x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

At Large and At Small

Hephzibah Anderson: Of all Anne Fadiman's writer beaux, it is the English essayist Charles Lamb who steals her heart.

Genre-trotter: Fadiman roams effortlessly across history, autobiography and anecdote in <i>At Large and At Small</i>.
Genre-trotter: Fadiman roams effortlessly across history, autobiography and anecdote in At Large and At Small.

Of all Anne Fadiman's writer beaux, says Hephzibah Anderson, it is the English essayist Charles Lamb who steals her heart.

At Large and At Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist Anne Fadiman Penguin Dh48
Anne Fadiman loves books. She chronicled her unbridled bibliomania in her last collection of essays, Ex Libris, and it leaps out from every page of this latest. Even the bibliography is ardently written, forming not the usual dry, uninviting list but a series of fond introductions to some of her oldest friends - the kind that live between two covers. Yet as At Large and At Small reveals, books are just one of her many obsessions. Others include shells, ice cream, word games and night writing, all of which are considered here with thoughtful and infectious enthusiasm.

As children, she and her big brother Kim were determined capturers and chroniclers of nature. Like tiny imperialists, they delighted in pinning down the miraculous and naming it. The opening essay describes the dubious thrills of lepidoptery, to which the Fadiman siblings were introduced by Alexander B Klots' A Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America, East of the Great Plains. Once old enough to feel queasy about the murderous aspects of their hobby, the pair moved on to curating, commandeering their parents' spare bedroom for their very own hall of wonders, The Serendipity Museum of Nature. Among its prize exhibits were the exoskeleton of a cicada, a desiccated sand shark and a pickled human tapeworm. It was, she writes, "an earnest attempt to stuff the entire natural world, down to the last kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species? into our spare bedroom. It never occurred to us that it would not fit".

As an adult, it does occur to Fadiman that too much ice cream might be a bad thing, and that she must curb her all-night writing binges to accommodate her husband and children. But she has retained the nerdy devotion of her six-year-old self, and the rangy passion of an autodidact is what defines each of these essays. On the subject of ice cream, for instance, she laboriously calculates that, had she eaten none since the age of 18, she would currently weigh negative 416 pounds. (She regrets not a single scoop.) Debating the relative merits of e-mail versus snail mail, she diligently bones up on electronic slang and 'emoticons,' even though she disdains them. Meditating on her own love of coffee, she invokes Balzac's, which grew so rampant that he progressed from one cup a day to 40, eventually doing away with the water and munching the coffee grounds neat.

Of all Fadiman's writer beaux, it is the English essayist Charles Lamb who steals her heart. Having deemed Tales from Shakespeare "a snore" aged 10, she rediscovered him in her late 20s. Readers Against the Grain was the essay that won her round, though it was a single word that really did it: whiffling. "Anyone who used the word whiffling deserved further investigation", she declares, proving that she remains a collector, amassing not just facts and figures but words, too, netting them as she once netted tiger swallowtails and painted ladies.

In the book's preface, she explains that this compact volume is her contribution to the effort to keep alive the familiar essay, a genre championed by her adored Lamb. While most of today's essays tend to be purely critical or else very, very personal, the familiar essay is the literary equivalent of a hearthside conversation - subjective, digressive, enthusiastic - enabling authors to write about themselves but also about the world. It suits Fadiman perfectly, and though she may not have captured every kingdom, family and species, she roams effortlessly across history, autobiography and anecdote.