Sunday, September 14, 2008

Daphne LEE reviews Anne FADIMAN's At Large and At Small

Your friend the essayist

Review by DAPHNE LEE

By speaking not to millions but to one reader, this author touches a universal chord of familiarity

Confessions of a Literary Hedonist
By Anne Fadiman
(Allen Lane, 240pp)

MY FIRST AND ONLY ENCOUNTER with Anne Fadiman was several years ago when I came across her essay collection, Ex Libris, at a warehouse book sale.

Priced at RM6, the slim red paperback volume—which bore the gold-tooled picture of a girl reading while seated on a pile of books—was impossible to resist, not least because its back cover blurb described it as a “book of essays in celebration of bibliophilia” (I bought 10 copies to distribute to book-loving friends).

The first essay in Ex Libris is about how the author and her husband merged their book collections.

This is a topic close to my heart since I know the possible dire consequences of making two libraries one: Often, you decide that it isn’t necessary to have two copies of any book so you give away all your second copies. If you decide to go your separate ways, however, you end up fighting over who has more claim over which book. In a way, it’s less stressful for a bibliophile to marry someone who collects something quite different, like stamps or stuffed toys.

Anyway, in Ex Libris are also essays about written inscriptions on the flyleaves of books, the varied treatment of books by those who love them, the different ways bibliophiles house their collections, and writing sonnets.

These are personal essays, describing Fadiman’s own and her family’s relationship with books, and garnished with anecdotes from literary history, and about literary and historical figures.

Fadiman’s style is graceful, light and humorous. When she offers information, she sounds rather like she has just come upon the fact herself, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Thanks to the obvious delight and the thoughtfulness with which she approaches her subjects, she never sounds like a show-off. And unlike some personal essays there’s never a moment in these when the reader cringes and thinks: “Stop! Too much information!”

In her latest collection, At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist, Fadiman is as charming, as amusing and as informative, as perfectly balanced between passion and erudition.

The essays in this volume are of the genre known as “familiar”. Fadiman, in her preface, describes familiar essays as having equal measures of brain and heart. Their subjects are dear to the author, an important part of her life, past or present, but, although coloured by personal and particular experiences, also presented, researched, discussed, and explored with scholarly curiosity and objectivity.

Among the subjects covered in At Large and at Small are collecting butterflies, ice cream, Charles Lamb (himself an admired familiar essayist), coffee, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the American flag.

Some subjects are of more interest than others. In fact, each subject is bound to inspire its fair share of interest and indifference depending on the tastes of its reader.

I love coffee and relate to Fadiman’s addiction to caffeine; remember when my sister and I used to go out with our butterfly net; but couldn’t care less about the American flag. Still, although I was more eager to read the essays that were about things I was interested in, I wasn’t even tempted to skip the others.

I guess this is because I really enjoy Fadiman’s easy, intimate, discursive style. I like the chatty flow of the essays, the friendly air they have, and the impression one gets of the author talking animatedly about a favourite thing or person, with frequent and random inclusions of every thing and anything related to it/him—even if the thing or person isn’t to your taste you read on because it’s likely that you’ll pick up some fascinating titbits along the way.

Thanks to the literary references, the historical facts and figures, and the trivia, Fadiman doesn’t end up sounding self-indulgent. I mean, no matter how much you like ice cream, would you really want to read 1,000 words about Fadiman’s favourite flavours and how much weight she would lose if she ceased to indulge in tubsful of Chocolate Chocolate Chip? I think not—unless you’re the sort who stays up nights reading blogs in which strangers describe, in minute detail, every minute of their lives.

The average, intelligent reader would, I’d like to think, prefer Fadiman’s personal revelations regarding Häagen-Dazs insterspersed, as they indeed are, with an awe-inspiring description of the dessert served at the Nobel Prize banquet, a catty anecdote featuring snow (an early version of ice cream) served at a fourth-century party in Greece, a snippet out of a British Medical Journal article on ice-cream headaches, and an ice-cream recipe that uses liquid nitrogen.

More than 50 years ago, Clifton Fadiman, writer, radio broadcaster, and the author’s father, wrote about the death of the familiar essay. He blamed its demise on the passing of the age of “formal manners, apt quotation, Greek and Latin, clear speech, conversation, the gentleman’s library, the gentleman’s income, the gentleman’”—quite pompous and, mostly, in my opinion, untrue.

Familiar essays, I believe, can be written by any writer with wide-ranging interests and experiences, who possesses an enquiring mind, loves to discuss and speculate, and delights in life’s absurdities.

Clifton Fadiman at least got it right when he declared the art of conversation necessary to the writing of a familiar essay.

Reading a well-written familiar essay is like having a tête-à-tête with an interesting, erudite but approachable friend. The familiar essayist, Fadiman says, speaks not to millions but to one reader. Read her essays to know what she means.

Daphne Lee has never believed in the tooth fairy and thinks Tinkerbell one of the most annoying characters in literature. She likes her fairyfolk tall—and handy with a bow and arrow, but thinks Tolkien’s elves could benefit from sessions of psychotherapy.

Review first published in The Sunday Star of September 7, 2008


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