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At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Fadiman, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall, makes a bold claim: "I believe the survival of the familiar essay is worth fighting for." The "familiar essays" that Fadiman champions and writes are in the mold of the early 19th century, rather than critical or personal works as we've come to know them. Her essays combine a personal perspective with a far-reaching curiosity about the world, resulting in pieces that are neither so objective the reader can't see the writer behind them nor too self-absorbed. And spending some time with Fadiman is a pure delight. She loves the natural world and taxonomies of all kinds, as well as ice cream and coffee. Her love of the romantic age goes beyond the stylistic, and she prefers Coleridge and Lamb over Wordsworth and Southey. The collection rolls good-naturedly through its subjects until the final piece—an account of a whitewater rafting trip that went tragically awry, a harrowing reminder of the stakes on which all endeavors rest. This collection is a perfectly faceted little gem. Essayists, of both the critical and personal sort, could do worse than to follow Fadiman into the realm of the familiar. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Fadiman begins her second essay collection by quoting her father, the waggish intellectual of page, radio, and television Clifton Fadiman, lamenting the impending demise of the "familiar essay." Decades later, Anne is happy to report that the essay has survived, even if the familiar essay is now less, well, familiar than the critical or personal essay. A familiar essay is a confiding, inquiring, and witty reflection on a passionately considered subject. This intimate form was perfected by Charles Lamb, a writer Anne adores. With Lamb and her father serving as muses, Fadiman writes funny and keen essays that seemingly without effort mesh the personal with the literary and historical to surprising and edifying ends. Fadiman finds lessons for living in the contemplation of ice cream and coffee, the adventures of an Arctic explorer, and the collecting of butterflies. A master of the tangential, a close observer, and a lover of language, Fadiman is blithely brilliant in her pursuit of beauty and meaning as she wrestles with questions of life, death, and rebirth. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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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.