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In 'Dear Fahrenheit 451,' Loving Books Both Wisely And Well

The truest testament to the quality of Dear Fahrenheit 451, Annie Spence's ingratiating collection of love letters and breakup notes to the books in her life, is that my enjoyment of it was, in the end, great enough to outweigh my fury that someone other than me had written it.

It's lucky that she manages this feat, as anyone who loves books well enough to enjoy reading Spence's letters is likely to relate so closely to her thoughts that they'll struggle with that same sense of resentful ownership — particularly librarians. "What are you doing," they will think, "writing out my life like it's your own, Annie Spence? Who do you think you are? What makes you special?" Thankfully, Spence's voice is ultimately so warm, funny, and specific that it answers the question handily — she's special because she has a unique ability to capture the thoughts and feelings of book lovers, both professional and otherwise, on the page.

To a certain class of book lover — one that includes the jaded courtesan of literature writing this very review — the phrase "book lover" can inspire trepidation, particularly on a cover flap. If a person's attitude towards literature is all sunshine and no shade it will hold only a limited amount of appeal for me. I know books too well, and in too great a number, to countenance such a uniformly positive understanding of their power. So the gentle watercolor painting on Dear Fahrenheit 451's cover, and its sweet subtitle — "Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks" — initially gave me pause. They seemed to signal that the text within would have a starry-eyed approach to books that would charm for about 15 pages and then grow trite. But while Spence's belief in the power of literature is the backbone of her book, overall she loves books not as Petrarch loved his Laura — reverently and from a distance — but more as an adherent of the Kama Sutra might: up close, personally, and from an astonishing variety of angles.

From the salty asides in the introduction where she addresses library patrons she imagines reading her book ("Remember when you said you paid my salary and mumbled 'bitch' under your breath when I wouldn't do your kid's research paper for them? I'm that bitch!") to the gleeful spite she directs to a book about "healing homosexuality" when she finally has cause to weed it from her library's collection, Spence knows how to balance reverence with wryness in a way that keeps the volume engaging.

Read straight through, the form can become familiar, and Spence's jokes can lose a bit of their spark, but if you jump around as your fancy suits you, sampling everything from her notes to known classics like the titular Fahrenheit 451 to her odder letters (highlights include "The Fancy Bookshelf at a Party I Wasn't Technically Invited To" and "Book That Jeffrey Eugenides May Have Owned And Written Personal Notes In"), it's a delight. (And you get the sense that that's a methodology of which Spence herself would wholeheartedly approve.)

... she loves books not as Petrarch loved his Laura — reverently and from a distance — but more as an adherent of the Kama Sutra might: up close, personally, and from an astonishing variety of angles.

You will find opinions you endorse without reservations, and you will find bones you need to pick with Spence. You will find earthy admissions about the pleasure of reading on the toilet and lofty ones about books that rewire your insides for keeps. Best of all, you'll come out with a list of books you need to track down immediately and read for yourself, whether from the letters themselves or from Spence's themed reading lists that comprise the book's second half; this courtesan found the list of "menage a livres" — pairs of books that complement one another — particularly inspiring. And if, like Spence, you love books both as a hobbyist and a professional, you will appreciate the way she humorously captures our profession and maybe, just maybe, makes its challenges and rewards a little more legible to outsiders.

Margaret H. Willison is, officially, a librarian and, self-described, a culture witch and social media socialite. You can find her sorting Jane Austen characters into Hogwarts Houses all hours of the day as @MrsFridayNext on Twitter.

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Margaret H. Willison