On Reading Anne Fadiman

I had to pause after reading the first chapter of Anne Fadiman’s spectacular 2007 book At Large and at Small: Familiar Essays. I had checked it out of the library, but this is one of those books that must be collected, and I had to have it.

I went to pick it up at my local bookstore, but it could only be ordered through Amazon or Indigo as the big-box stores don’t carry it and there isn’t a small independent bookstore in the entire city of Vancouver that has the space to stock even a slim 2007 volume, let alone a book of essays.

It’s ironic to order through the web to stock our home library, especially since her other book of essays Ex Libris has what may be the best piece ever written on home libraries. It’s a beautiful bit of writing describing how she and her new husband consolidated their individual and extensive books into one home, and in the process grew to feel more married.

Fadiman may not be a household name, but among well-read writers of non-fiction she is iconic. Her late father, Clifton Fadiman, did receive considerable public prominence as an intellectual, but he wrote at a time when life was slower and public intellectuals were held in higher regard. Anne Fadiman was editor of The American Scholar for many years, and currently teaches non-fiction writing at Yale University and mentors young writers-in-training, in addition to her own writing.

Her first essay in At Large held particular resonance for me as an entomologist, not only for its stellar writing but also because it’s about how she was drawn into the pleasure of collecting insects, butterflies actually:

To swoop your net through the air and see something fluttering inside; to snatch that bit of life from the rich chaos of nature into your own comparatively lackluster world, which is instantly brightened and enlarged; to look it up in Klots (author of a well-known mid-20th century guide to butterflies) and name it and know it – well, after you did that a few times, it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for Parcheesi.

Books of essays are awfully difficult to get published, as there is little demand for what publishers perceive as a dying genre, but Fadiman’s butterfly essay, and the quote above, highlighted for me why essay collections are such fine literature and deserve resurgence. What essays do, at their best, is name it and know it; opening that door for readers where we see what was obscure before but now, in the hands of a fine essayist, becomes obvious.

Anne Fadiman has that unusual capacity to notice things, opening doors where you didn’t even know there was a door there to begin with, until she brings you to the portal.

And her essays have sticking power. Lori and I just renovated and moved into a new apartment, our renovations designed around the cornerstone of built-in shelves to house our together-forever book collections.

I’ve never met Anne Fadiman, but by coincidence I was reading At Large and at Small as we moved in and arranged our bookshelves. Positioning our books superimposed on reading Fadiman reminded me that essays are a bit like butterfly collecting, enriching us by snatching bits of life from the rich chaos of writers’ fertile imaginations.