Review: At Large and at Small, by Anne Fadiman

This lovely book celebrates the “familiar essay,” a lesser-known genre popular in the early nineteenth century.  Author Anne Fadiman describes it:

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 … 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)

This book contains twelve essays, each infused with Fadiman’s own enthusiasm and delivered as if I were sitting right there with her.  As with any collection, I had a few favorites:

  • Ice Cream: Fadiman shares her love for ice cream, while weaving in a bit of history and a story about her brother, who is obviously very dear to her.
  • Procrustes and the Culture Wars: In a similar vein to Ex Libris, this essay discusses interesting questions about literature including, “Should the life of a writer affect our valuation of the work?” and “Should a book be demoted if its plot fails to meet standards of behavior that have changed since it was written?”
  • Mail: a brief history of the postal service, a celebration of old-fashioned mail, and a self-deprecating look at the author’s early foray into email.  I found this one amusing, and also a reminder of how far technology has brought us in the 10 short years since the essay was written.
  • Moving: Fadiman shares a personal experience moving from New York City to Massachusetts.  This essay made me reflect on my own attachments to specific places, and on the importance of taking chances now and then.
  • Coffee:  a wry take on the importance of coffee, a beverage I also adore!

I enjoy Anne Fadiman’s writing, and liked this collection just as much as the earlier Ex Libris. And since each essay is only around 20 pages long, this is the perfect book to slip into a briefcase or handbag for reading on the go.

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6 thoughts on “Review: At Large and at Small, by Anne Fadiman

  1. I hadn’t come across this, so thanks for mentioning it. I really enjoyed Ex Libris and I like the sound of the essay on ice cream.

    • Verity, if you enjoyed Ex Libris, you’d like this one, too. The style is similar, just covering a broader range of topics.

  2. Don’t you find yourself wishing she lived next door after reading her books? I hope it isn’t too long before she gives us another book of familiar essays.

  3. It’s not the same thing of course, but she did edit a collection that you also might enjoy: Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love. Very few of the books chosen were books that I loved too, but I still quite enjoyed Fadiman’s opening essay and the collection overall.

    • Ah, yes, you are correct of course! I stumbled upon that bit of information recently and forgot all about it. Thanks for the reminder!

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