but couldn't bear to
part with my older, well-thumbed and annotated volume...perfectly logical.


“And now we welcome the new year, 
full of things that have never been.” 
R.M. Rilke


Happy New Year, Everyone!

I hope the holidays were wonderful for you all. We had a fantastic holiday season at the bindery and send our thanks to our lovely clientele with hopes that you all will enjoy your pieces for many years to come. After a week of family, friends and time in my favorite reading chair, I'm back with you, invigorated and ready for the adventures of  the new year. 

In these Treasured Books posts, I have the great pleasure of sharing some of my favorite books and authors, all of whom continue to surprise and delight me, and I hope, will do so for you. What better way to begin a new year than with an old friend, an author whose companionship I've enjoyed for many years. I came to know of Clifton Fadiman through the excellent writing of his daughter, the essayist Anne Fadiman. One day, while having a browse in a used book shop, I saw the familiar surname on the spine of a book entitled, "Reading I've Liked: A Personal Selection Drawn from Two Decades of Reading and Reviewing Presented with an Informal Prologue and Various Commentaries," by Clifton Fadiman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941). How could I resist?! 

Clifton Fadiman was a man of extraordinary erudition, remembered by many for his work on the radio and television during  the 40's and 50's, but he considered himself primarily as a teacher, or as a  guide to the wisdom of other people. He  believed that the most rewarding of leisure activities is: "the cheerful, unaffected but conscious training and exercise of the mind" ("Any Number Can Play," 1957) and wrote bountifully for that audience on subjects ranging from quantum physics, to  George Santayana to cheese.

After all these years, it took a Google search to discover that my dear Mr. Fadiman has a star on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame... very amusing! If you'd care to see a video of Mr. Fadiman at work,
visit the Encyclopaedia Britannica website (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/200119/Clifton-Fadiman)
, where they have posted many videos of classes on literature and the humanities
he recorded for the Britannica. They are of their time and very charming. 

In "Reading I've Liked," Mr. Fadiman introduces us to examples of writing culled from his work as a book reviewer for the New Yorker, with each piece introduced with a generous and beautifully constructed essay describing it. One of the things I enjoy most about reading his work is that he is absolutely dedicated to excellence and fine craft in writing, and is of a time before post-post-modernism and bricolage that was unafraid of assessing the quality of a work of art. His superbly well-formed opinions are shared sincerely, clearly and convincingly. Although one may find a passage here or there that feels dated or exclusionary by our contemporary standards, the more common experience is one of awe in the startling prescience of his views on contemporary life.

Mr. Fadiman received the 1993 National Book Foundation's 
Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
at The National Book Awards Ceremony.

In the introductory essay to "Reading I've Liked", entitled "My Life is an Open Book: Confessions and Digressions of an Incurable," Mr. Fadiman writes: “It happens that you will find in this book biographies, anecdotes, brief fiction, semilong fiction, excerpts from novels, sketches, essays (both familiar and formal), a book review, humorous pieces (including one complete book of humor), excerpts from a dictionary, a judicial decision, reflections of nature, a long letter, an excerpt from a speech, and a collection of epigrams.” There is one constant among all these pieces, he writes: “I believe everything you will read here, if the product of hands other than my own, is of its kind extremely well written.” 

This is one of those wonderful, classic books that lends itself to rereading, along with so many other of Mr. Fadiman's works. He famously said, "when you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before, you see more in you than there was before," and I  enthusiastically agree. On these cold, snowy evenings, it's one of my great pleasures to open any of them up to a random section, and sit by the fire with my old friend. I believe that if you come by any of his works, (not such a difficult task thanks to Amazon and ABE Books), you'll be similarly rewarded. 

Clifton Fadiman, 1904-1999


  1. Hello Erika, I well remember reading Fadiman's various anthologies and books of anecdotes, which were a staple at library sales. His books really picked up where, say, Bennett Cerf's left off. Fadiman added an intellectual component and he seemed to care about developing his reader's taste and educational development.

    1. Hello, Jim-- Happy New Year!
      Thank you for your comment-- I haven't read Bennett Cerf, but I think, as both men were Columbia grads of similar era, they must have known each other. I love reading Fadiman and agree with you that he had a definite generosity in his tone, reaching out to a tribe of ordinary, intellectually curious people-- whose numbers, I hope, are not too diminished.
      Warm regards,

  2. Dear Erika,

    I so appreciate this posting because, while I am familiar with the name Clifton Fadiman, I have not read his books. I will endeavor to do so!

    I think you would also enjoy a 1999 book, Letters of the Century, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler. It is an extraordinary compilation, not just of letters from the famous and near-famous, but of exchanges that reflect social progress of the 20th century in myriad ways.

    1. Dear Mark,
      Thank you for your comment! I'm sure that if you come by one of Clifton Fadiman's books, you'll enjoy it. He has a wonderfully conversational voice and covers a multitude of interesting topics in his essays. Thanks for the book recommendation, too-- I'll zoom off to search for it-- it sounds so interesting! Reading such interesting and historically important letters will surely send me into one of my laments for future anthropologists whose work will be done in front of computer screens rather than in rooms filled with bundles of hand-written pieces of paper...not nearly as interesting!
      Warm regards,

    2. So true. The sans-serif of emails seems to be such a leveling agent, whereas the handwritten word can reveal so much personality, as can the choice of paper and pen nib.