A Musing: At Large and At Small

Anne Fadiman, where have you been all my life?

I picked up At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays at the library, after reading a blog post by Thinking in Fragments about blogging and the familiar essay. I am so, so glad I did — I feel like I found not only my new favorite nonfiction writer but a new-to-me genre that I’m eager to read in and perhaps even try my hand at.

The essays range on such diverse subjects as Coffee, Charles Lamb, Mail, Ice Cream, and the Culture Wars, amongst others. They are compelling, exquisitely written, funny, perceptive . . . but the first essay in the collection, Collecting Nature, made my hair stand on end and gave me goosebumps as I read each of the 22 pages. Thank god it wasn’t any longer or I might have expired from overstimulation! Every word is perfectly chosen, every sentence masterfully crafted, each paragraph brutally, beautifully honest, and the whole shimmers. The essay magnifies so much of life, the world, the funny things people are and have always been, do and have always done that I’m left dazzled and blinking. It is, as the preface states regarding familiar essays — a balance of heart and brain, about the author and about the world. I would add that the ones that get you are ultimately about yourself, too. Collecting Nature? Guilty as charged.

I adore the bookishness of the essays — references to other books abound — literature, science, biography — Fadiman reads both widely and deeply. Thankfully, she has given us the gift of a Sources section — her favorite books about the subjects she writes on, and on the familiar essay. So much good stuff here — and so inspiring. The moment I finished the book I picked up Our Mutual Friend by Dickens (yay — she’s a Dickens fanatic too!) — I hadn’t yet read it and I need to know about Mr. Wegg and his Leg, which he goes to collect from Mr. Venus, “Preserver of Animals and Birds, Articulator of human bones.” !!!!

Of course this little collector couldn’t let the library copy out of her sight before she procured her own copy of this book and Fadiman’s other book of essays, Ex Libris. A book of essays on the love of books and words? I repeat, Anne Fadiman, where have you been all my life!


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