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?