Tuesday, June 26, 2007

At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays

In her preface, Anne Fadiman says the familiar essay doesn't speak to millions, it speaks to one person. She also said, conversation is the center of the familiar essay, as it was the center of her father's life, and the center of her own.

Anne Fadiman's latest collection speaks to me in a different way than her book Ex Libris did. To be honest, Ex Libris, since it was about books, was my favorite of the two. Some of the essays in the latest collection left me saying, huh? Fadiman is a well-educated, literate writer, and at times, her vocabulary was beyond me. Even some of her subjects left me cold. I wasn't at all interested in her first selection, "Collecting Nature," which used butterfly collecting as the background of the piece. She discusses some very esoteric topics, including Charles Lamb and Samuel Coleridge.

However, I was struck by coincidence when I read "Procrustes and the Culture Wars." I had just finished Rick Riordan's fantasy, The Lightning Thief, and the story of Procrustes was told there, how he made people fit in a bed. How often would someone read about Procrustes in two books in a row? And, although that essay was written a few years ago, it reminded me of the current fight about book critics losing jobs at newspapers, and critics vs. bloggers.

However, some of her essays spoke directly to me. Twice she wrote about flying into the airport in Fort Myers, Florida, where I lived for seventeen years. And, the reason she flew in was to visit her parents, including her father, Clifton Fadiman. She also discussed his great pleasure in getting the mail, with the twenty pounds of books he'd received daily. Every bit of the article "Mail" appealed to me. There's nothing more exciting than receiving books in the mail. But, even more important, I met Clifton Fadiman when I lived in Fort Myers.

I was branch manager at the Captiva Library for only three short years, but they were magical ones. One day, Clifton Fadiman walked into the library, carrying a few books, and asked if I'd accept them as donations for the library. He introduced himself, and said he received so many books that at times he had to get rid of some. The readers on Captiva were the perfect audience for his books, highly literate, often asking for very esoteric titles that no one else in the system requested. After I gratefully accepted his gift, he returned again, bringing his son, Kim, to carry the books. To this day, I'm still in awe of Anne Fadiman's father, a prime example of the intellectual authors of the thirties, forties and fifties.

Some of Anne Fadiman's essays left me cold. "Coffee" did nothing for me, particularly since I don't drink it. But, she was right. Those essays that touched me seemed to be conversations just with me.

At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, ©2007, ISBN 978-0-574-10662-1 (hardcover), 220p.


Charles Finch said...

I think I'll definitely read it. I loved Ex Libris and especially The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down....plus I drink coffee!

Lesa said...

I'll be curious to see what you think, Charles. If you think about it afterward, come back here and comment. I'd love to know your opinion.

And, she has an essay on ice cream as well! That one I could identify with!

Anonymous said...

You have to drink coffe or eat ice cream to appreciate a beautifully writtn and thuroughly researched essay?

Lesa said...

Thanks, Anonymous. Not at all. But, one essay is on coffee and one on ice cream. She does have other beautiful essays.

Terry said...

Thanks for sharing! I just finished 'Ex Libris' and LOVED her writing style, and am on Hold for this book. It will be interesting to see if it strikes me the same way!

Lesa said...

I'll be interested to see what you think, Terry. I preferred Ex Libris, but I'm interested in your opinion.