Here’s a bit of personal trivia for you – the first new book that I ever bought on impulse was Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. I was about 17, and didn’t buy new books very often (and I still don’t, actually – probably 95% of the books I buy are secondhand) but I had a book token, and this one called out to me. It’s a wonderful, slim volume packed with delightful essays about books and reading – and, in fact, it’s in my ongoing 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Heard About.
It took me another seven years to get around to read At Large and At Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist (2007) which my friend Clare got me for my 25th birthday last year. Part of me was worried that I wouldn’t love it as much, and Ex Libris had been such an eye-opener, in terms of making me realise that my bibliophilia didn’t make me strange. Or perhaps it did, but at least I wasn’t the only one! It was a step towards the wonder that is knowing fellow book bloggers.
Well, despite ‘Literary’ being in Fadiman’s subtitle, she has widened her net, rather. It does cover all manner of things – ‘The title is meant to suggest that my interests are presbyopic (“at large”) but my focus is myopic (“at small”).’ Fadiman’s writing is still wonderful – utterly engaging, and personal without being cloying or unduly emotional. She is, indeed, championing the personal essay – a form that has very few authors practising it at the moment. That’s not quite true. I suppose you could say that lots of bloggers write occasional personal essays, although for the most part we tend towards the ‘review’ end of the spectrum, which is quite a different thing. Some bloggers are absolutely brilliant at the personal essay type post (of course, we’re all thinking about lovely Rachel – I can’t say how often people say to me, when the topic of blogs comes up, “Oh, the one I really love is…” and they always say Book Snob. Quite right, too. I’m delighted to have been a small part of her genesis!)
Back to Fadiman. She really has spread her net wide – with the inevitable result that some of the essays will appeal, and some will not. Whereas all book lovers will probably also love Ex Libris, with its various chapters on different facets of reading, there aren’t really any essays in At Large and At Small which are guaranteed to delight all. Topics like post (sorry, mail), ice cream, and coffee are all general enough to be very entertaining to even those who avoid dairy, caffeine, and, er, ink. I can’t stand coffee, but I still found her ode to its joys incredibly fun to read – and Fadiman has a way of engaging the reader which classes her amongst the best of her art form. Here is the opening paragraph of the essay on coffee; I defy you not to be beguiled:
When I was a sophomore in college, I drank coffee nearly every evening with my friends Peter and Alex. Even though the coffee was canned; even though the milk was stolen from the dining hall and refrigerated on the windowsill of my friends’ dormitory room, where it was diluted by snow and adulterated by soot; even though Alex’s scuzzy one-burner hot plate looked as if it might electrocute us at any moment; and even though we washed our batterie de cuisine in the bathroom sink and let it air-dry on a pile of paper towels next to the toiler – even though Dunster F-13 was, in short, not exactly Escoffier’s kitchen, we considered our nightly coffee tirual [EDIT: oops, I mean ‘ritual’, but I love the new word ‘tirual’!] the very acme and pitch of elegance. And I think that in many ways we were right.
I think the reason these sorts of essays work is that Anne and her friends and family are the main focus – or at least a point to which all the tangents are tethered. However, any reader of At Large and At Small, I suspect, will find some of the collection uninspiring. The first essay, on moths and suchlike, was not an auspicious beginning for me. I ended up skimming through the chapter on arctic explorers. And yet I was enthralled by what she wrote on Charles Lamb – an essay I can imagine others would hurry through with the same speed that I dismissed Vilhjalmur Stefansson.
It would be impossible to give you a proper taste of every chapter without making this post enormous, and it would spoil the surprise of reading them. So, I intend to give a warning – Anne Fadiman gives this collection the subtitle ‘Confessions of a Literary Hedonist’, but it is not that. A love of the literary will not carry you through every essay in At Large and At Small. This book is the Confessions of a Polymath, and it is more than likely that Fadiman will leave you cold with some of the essays. She will, however, delight you with others. And so few people write this sort of book this well, that I think it deserves a place on your bookshelf (and mine) for the half or three-quarters of it that you will (and I did) love.