The National Catholic Review
Ann M. Begley
In terms of prestige, Joseph Epstein observes, literary forms, like stocks, rise and fall. Although it has a long and honored history, the essay, pioneered by Montaigne, was little more than a penny stock; but now it seems to be thriving in a bull market, owing, no doubt, to some of its distinguished practitioners.

A former columnist for Civilization, the Library of Congress publication, a staff writer for Life magazine and an editor of The American Scholar for seven years, Anne Fadiman burst upon the literary scene with the release of her deeply poignant and memorable debut book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. This engrossing, well-documented case study of a young refugee girl who was stricken with epilepsy was followed by a collection of well-crafted essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, which chronicles the authors lifelong appreciation and profound knowledge of literature.

In At Large and At Small, Fadiman, the recipient of a plethora of awards and currently the Francis Nonfiction Writer-In-Residence at Yale, returns with humor and erudition to a genre she favors: the familiar essay, which reached the peak of its popularity in early 19th-century England. Recognized for both its intellectual breadth and its miniaturist observance of mundane experiences, the hallmark of this form, she explains elsewhere, is that it is autobiographical but also deals with the world at large. The title echoes the name of the column that began each issue of The Scholarin which 11 of these essays first appearedand is meant to suggest, as the author puts it, that my interests are presbyopic (at large) but my focus remains myopic (at small). Fadiman insists that she is but a common reader, nothing more than an enthusiastic amateur, not a scholar. Yet her essays are filled with little-known facts that have been meticulously researched. In addition, this slim volume is replete with notes and an extensive bibliography.

Virtually all authors can be detected in their work, no matter how hard they strive to conceal themselves in the shadows. In familiar essays, where the first-person-singular is glaringly present and all attempts at camouflage are abandoned, writers step boldly forward into the light, making it clear that they wish to be seen and heard. Here, as in much of her work, Fadiman, owing largely to a colloquial and easy style, transforms the reader into something like a soul mate. With casual bonhomie and a great deal of wit, exuding charm and intimacy, she ruminates on 12 passionately considered subjects: from collecting butterflies as a child to her addiction to ice cream and coffee, from her penchant for staying up late at night to the culture wars. Whatever the professed topicbe it Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge or the Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefanssonclearly embedded in each essay is the author, eager to reveal herself, to share with us her point of view.

Digression is a main characteristic of this form. The essayist begins usually with a personal reference, then meanders casually from one related subject to another, the rambling reflections leading finally to an unanticipated destination. A memory of her fathers preoccupation with the daily mail delivery, for example, inspires interesting comments on the history of the postage stamp, which in turn provokes thoughts on the pros and cons of e-mail.

We move placidly through the collection with a smile on our lips and an occasional guffaw until the last piece, which reads like a short story and reveals the authors panache for adventure: an account of a whitewater rafting trip on the Green River that ended tragically, placing in relief the fragility of life and the writers discovery that she was the sort of person who, instead of weeping or shouting or praying during a crisis, thought about something from a textbookin this case, the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew as portrayed in the Sistine Chapel (H. W. Jansons History of Art) which she could not help but compare to the shirtless torso, pale and undulating, of the drowning boy whose boot had become wedged between two rocks. Fadimans seemingly effortless prose, a fluent mix of the profound and the buoyant, is captivating, elegant and thought-provoking. An exceedingly enjoyable literary stylist, her metaphors are arresting.

The portrait of the writer that emerges is that of a brilliant, lifelong bibliophile with a wry sense of humor and an overwhelming compulsion to writeespecially about that most delicious of subjects, her own personal experiences and distinct way of viewing the world. A self-described loquacious workaholic, she suggests that her character, a blend of narcissism and curiosity, is perhaps oddly suited to this particular genre. Clifton Fadiman, the authors father, once remarked, she notes, that few women write familiar essays because the form does not attract them. Well, it attracts Anne Fadiman. For this, let us be grateful. Though we may not always agree with her, its great fun to be in her company.

Ann Begley, an essayist and reviewer, has taught at universities on both the east and the west coast.