At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman

So the last book review was long because it made me think things. The one before that was long because I hated it. This one is long because I love Anne Fadiman and not just because she spells her name the same as me (the correct way).

She writes essays that are interesting, funny, thoughtful, and just absolutely perfect. She may not be as ‘deep’ as Annie Dillard, but I think she’s more accessible and is often saying more than she seems to be, despite her fairly light-hearted (or at least not actively depressing) subjects.

As I’ve said before, I adore Ex-Libris, her book of, well, book-based essays and I knew I liked her writing, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect with a book of non-book-based essays.

I needn’t have worried.

Her subjects range from coffee to Charles Lamb to letter-writing to butterfly-collecting and everywhere in between. Her writing is that effortlessly clever voice, full of sparkling wit. To note:

Describing a letter from Charles Lamb to Samuel Taylor Coleridge which contains an account of the former’s most recent bout of insanity:

‘All we know of the episode is that Lamb was indisputably irrational…and that the experience was not altogether unpleasant…. The self-mocking levity was characteristic, as was the bizarrely incongruous postscript: “My civic and poetic compliments to Southey if in Bristol. Why, he is a very leviathan of the Bards!–the smallest minnow, I!” Went mad. Oh, by the way, my best to Robert. (page 32)

Totally laughed outloud. This next one is sort of convoluted to explain, so I’ll just let the quote speak for itself.

‘(The essential Coleridge-and-Wordsworth scene: A soiree at the Lambs’. Coleridge sits at one end of the dinner table, quoting Wordsworth. Wordsworth sits at the other end, quoting Wordsworth.)’ (page 97)

Oh, Wordsworth. 😉

But it’s not all literary essays. There are discussions of the mail, past and present. Did you know that the London post used to be delivered nearly every hour? I always wondered how people in Jane Austen invited people over for tea on the spur of the moment. Also, apparently, people used to write ‘Haste, haste, haste, for lyfe, for lyfe, haste!’ to have it delivered faster. I doubt it would work nowadays, but I’m sorely tempted to try it…

She also writes an essay on coffee that is so persuasive I’m finding myself wishing I could have a cup! Do you know how much coffee Balzac used to drink? Forty cups a day! And then he started making it stronger and stronger until eventually he just began eating the coffee grounds. Amazing! And disgusting, but mostly amazing! And how romantic does this sound:

‘London had a coffee house for everyone (as long as you were male). If you were a gambler, you went to White’s. If you were a physician, you went to Garraway’s or Child’s. If you were a businessman, you went to Lloyd’s which later evolved into the great insurance house. If you were a scientist you went to the Grecian, where Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, and Hans Sloane once staged a public dissection of a dolphin that had been caught in the Thames. If you were a journalist, you went to Button’s …. And if you were a man of letters, you–along with Pope, Pepys, and Dryden–went to Will’s, where you could join a debate on whether Milton should have written Paradise Lost in rhymed couplets instead of blank verse.’ (pages 187-188)

How awesome is that?! I wish we had some sort of forum like that now – how often have you ever seen a dolphin dissection at a Starbuck’s? That’s what I thought. I mean, I guess now the sort of coffeehouse is the Internet where you don’t need any sort of permission to say what you think about whatever you think (nor do you necessarily need to have any proof to back up what you think – although, from the sound of it, I expect those coffeehouses probably would have at least questioned you on it). Which is sort of sad, just like the death of letter-writing at the hand of e-mail (which she also discusses).

But back to the matter at hand. She also loves the Arctic (and lends one essay to the discussion of Vilhjalmur Stefansson) and the outdoors (the book ends on a more poignant note with a brief description of a trip down the Green River which I will leave for you to read) which becomes obvious by the slowing of the pace and the warmth of her voice, despite the chilly subject matter.

In an essay describing the effects of being a night owl, she describes a night spent watching Halley’s Comet on the Tasman Glacier in New Zealand:

‘After crunching a mile or so across the clean hard snow, which had been unpleasantly slushy in the afternoon sun, we stopped on a narrow col with a thousand-foot dropoff on either side. And there it was: a small white cornucopia above the northern horizon, not solid, but delicately stippled, as if produced by a heavenly dot-matrix printer. We spread our sleeping bags on the snow and crawled inside. The vantage point was dizzying. It was impossible to tell whether the comet was above us or we were above the comet; we were all falling through space, missing the stars by inches.’ (page 66)

My rating: A

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