Monday, September 15, 2008

At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman

I'll admit that initially I was a bit thrown by the phrase "familiar essays" on the front of this book. I thought that maybe this was a collection of commonly told fables or something akin to that. I didn't realize that the familiar essay is a type of essay. In my defense, they are not as common as they used to be. However, I would imagine that I have read some and didn't even know it.

Historically, these essays often had titles like "On Boating" or "On Politics Being a Masculine Arena." They were meant to be informative, while at the same time highlighting pertinent personal experiences of the author. Fadiman explains some of this in the preface, and by the time I was through the first two or three essays, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on things. It helped that Fadiman's second essay was about Charles Lamb, a favorite of hers, and a prolific writer of familiar essays in the 18th century.

A key aspect to all of these essays is that they draw heavily from Fadiman's life. The first essay of this collection, "Collecting Nature," is largely about her and her brother's near obsession with lepidoptery when they were kids. But she uses this as a springboard to discuss Darwin, the history and methods of collecting nature, natural selection, and even Vladimir Nabokov.

On occasion Fadiman totally immerses herself in a topic. While writing her essay on ice cream, she ate copious amounts of the frozen treat. (Incidentally, this was one of my favorite essays. It concluded with a recipe for making ice cream with liquid nitrogen.) The topic of "Night Owl" was insomnia, and she only worked on this essay during the night. Numerous cups of joe were consumed while writing "Coffee." You get the idea.

I did not find a single one of these essays lacking. However, there were some that I particularly liked, no doubt owing to their topics. The essay about mail was great. I enjoyed learning what mail was like in Great Britain before the creation of the stamp. Fadiman brings the essay up to roughly the present, admitting her reluctance to use email -- something which she eventually overcame. "A Piece of Cotton" was a thoughtful meditation on the U.S. flag, its history, its many interpretations, and its use in popular culture. "Under Water" was the last essay in this collection. It was also the shortest. Here Fadiman recounts the death of a fellow rafter during a trip down the Green River in western Wyoming.

Fadiman has an amazing way with words. The time I spent reading this book was delightful.

1 comment:

Nihil Novum said...

You know what else is delightful? This review.