book review. At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, by Anne Fadiman

My sister gave me this for Christmas, and over the last six months my wife and I read this aloud.  How can I not love a book with an illustration like the one above on the cover!  My thoughts:

a beautifully written, thoughtful mix of experience and research; like chatting with a bright and engaging friend

I have felt that I will read any book that Anne Fadiman writes; this confirms that conviction.

What’s a familiar essay? Fadiman doesn’t give a precise definition in her preface, but she characterizes the genre: “The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire…. His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was often so enthusiastic, that his words were suffused with a lover’s intimacy” (p. x).

These essays live up to the genre: most start with one or more personal stories, which Fadiman uses as a starting point to speak about a subject more generally. The form is the only common theme of the book; the topics are wonderfully eclectic: insomnia, the American flag, coffee, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I enjoyed each of these essays, from Fadiman’s fascinating history of the mail system (yes, really) to her reflections on what she calls “the culture wars” (questions like: should the life of the writer affect our valuation of the work? should we value literature for some inherent esthetic value or because of what it teaches us?) to her thoughts on…ice cream. [Only the last essay didn’t grab me.]

Ultimately, Fadiman brings wonderful prose and delicious diction to any topic. I love her vocabulary’s propensity to send me scurrying repeatedly to my dictionary – “oleaginous,” “solipsistic,” “insouciance,” “omphalos” – artfully meshed with an informal, unpretentious style. (She cleverly hides her sources in the back without footnotes, so you can enjoy the book as a leisurely conversation but then know where to learn more.)

This is Fadiman’s third book: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was Excellent but very different (a classic work of medical anthropology), and Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader – the bibliophile’s manifesto – had the benefit of a common theme. In that sense, this was slightly less compelling than those two but marvelous just the same. She also edited and wrote the first essay for Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love, a collection of other people’s essays about re-reading books they loved as children; I enjoyed that very much as well.

I recommend it. [My wife and I read this aloud to each other; I highly recommend that, too.]

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2 thoughts on “book review. At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, by Anne Fadiman”

  1. Totally recommended, but Ex Libris – her first book of essays – holds a special place in my heart.

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