Friday, July 11, 2008

At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman

I will admit that I have read very few collections of essays, and I was unaware of the difference between the various types of essays. This book is a collection of familiar essays, which Fadiman defines in this way:
"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 (p. x)."
And this is exactly how Fadiman approaches each of her essays. They each seem incredibly well researched, but she also seems very familiar with the subjects already, and like she says, her eccentricities are very conspicuous. She goes from an essay on collecting butterflies, to one about Charles Lamb, and from there to the subject of ice cream. Each essay is thoughtfully written, no matter what the subject, and teaches the reader not only about the subject, but also about how the author views it. Fadiman definitely gives a very different perspective on Coleridge, and her obsession with the arctic explorer Stefansson is fascinating. I found the essays on simple things, rather than people, to be the most interesting. Among these subjects is the aforementioned ice cream, as well as coffee, the mail, flags, and sleep.
As someone who does not normally pick up books of essays, I have to say that I truly enjoyed this one, and I may have to start seeking out more such collections. Some of my favorite writers have written such collections, so I suppose that would be the best place to start.

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