31 December 2007

Anne Fadiman - At Large and At Small

A few years ago, Anne Fadiman produced a small book called Ex Libris, a collection of essays on books and bibliophilia. It was an unexpected success, finding a permanent home on the Waterstone's checkout desk, largely through word of mouth - I probably bought 6 or 7 copies myself. Ex Libris mixed the personal with the objective, with chapters on book collections, treatment of books, special obsessions, and specific topics such as the sonnet.

It's this mix of personal and general that Fadiman calls the 'familiar essay', perfected in the 19th century by William Hazlitt and, her personal obsession, Charles Lamb. Nowadays there are lots of critical essays, and plenty (too many) personal columns, but few that combine the two, where you can feel both educated and connected by the same piece.

In a plain bid, by her publishers no doubt, to repeat the success of Ex Libris Fadiman has collected several of her occasional essays from the last decade, on varied subjects, but all of them of close personal interest to her. Because of this, they're written with a passion and knowledge unlikely in subjects more distant from the writer, merely researched rather than lived. This is engaging, but the extent to which it is depends a lot on whether the reader shares the obsession.

So my indifference to ice cream and coffee meant that those chapters left me unmoved, but I was far more involved with the essays on Lamb and Coleridge. I know little about the former, apart from the psychosis of his sister, and found Fadiman's love for him appealing, but I didn't think Coleridge was my sort. I wasn't aware of his repeated flight, even as an adult, which is some indication of the insecurities that lay under his daunting intellect.

This collection isn't as good as Ex Libris, although it has its moments. The expression of a deep personal moment in the last chapter is a little nakedly manipulative, and doesn't fit with the other essays, and too many are a little overkeen to persuade the author of the validity of the obsession. But Fadiman is a good writer, and humorous, and the book works as a light gift.


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