At large and at small

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at large and at small

At Large and at Small: Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman

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.
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Published 07.01.2019

6 confusing words - small & little, big & large, tall & high

At Large and at Small: Familiar Essays

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. At Large and At Small is a brilliant and delightful collection of essays that harkens a revival of a long-cherished genre. I read this as an assignment for school. But I must say that I loved the flow and style of the author.

Like all women of good sense, Anne Fadiman admits to a massive crush on Charles Lamb, the early 19th-century East India clerk, devoted brother and Shakespearean scholar who perfected the literary form known as "the familiar essay". The familiar essay, as conceived by Lamb, neither stands and delivers its high-minded thoughts on abstract subjects, nor beats its breast and maunders on about its feelings. Instead it adopts a "familiar" tone, as if talking to an old coffee-house acquaintance or, in the case of the alcoholic Lamb, a tavern chum , and allows itself to roam through subjects which it pulls out of its well-stocked mind rather than from panicky book cramming. The tone is companionable without being clingy, the style urbane. Above all neither writer nor reader is in a hurry to get anywhere in particular.

The familiar essay has gone out of style, and indeed, something about it has the whiff of the 19th century. In At Large and At Small , Fadiman writes about, um, familiar, often mundane, subjects—drinking, eating ice cream, getting mail, being a night owl, moving from city to country—with wit, erudition, and a strong sensual enjoyment of everyday pleasures. Possessing qualities indispensable to the familiar essayist—a wide-ranging curiosity and sense of wonder on the one hand, a lightness of touch and wry sense of humor on the other—Fadiman reveals just enough about her own experiences that we find her a pleasant companion with whom to explore butterfly collecting, the life of a vain Arctic explorer, or the storied history of the American flag. Her essay on ice cream, for example, begins with a memory triggered by a news article about a town banning ice cream truck music. Fadiman is taken back to the Good Humor trucks of her childhood that served up the serviceable almond crunch bars. From there she moves on to the calculation, based on American Medical Association statistics, that had she eaten no ice cream since the age of eighteen, she would currently weigh pounds.

As any publisher or agent will tell you, these days it is essential for an author to be easily located within a genre otherwise the bookshops won't have any idea which section to put you in, and the readers won't know where to look. Anne Fadiman is unfortunate, or stubborn, in this respect, since she writes within an increasingly obscure, if not moribund, genre: what she terms "the familiar essay". Clearly, the familiarity has little to do with her readers' habituation to the genre, or to do with the material, which is often fairly recondite.
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1 COMMENTS

  1. Olivier C. says:

    NPR Choice page

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