Tuesday, October 28, 2008

At Large and At Small

One of my favorite authors is Anne Fadiman. Formerly editor of Civilization and American Scholar, Fadiman came on my radar screen with her fabulous book of familiar essays on books and reading called Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. When she talked about her various book fetishes, and especially her detestation for those who mark their place in a book by flipping the book over in such a way that could potentially crack the spine--well, suffice it to say that I had a major crush on her. My wife knows that I secretly gave our daughter the middle name "Anne" to honor Anne Fadiman (and also Anne of Green Gables, but that is a different post). Because of my crush on Anne, I bought every issue of American Scholar in which her column, "At Large and At Small," appeared. Although she was forced out at the Scholar as editor, thankfully her essays have been collected and published as At Large and At Small. Once again, Fadiman demonstrates that she is the Queen of the Familiar Essay and friend of all those who enjoy the polite conversation of that form.

And so, she points the "gentle reader" to the biography of the perfecter of the familiar essay form, Charles Lamb ("The Unfuzzy Lamb"); to the champion of 19th century Romanticism and his penchant for running away ("Coleridge the Runaway"); and to her own history and biography as it merges in her passions for "collecting nature," "ice cream," and "coffee" (each with a laugh out-loud moment). But there are very thoughtful essays her as well, especially her reflections on the culture wars ("Procrustes and the Culture Wars") and on patriotism post-9/11 ("A Piece of Cotton").

These are essays to cherish not only because of the content, but because of the graciousness of form and style. I can almost imagine myself sitting across the table from her, sipping on a grande pumpkin spice latte, engaging in humorous and thoughtful dialogue (at least on her part). And in some regard, the best essay writers are able to engage in a dialogue with their readers in such a way that they take the common places of life and point them to something more. That is why they become such friends and why I return to Anne Fadiman's books again and again.

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