At Large And At Small by Anne Fadiman

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At Large And At Small by Anne Fadiman

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A collection of twelve essays on diverse subjects by one of today's pre-eminent essayists. Finely written with a sensitive touch they're highly recommended by The Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: November 2008
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141033990

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I saved this book, unwilling even to open it until I had the time to savour and enjoy it, to indulge myself with the further reading that I knew I would want to do. In At Large And At Small Anne Fadiman has returned to one of her favourite genres - the familiar essay. Few people can do this well with its need for intellectual breadth and sharp focus on the everyday but for me Fadiman is one of the pre-eminent essayists of her day.

There are twelve pieces with such varied subject matter that there is almost bound to be something to everyone's taste, although even subjects which are not to your taste have a compelling grip. I read of Fadiman's early passion for collecting butterflies with horror, staring at the page in the same way that I might at a road accident - determined to see but hating what I saw - but her touch is sensitive. Even as I decided that this was beyond redemption her eight-year-old daughter proved me wrong.

It's unsurprising that she has great affection for the essayists of the past, but The Unfuzzy Lamb and Coleridge the Runaway proved so tempting that I found myself searching through shelves for books of essays left unread for far too long. In short pieces she makes them accessible and familiar, their lives explaining their writing. They're wonderfully satisfying on two levels - as an introduction which allows you to explore further on your own, or as a piece in its own right. With each of the essays I saw them as complete and perfect in their own right, but also as an encouragement to look further under my own steam.

This is not the work of an aesthete. Fadiman freely admits that some essays were written under the influence of the subject matter. Her passion for Haagen-Dazs ice cream serves up a history of the dessert and even a catty story from the 4th century BC. I share an obsession for coffee, although I have to limit the amount that I drink these days but the vicarious caffeine consumption was more than adequate recompense. It all began, you know, in the seventh century near the Red Sea, with some goats eating the berries of a local shrub and becoming hyperactive.

I've only touched on some of the subjects covered, not even mentioning the pleasures to be found in the Arctic or the travails of moving house but it was the shortest piece in the book which I found almost unbearably moving. On a canoeing expedition with fellow students a young man drowned, his foot caught between two rocks as the river flooded. It was not just his death which moved but the observation that the students could do nothing to help but still felt obliged to save face by trying to do something. They couldn't be found on the bank with no hypothermia and no skinned knees. It's six pages of finely judged writing which charts not just the way that tragedy happens, but the reactions of those on the edges of the drama.

It was Fadiman's father, Clifford, who lamented the imminent death of the familiar essay, which he saw as being in decline along with formal manners, apt quotation, Greek and Latin, clear speech, conversation, the gentleman's library, the gentleman's income, the gentleman. Fortunately, at least with regard to the familiar essay, his prediction has been proved wrong by his daughter.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag - it has been a real pleasure to read.

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Magda said:

Wonderful! You really, really sold it to me (and probably even more the other book).

What's wrong with butterflies, though?

Sue replied:

Nothing when they're flying free - rather a lot when they're pinned on a board.

Magda said: