Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review: At Large and At Small

I love Anne Fadiman. I still remember reading Ex Libris, three years ago, as an experience. I read the entire thing in one go, lying on somebody else's bed in the June sunshine from a skylight. Shaun of the Dead was on tv in the background, which I realize is kind of incongruous, zombie movies not being much in the line of calming books about books, but it adds to the memory in a nostalgic way all the same. I read Rereadings not very long afterwards, but for some reason it's taken me until now to get around to At Large and At Small.

The whole book is an ode to the familiar essay--not quite a personal essay, not quite totally impersonal, but slipping easily between both. The subjects of the essays range from insect collecting to Charles Lamb to coffee to mail to moving to ice cream to the American flag to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (it sounds like a bizarre word association game, doesn't it?). Anne Fadiman has never failed to make me want to write essays. She's a brilliant writer in technical terms--impeccable grammar, lovely turns of phrase--but she also clearly loves the writing and loves her subjects. The familiar essay is interesting in that way--it tells the story of the subject from a historical, objective perspective, but the motivation for writing about it is personal, and the personal story is told also.

In the essay about coffee, Fadiman writes, "Don't we all just keep doing the things that make us even more like ourselves?" (186). This line caught my attention, because it struck me as descriptive of all the essays in this book. The people she writes about--Samuel Taylor Coleridge Charles Lamb, Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, her father, her brother, her husband, herself--are all very thoroughly themselves. The parts of their lives she picks out to write about are the parts that most set them apart, without which they would be less themselves, someone else. Possibly someone more normal, sane, or balanced, but probably someone less interesting.

I love books about books, so Ex Libris remains my favourite, but there's no questioning that no matter what she writes about Anne Fadiman is a completely wonderful essayist. I'm terribly sad I've now finished both her books of essays, but I know they will always be thoroughly rereadable.

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