Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small

Anne Fadiman’s essay collection At Large and At Small was a joy to read, nearly as much fun as Ex Libris, her book on books and reading, which I am now tempted to read again. It wasn’t quite as captivating as Ex Libris because it wasn’t entirely about books, but Fadiman is fun to read no matter what subject she takes on.

I will admit that I liked the essays on bookish subjects best, though. Her preface is about the familiar essay, a genre she worries is passing away and that she would like to revive. The familiar essay, she says, was most popular during the Romantic time period, when Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt were writing. Here’s how she describes it:

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 with their cravats loosened, their favorite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching before them. 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.

Now who wouldn’t want to read that? I think essays appeal to me so much because they match the way I like to think and write. Some friends and I were talking the other day about the way we write, and I said that rather than having something worked out in my mind that I want to say and struggling to get it right in words, I tend to start with only the vaguest idea of my point and perhaps without a point at all and to figure out what I’m saying as I write it. Not all essayists write that way, I’m sure, but a lot of times their essays appear to be written that way, with the meandering, digressive, conversational style Fadiman describes. I love the feeling of being in on a conversation with an essayist, or perhaps to be on a journey with him or her, not entirely sure where I’m heading.

In the preface, Fadiman claims that:

Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal — very personal — essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).

I don’t really agree with this assessment; it seems too simple to me, and it’s just not true to my experience, as I regularly come across essays these days that have both heart and brain. But still, I’m glad Fadiman wants to keep the genre alive and that she’s doing her part so well.

The two other pieces that involve books directly are about Fadiman’s obsession with Charles Lamb and her experience reading Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge. both of these pieces made me want to start new books right away — I have Lamb’s Essays of Elia and the Holmes biography on my shelves and would like to read them at some point, maybe soon. Perhaps those could be a summer project?

The other essays were very enjoyable as well, about a whole range of subjects, from butterflies to ice cream to coffee to arctic explorers to the mail. With each subject, she does exactly what she says a familiar essay should do — she tells a personal story about the topic, for example about the butterflies she and her brother happily caught and killed to add to their collection, and she gives information on the topic and offers some kind of analysis of it, for example, analyzing the process she and her brother went through of realizing how cruel their butterfly-killing was.

Particularly useful is the “Sources” section in the back of the book, which gives a brief bibliography for further reading on each of her subjects. I added a number of books to my TBR list based on the sources to the Preface alone, including The Norton Book of Personal Essays edited by Joseph Epstein, William Hazlitt’s Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners, and Stuart Robinson’s Familiar Essays.

You have to love a book that inspires you to read a whole bunch of other books, right?


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

13 responses to “Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small

  1. This goes on the ol’ TBR list, for sure!


  2. This sounds great–I’m going to have to look for a copy myself. I think you’d make a great essayist, Dorothy–not that you meander or anything like that, but your writing has a nice organic quality to it–it moves along so smoothly. I always enjoy reading whatever you write about. Every time you write about essays you make me want to go and pick up a book of essays to read as well!


  3. Would it be right to assume that it’s worth starting out with this collection and then moving onto the more book related essays?


  4. adevotedreader

    I love a good exploratory or digressive essay,so naturally enjoyed this collection. Like yourself, I added many more books to my TBR list.


  5. I love Ex Libris but haven’t rushed to read this one because it wasn’t on bookish topics. But it sounds like that doesn’t matter at all (and that there are a few bookish essays), so I’ll have to be sure to put this on the list. Your personal writing style sounds like you are a familiar essayist through and through! Is there a collection of your own in the offing? 🙂


  6. I so enjoyed Ex Libris and am now on the hunt for a copy of this book. In college I used to write essays for journalism class and never realized it was a whole genre unto itself, until recently. Thank you for sharing this background, and Fadiman’s book, with us.


  7. George Stuteville

    I just discovered your blog when I went searching for Frances Willard quotes. I love her, too, and I love books. If you don’t mind, I will bookmark this space and check in from time to time.


  8. I just picked this up from the library today! Ex Libris was wonderful (I own that), but I haven’t gotten to this one yet because it wasn’t solely about books.


  9. verbivore

    I’m with Biblibio and think I’ll read this one first and then try Ex Libris, in the hopes of enjoying both to the fullest. I’ve been wanting to read Fadiman for some time.


  10. I love this little book, which I read “at” from time to time (the butterfly essay made me wish I’d ever had a similar passion that I pursued so relentlessly as a kid, but I didn’t). I, too, am very happy that Fadiman is doing her part to keep this genre alive.


  11. Chartroose — I hope you like it!

    Danielle — why, thank you! What a nice compliment! I’m very pleased you think that about my writing. I wrote some essays in college when I took a class on the subject, but for now, blogging is the closest I get. I’m just … well … lazy! Well, maybe lazy isn’t the right word, but I’m not motivated to write more than a blog post these days.

    Biblibio — I’d actually recommend starting with Ex Libris, as that really is the more enjoyable book, at least for book-lovers, but I don’t think you’d go wrong with either one.

    adevotedreader — I’m glad you enjoyed it too. You have to love sources of good book recommendations!

    Stefanie — thank you! I’d love to think of myself as a familiar essayist, although there is no collection in the offing — yet 🙂 As I said to Danielle, I’d have to get some major motivation first …

    Debby — you are welcome to borrow my copy if you want. I think a lot of people are unfamiliar with the genre, as it’s not one of the major ones, but it’s so enjoyable it’s definitely worth reading more in. I like how you start to feel you’re friends with the author while reading essays.

    George — thanks for commenting! By all means, stop by whenever you want! And I’m glad to hear from another Frances Willard fan.

    JoAnn — I hope you enjoy it. If you like essays at all, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it — it’s so charming!

    Verbivore — I do hope you enjoy both books. They both have a lot to offer, especially for being so short. They are such nice looking books too!

    Emily — I loved the butterfly essay, and yes, it does make you wish to have a similar experience!


  12. zhiv

    I missed this post while I was gone, I guess, but it’s a beauty. Never heard of Fadiman, know nothing about her. But this sounds great and I want to read the other book and know more. The quote on the familiar essayist seems perfectly done, and I’m in complete agreement. It gets to the reason, I think, why I like to write slightly longer (and fewer) blogposts, kind of like settling in for a chat. There are no rules, of course, and we all just like what we like.

    I think I get her point about critical, personal, and familiar essays. I responded to the “critical” immediately–so much criticism is dense and specialized and hard to read. “Personal” is a matter of taste, as mentioned above–we like what we like. But “familiar” is nice. You’ve got that part down, DW, and generally find the perfect mix, and I would only urge you to settle in and stay awhile when it feels right.


  13. Zhiv — thanks! Anne Fadiman is interesting, not least because of her relationship with her father, which she hints at a bit in this book in a way that shows some tension. I was just admiring your latest blog post as one that does the chatting thing very well. I see the distinctions she’s making between critical, personal, and familiar, but I think there’s more of the familiar than she acknowledges. What a great word that is — “familiar essay” is a wonderful label.


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