In At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman returns to one of her favorite genres, the familiar essay—a beloved and hallowed literary tradition recognized for both its intellectual breadth and its miniaturist focus on everyday experiences. With the combination of humor and erudition that has distinguished her as one of our finest essayists, Fadiman draws us into twelve of her personal obsessions: from her slightly sinister childhood enthusiasm for catching butterflies to her monumental crush on Charles Lamb, from her wistfulness for the days of letter-writing to the challenges and rewards of moving from the city to the country.
Many of these essays were composed "under the influence" of the subject at hand. Fadiman ingests a shocking amount of ice cream and divulges her passion for Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip and her brother's homemade Liquid Nitrogen Kahlúa Coffee (recipe included); she sustains a terrific caffeine buzz while recounting Balzac's coffee addiction; and she stays up till dawn to write about being a night owl, examining the rhythms of our circadian clocks and sharing such insomnia cures as her father's nocturnal word games and Lewis Carroll's mathematical puzzles. At Large and At Small is a brilliant and delightful collection of essays that harkens a revival of a long-cherished genre.
Fadiman, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall, makes a bold claim: "I believe the survival of the familiar essay is worth fighting for." The "familiar essays" that Fadiman champions and writes are in the mold of the early 19th century, rather than critical or personal works as we've come to know them. Her essays combine a personal perspective with a far-reaching curiosity about the world, resulting in pieces that are neither so objective the reader can't see the writer behind them nor too self-absorbed. And spending some time with Fadiman is a pure delight. She loves the natural world and taxonomies of all kinds, as well as ice cream and coffee. Her love of the romantic age goes beyond the stylistic, and she prefers Coleridge and Lamb over Wordsworth and Southey. The collection rolls good-naturedly through its subjects until the final piece an account of a whitewater rafting trip that went tragically awry, a harrowing reminder of the stakes on which all endeavors rest. This collection is a perfectly faceted little gem. Essayists, of both the critical and personal sort, could do worse than to follow Fadiman into the realm of the familiar.