Anne Fadiman is a specialist in what she stubbornly calls the familiar essay, a genre that reached its prime in the early nineteenth century. Most readers and writers today are acquainted with its cousin, the personal essay. Fadiman’s word choice, then, acts as a small protest. Personal, she notes in the preface to At Large and At Small, has increasingly come to mean “confessional,” and Fadiman is not one for theatrics. Critical doesn’t quite do it either, because so often what she writes involves personal experience. In the end, Fadiman practices the familiar through a series of wide-ranging, minutely observed essays that, she explains, are “about the author but also about the world.”
Fadiman, who also penned the acclaimed culture-clash reportage The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997), writes about what she loves. In the new book, she describes how her brother makes ice cream with liquid nitrogen and why the two of them gave up lepidopterology in late childhood. (They enjoyed killing their specimens too much.) She narrates what it’s like to stay up late and to wait for the mail in the afternoon. She tells anecdotes from the lives of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his close friend Charles Lamb, who worked unhappily as an accountant to feed his matricidal been “a compulsive arranger.” These essays, then, are perhaps what happens when the collector substitutes a full and reflective adult life for the pinned wings of butterflies.