Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Large and Small

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.


  1. Sounds interesting!

    Myopic means near rather than small I think and presbyopic means elder-eyes though my knowledge of Greek is pretty minimal other than the alphabet and scientific terminology. I like your tangents that are tethered rather than touching too!

    Childish point scoring apart, thank you for a thoughtful and informative discussion of a book that I certainly think I would like almost all of.

  2. When Simon uses a word it means exactly what he wishes it to mean - no more and no less!
    If it's good enough for Lewis Carroll.........
    LOVE tiruals!

  3. I think Ex-Libris was one of the first books I bought online. I read it and remember liking it, but unfortunately that's about it. However, I can easily picture the green cover.

    I'll add this one to the wishlist, thank's for flagging!

  4. Peter - I will take your word for the definitions of myopic and presbyopic, but you'll have to take it up with Fadiman! That line was quoted from the book. My tangents, however, I take full responsibility for ;)
    I think you probably would like most of this book, although perhaps not the chp on Charles Lamb(?)

    Mum - I have now edited! But I left tiruals in, because it's a nice (if new) word...

    Alex - Ex Libris is one I'm sure I'll return to again and again. If I could remember where it was...

  5. I've just written a post about how great essay collections are! There must be something in the air. I haven't read these though, so I will go and hunt them down.

  6. I love Ex Libris (it's probably one of my favourite books too) and have At Large and At Small on my wishlist for a number of years now. I enjoy reading personal essays so I'm looking forward to it.

  7. I loved Ex Libris too. This has been on my shelves for a while now, and needs reading! I remember particularly loving the essay on combining libraries at the time (although mine are now decombined!)

  8. That does sound interesting - I like the adulterated coffee. And you make an interesting (and important) point about the unlikelihood of anyone liking ALL the essays.

    But the real reason I'm here: thanks for recommending this book to me.

  9. Oh Simon, you are too much for me! Thank you for your lovely little aside, that cheered me up no end today!

    I love Ex Libris so I must give this a go - random essays very much appeal to me and I fancy learning about polar exploration!

  10. Fadiman is (was?) really interested in arctic exploration & collected books about it. I must have read about that in Ex Libris - about trying to find space for his and her books.

    I met the two of them at one of the annual fund-raising dinners put on by Friends of the Library (UMass). They were two of the speakers one year. Very engaging.

  11. darnit - what I came to write originally (before commenting on arctic exploration) - was to agree with OVW. I like the word tirual and think we should all try to work conversations around to using it. :-)

  12. Overdue - glad to see you're back blogging! I have got a taste for these now... Christopher Morley's collection is good fun so far, and AA Milne does this sort of thing really well.

    Sakura and Annabel - you had amusingly similar comments next to each other! Yes, do get this down from the shelves... I have Rereadings by Fadiman still waiting, but I think that's only edited by her. And, Annabel, when my parents got married I think they only had one book in common!

    Julia - thanks for coming over and posting the link to your Comyns review, I was so pleased to read it!

    Rachel - aw, you're welcome! And do go and find out about polar exploration and fill me in... I skipped the second half of that essay.

    Nancy - you've met them! How wonderful! I remember her mentioning her interest in polar exploration in Ex Libris, when talking about the 'odd shelf'. I think mine might be about theatre, if that counts as odd.
    Oh, and I hope you manage to get tirual into conversation!

  13. I'm partway through 'At Large and At Small'. Like you, this isn't going to be one of my all-time favourite books, though I'm enjoying it (also, like you, I'm not that fussed on Polar explorers!), but I LOVE 'Ex Libris'!

    As soon as I'd finished it, a few years ago, I returned to the beginning and re-read it, this time aloud, to my husband, on Saturday mornings in bed. Needless to say, he loved it too. The combining libraries chapter was so 'us'! :) I think we're due for a re-read!

    The Fadiman game of quoting from a book and then saying 'Source?' for other family members to answer, has entered our family life (we include films in our game).

  14. I loved the Charles Lamb essay too. This book was great. I'm a huge fan of the personal essay, which I think is a growing genre, although still small. But there are some great anthologies out there.

  15. That's so funny Simon! I actually felt a bit meh abotu Ex Libris, which I read first, and then just adored this one. In fact, I loved it so much I've been planning a reread of Ex Libris ever since, to see if I've changed my mind on that one. ;)


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