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At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays Hardcover – June 12, 2007
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Many of these essays were composed âunder the influenceâ of the subject at hand. Fadiman ingests a shocking amount of ice cream and divulges her passion for HÃ¤agen-Dazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip and her brotherâs homemade Liquid Nitrogen KahlÃºa Coffee (recipe included); she sustains a terrific caffeine buzz while recounting Balzacâs coffee addiction; and she stays up till dawn to write about being a night owl, examining the rhythms of our circadian clocks and sharing such insomnia cures as her fatherâs nocturnal word games and Lewis Carrollâs mathematical puzzles. At Large and At Small is a brilliant and delightful collection of essays that harkens a revival of a long-cherished genre.
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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.]
Essays in the first collection focused on topics related to books and reading; the author's lifelong passion for reading shone through on every page and should resonate with any reader sharing her addiction to books. In this new collection, Fadiman demonstrates an ability to write engagingly on a wide variety of topics. Coffee, ice-cream, moving, the life of Coleridge, the essays of Charles Lamb - Fadiman expounds charmingly on these topics, and several others, making it seem easy. Like Malcolm Gladwell, she can make any topic she writes about fascinating.
Of course, writing essays so polished they sparkle like gems is anything but easy. It is a testament to Fadiman's skill as a writer that she makes it seem effortless.