In 1997, Anne Fadiman won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a fascinating and sympathetic look at a Hmong family's struggle to save their epileptic child, and the interaction between their traditional beliefs and the Western medical system. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, a collection of essays which are a bibliophile's love letters to books, was praised by Cynthia Ozick as "literary reflections that play and delight, charm and enlighten." She adds, "Though they are as buoyant as balloons, Anne Fadiman's engaging essays carry the golden weight of art."
In her newest collection, Anne Fadiman turns her hand to the familiar essay, a form at which she excels. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls At Large and at Small "a perfectly faceted little gem," and Booklist raves, "A master of the tangential, a close observer, and a lover of language, Fadiman is blithely brilliant in her pursuit of beauty and meaning as she wrestles with questions of life, death, and rebirth." Before her reading at Powell's City of Books, Anne Fadiman stopped by our offices to discuss familiar essays, poetry, the collecting spirit, and balancing narcissism and curiosity.
Jill: In "Collecting Nature," there's a description of the desire to catch butterflies which seemed to me also like describing why and how you write these essays:
"...[T]o 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 it instantly brightened and enlarged; to look it up in Klots and name it and know it — well, after you did that a few times, it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for Parcheesi."
Anne Fadiman: No one has made that connection before, and I can't say that when I wrote that paragraph I was thinking about essays, but now that you mention it, I think that they're very analogous on two levels. When I'm writing an essay and trying to decide what to put in, and I'm doing the research part, reading things, trying to find beautiful snippets, and I see a fact that I didn't know before, I have a feeling of triumph that is very similar to the feeling that I had when I was six or seven years old, catching a really beautiful butterfly. I suppose putting it on the page is similar to getting it in one's net; the difference, of course, is that you don't have to kill those beautiful facts when you write them in an essay.
I also think that the collecting spirit relates to my desire to collect essays, whether they are mine or others. I am a collector at heart, and I've done a couple of my own essay collections, but I've also edited two other essay collections, and I used to edit a quarterly literary magazine, the American Scholar, which was also a sort of collecting. I was a sort of curator, you could say, at the American Scholar, trying in each issue to curate just the right kind of collection, to see whether item one in the collection should be next to item two in the collection. So yes, I think that you have happened on some central trait in my character in that paragraph, which came out both in butterfly collection and in various parts of my life as a writer.
Jill: The Los Angeles Times review of this book remarks, "Fadiman is engaged in contemplating the specific in the hope of discerning the universal." I think in some ways that's what every writer wants to do, but perhaps the form of the familiar essay is one that shows it happening most transparently.
Fadiman: I don't know that it's the way to do it most transparently, but it certainly is a way to do it. My title also tries to get at that, At Large and At Small; I'm interested in things that are large, but I try to get at those large things in sometimes very small ways, and I'm certainly interested in details. I'm always telling my students that finding the universal in the particular works much better than finding the universal in the universal, especially if you're writing something relatively short. But even if you're writing War and Peace, War and Peace is nothing but a set of extraordinarily well-observed details, one after another, that present a sort of universal view of the human predicament.
My essays are sometimes on very trivial topics, sometimes on not so trivial topics, but I do have a kind of myopic perspective that, again, may come from my early days as a nature collector. Looking at the tiny differences between different species of butterflies or shells was the sort of thing that I was interested in as a child; I think I grew up to be a perhaps excessively detail-oriented writer. I think that the essay lends itself to this, especially the familiar essay.
There are lots of things that can be said about the familiar essay as a genre, but certainly one of its hallmarks of that it is about the author, so it is a subset of the personal essay, but it is also about a subject. And I like changing my focal length. I like focusing on myself and then having a line space, and then changing the lens on the camera so that all of a sudden I'm panning across a large landscape and giving the reader some historical background, and after a bit of that, then another line space, and then let's go back to the personal again.
Jill: That anticipated my next question, which was to ask you to define the familiar essay; it was not a term that I was familiar with previous to your book.
Fadiman: Well, the familiar essay isn't a term one hears very much, though fifty years ago, one heard it a great deal. Its greatest practitioners were in the early nineteenth century in England — William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb in particular. Familiar essays are called familiar not because the essays themselves are familiar to their readers. So my subtitle, "Familiar Essays by Anne Fadiman" — these aren't supposed to be essays you've already known, that are familiar to you. "Familiar" refers to the fact that the subjects were often familiar to the reader, or at least familiar to the writer. They weren't about exotic things; they were often about everyday life. But most importantly, the writer talked to the reader as though the reader was his familiar.
They tended to be much less formal than the kinds of essays that had been previously written — although of course even at the beginning of the world of the essayist, when Montaigne was writing in the sixteenth century, he was pretty chatty and confessional, and didn't have any difficulty talking about what he did on his chamber pot. [Laughs] He made no bones about writing about things that are perhaps all too familiar to readers of lots of personal work in the twenty-first century.
But in the nineteenth century the familiar essay became the form that I thought about, when I was thinking about the sort of essay I most wanted to write. And my essays, too, aim for a kind of one-to-one conversational tone.
Jill: In your father's essay, which you reference in the introduction, "A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay," he writes: "On what does it live? The vitamin essential to it is the reader's willingness to hold casual ideas in suspension. In an age of order that vitamin abounds. But not in our age of anxiety." Do you think that's more or less true now than when he wrote it?
Fadiman: Every age is anxious. Ours is probably more anxious. Of course, he wrote that a half a century ago; we probably think that our age is more anxious than the age in which he wrote that, and he thought that his age was more anxious than, let's say, around 1900.
I think that the essay itself was more endangered about twenty-five years ago than it is today. In that essay, "A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay," he was predicting the death of the familiar essay and, indeed, the essay itself I think got moribund in the two or three decades following the publication of that piece of my father's. But then, ten or twenty years ago, we saw a lot of things happening all at the same time. The Best American Essays series; some excellent collections by Phillip Lopate and Joseph Epstein; the teaching of courses on essays in some colleges. The very fact that here I am in Portland and my publisher would actually send me on a book tour to read from an essay collection. The fact that there are even some essay collections on the bestseller list — Nora Ephron's essay collection, among others.
I wouldn't say that the genre is exactly robust, but in its various forms, not just familiar essays but the personal essay as a whole, it's healthier now than it was a while ago. But I hope that it is still on an upward curve.
Jill: I also wonder, thinking about that quote, if the familiar essay in particular could be seen as a kind of sanctuary from anxiety, a space to contemplate and lose oneself in the subject and mental play of the form.
Fadiman: I think they are sanctuaries; that was a point also made in the Los Angeles Times. They are sanctuaries for me also as a writer. When I'm writing one of these, I pretty much stop doing everything else for two or three weeks and lose myself in the subject, so I write only about things that I'm really interested in and want to know more about. I do nothing during those two or three weeks but read and think and then write about that subject. Or, in the case of a couple of these that were about food — coffee and ice cream — ingest, in addition to reading, thinking, and writing. [Laughs] It's good that I didn't spend more than three weeks on the ice cream essay; otherwise, I would have had a major obesity problem by the end.
They are sanctuaries, but that doesn't mean that they are divorced from the world. There are some fairly serious moments in some of these: the last one is about a drowning death that I witnessed many years ago; another one of the essays, the one on coffee, starts very lightly but ends with me drinking coffee after I get off the plane after I've just found out my father is terminally ill. I don't think of essays as a kind of trivial ivory tower, a way for Nero to fiddle while Rome burns. I think that they often provide a useful way of understanding why Rome is burning.
But they're also a way to process and untangle events from one's own life. Your memory is just a dark tangle, and writing an essay like this allows you to shine a spotlight, to tease out strands, to think about your entire life in terms of your coffee experiences, your entire life in terms of your ice cream experiences, or, in the case of the essay on mail and email, your entire life in terms of your relation to the postal system. You end up being able to retrieve memories that might not otherwise have drifted to the surface, and see them in relation to each other.
It also enables you to turn something that might otherwise be unpleasant into something that is fodder for an essay. One of the essays is on moving from the city to the country, a perfect topic for a familiar essay because it's so ordinary. Moving is something that all of us have done. Part of the essay was literary, about the theme of moving in Jane Austen's Persuasion, and there's a bit of sociology and so on, but the core of it is the tale of our own family's move, and although I'm very happy to be living now in rural western Massachusetts, so the move ended up with a very happy ending, the process of packing up our lives in New York was absolutely miserable. And everybody feels the same way; packing up three hundred and fifty boxes of stuff — what could be worse? But even as I was packing them up, I was thinking, "This is miserable! Maybe I'll get an essay out of it." [Laughs] It was a silver lining. And the more miserable I was, the better I thought the essay might be.
Jill: I love the line in the introduction that "a blend of narcissism and curiosity" may be the most well-suited kind of personality for the familiar essay.
Fadiman: The narcissism allows me to write the parts of the essay that are about myself, and the curiosity allows me to write the parts of the essay that are about the actual subject. I get tired of writing just about myself. I don't think that I'm interesting enough. I don't think that my life has been interesting enough. I don't think that I would wish to read a book that was only about me. And I certainly wouldn't want to write a book which was only about me, which would take a hell of a lot longer than reading that book. But if I can also make use of my curiosity, then I can write or think about my own life for awhile, and then just set it aside, and take up a book, and read about the history of coffee, or ice cream, or moving, or mail, or being a night owl, and learn about other people's intersections with whatever that topic is. Then my curiosity is satisfied, and I can go back to being a narcissist again.
Jill: It's the best of both worlds. In terms of research, then, these were all subjects that you already were interested in reading more about?
Fadiman: All but one, I would say. The one exception is a piece about flags. It's called "A Piece of Cotton," which is a phrase used about a flag that I explain in the long historical section of the middle of the piece. I had never been particularly interested in the American flag, and knew absolutely nothing about it, except that it was sewn by Betsy Ross, which doesn't turn out to be quite as true as we think. The whole Betsy Ross story is one of a number of flag myths that I found out were actually myths.
I started thinking about flags after 9/11. We'd just moved into an old farmhouse in western Massachusetts, and we inherited a flagpole and an old flag. We'd never flown a flag before, but after 9/11, we flew it at half-staff. I started being curious about how the connotations of the flag had changed over time, and I thought that this was something I'd really like to read about. If it hadn't been for 9/11, and if it hadn't been for the accident of our having that flag and flagpole, that's not a subject that I ever would have thought about writing about. But it was consoling for me, to be working on that shortly after 9/11. It gave me a focus in those early jittery and scattered days.
Everything else in the book is about something I've been interested in for a long time, so I was particularly appreciative to have the excuse to learn more about it, and in many cases, to read or reread books that were already on my shelves, and to mark up my books. I always buy them used, so sometimes they already have other people's markings on them. When I was getting ready to write the essay on Coleridge and Charles Lamb, it just was with a feeling of glee, the way another person might feel before starting a meal that consisted only of his favorite foods, one after another. I would think, I get to spend two weeks with nothing but reading by and about Charles Lamb! What could be better?
And then, you really feel pleased at the end, because if it's a subject you're already interested in and know something about, you're so much more expert two weeks later than you are at the beginning. It's like seeing an acquaintance turn into a friend, and seeing that acquaintance turn into a friend after an intense period. It's like being stuck in an elevator for three days, or going on a camping trip, or having that kind of all-night conversation that we used to have in college and that we don't have time for now.
But I can have an all-night conversation with Coleridge or Charles Lamb if I want; I can stay up all night with those guys and do nothing but think about them. So I feel that the relationship is much more intense and intimate after the period of research. I love that period. I never think of it as, Oh, God, now I have to get out my books and take notes. I cannot wait; I look at my calendar and I know that that's coming up, and I can start researching an essay. I can't wait for that period. I hate starting to write it, but I love starting to research it.
Jill: I think that comes through in the book; the research seems like it's equally as much fun as the writing.
Fadiman: You can see from my source notes at the end of the book, I try to leave a pretty clear record of my trail. [Laughs] Some of the sources are eccentric and non-standard sources that charmed me.
Jill: That seems to me a big part of the appeal of the familiar essay; there's something so delicious about being to choose which paths you want to take and what you want to include and how to arrange it, because as you say, you aren't technically an expert on these subjects — that's not the purpose of the essay.
Fadiman: And the At Small part of the title suggests that none of these essays are a comprehensive look at any of their subjects. The ones that are about people — there are three that are more or less biographical, about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and the arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and in each case, I chose a single aspect of those men's characters rather than trying to cover the waterfront, I was more than happy to leave the waterfront to others.
Jill: You've inspired me to go back and read more biography about Coleridge, who I hadn't read or thought much about in several years, and now I have to read Charles Lamb, who I've never read. Do you hope, if familiar essays are in part a writer talking directly to a reader, then the reader will then pick up their end of the conversation and carry it further into their own reading or into the world?
Fadiman: I'm always delighted when that happens. The essays themselves are interconnected in ways I hope readers will realize, and follow up on. For example, Charles Lamb and Coleridge were very close friends, and some of the most difficult parts of Charles Lamb's life were documented in letters than he wrote to Coleridge. Lamb's sister murdered their mother, and it seems extraordinary that letters that Lamb had written just a few days afterwards were preserved, but it seems even more extraordinary that they were written to Coleridge! When you read works by and about Lamb and Coleridge, it's a lot of fun to see the cross-references.
There are various other cross-references in the book, and I love thinking that readers might pick up on some of those strands and perhaps end up delving a little more deeply into some of them than I have, or become interested in other aspects of these subjects, and becoming more expert than I on other aspects.
Jill: Something about these essays reminds me of Marianne Moore's poetry — and I'm not sure exactly how apt a comparison it is, overall, but there's a similar collecting, curating impulse, as well as including bits and pieces of letters, quotes, etc. I was curious if you'd agree, and also what do you think the larger relationship is, if there is one, between essays and poetry?
Fadiman: I do think that Marianne Moore had a kind of a magpie-like quality. That is, I think that she often saw beautiful, shiny things and wanted to collect them, and put them somewhere, and the cabinet of curiosities in which they went was her poems.
I'm not sure what the relationship between poetry and essays is, but I do think they have some things in common, though they're also very different in form. One of the things that both of them share is that they can be quite nonlinear. They don't have to be narrative. A poem can be narrative, but it can also play out a single moment or even a single feeling, and it can also dart, like a butterfly, from image to image without having to build a rational bridge between the images. The poem itself is the bridge. The sound of the poem is the bridge.
An essay doesn't depend nearly as much on its sound and sometimes can cover a bit more ground than a poem, though not always. But it similarly has permission to be nonlinear. Emily Fox Gordon, who is a wonderful essayist who I've published in the American Scholar, has written that memoirs are like a superhighway — once you're on, it's hard to get off — because you're going down that narrative road. But you're on back roads when you're writing an essay, and you can take detours, and get on and off the subject, and the ability to do that reminds me of a poet's ability to go wherever he damn pleases.
Jill: Although you do obviously pay attention to sound and cadence in your essays, as well; they read beautifully, and it's a noticeable quality in your prose.
Fadiman: I do read them aloud to myself.
Jill: There's a binary nature to many of your essays — night owl and day owl, email and regular mail, the city and the country, carnal and courtly book lovers. But then in "Procrustes and the Culture Wars," you argue for a middle way, a less divisive approach to answering those questions.
Fadiman: I would say that that middle way, though, isn't simply a point midway between the views of the left and the views of the right. What I'm arguing for in "Procrustes and the Culture Wars" is a multidimensional view, rather than the reductive line from left to right that is usually all we're permitted to see in any discussion of cultural politics.
Jill: It seems connected to the way you argue persuasively for varieties of experience — as well as the sentence in "Collecting Nature" which says, "When I was younger, I didn't know what I wanted from life, so I wanted everything." That inclusive impulse.
Fadiman: [Laughs] Well, I have a better idea of what I want now, but I guess I still have that inclusive impulse, as you put it. Also, my personality, whether it's the being both narcissistic and curious or whether it's being both intellectual and romantic, I refuse to define myself by only one pole. I am highly rational in some ways, but I'm also a happy victim of very strong emotions, and I would never want to say, Well, I can't surrender to them, because I'm too intellectual! I don't do that sort of thing. I guess I would say that the familiar essay can be a nice way to think and feel without having to sign on the dotted line with one and thus exclude the other.
Jill: Another central theme, in some ways, in the book, is in mildly forbidden pleasures — staying up too late, ice cream, and then the mixed pleasure of collecting — and thus killing — butterflies, which you compare to alcohol, nicotine, and heroin.
Fadiman: I've never thought of that before, but now that you mention it, I think I have always been interested in forbidden pleasures — not extremely sinister forbidden pleasures — but I think that forbidden pleasures first of all are a way of surrendering to a hedonism, whether you're eating ice cream, even if it isn't good for you, or drinking too much coffee, or allowing yourself the voluptuous pleasure of staying up so late that everyone around you is asleep. Partly it's a form of hedonism, but I think it's also a way of not being a goody-goody all the time. Those of us who were good students when we were children, and polite to other adults, people that our parents' friends wished their children could act like — we also wanted to burst out of the confines of having to be good all the time. So breaking a few minor rules as an adult, perhaps, is one way of doing that.
Jill: "Under Water" was an interesting choice to close the collection with; it's a darker, sadder essay, in which the unpleasant truths you realize about yourself (and the reader, by proxy, does too) are looked at honestly. I wonder how you see it in connection with the other essays.
Fadiman: As I say in the preface, it's the only essay that's not in chronological order. The other ones are all in the order in which I wrote them.
Jill: It's interesting in contrast with "Collecting Nature," because it seems to be about a moment you can't classify, or control, or predict, whatsoever.
Fadiman: I put that essay last partly because it wasn't like the others, but partly because it was the most serious one, the one that was most important to me, and the one whose writing was a life-changing event. In some of the other essays, I mention events that did change my life, but the recording of those events wasn't life-changing. But finally to be able to write about that drowning after twenty-seven years was life-changing. So I wanted to end on it as a kind of statement to myself; it's certainly a sad way to end the book, but I couldn't imagine sticking it in the middle and then turning from it to something trivial.
Jill: You mentioned Phillip Lopate and Joseph Epstein; who else today is practicing the form of familiar essays?
Fadiman: They are the practitioners who practice it in the most pure way. However, some of the other essays that I love to read might not fall so purely into the genre, but I think do have many of the characteristics of the familiar essayists. Two that come to mind are Nicholson Baker and Edward Hoagland. Both of them in their essays often take you to places that you don't expect to be taken to. They flit and dart in the most wonderfully butterfly-like manner, and it's very hard to predict from the first paragraph where you will end up at the end. I was privileged to publish both of them in the American Scholar, when I was there, and it was always thrilling when a new piece by one of them clattered over my fax machine, because I never knew where it would take me, and that sense of surprise and experimentation that has always been the hallmark of the essay comes through particularly strongly in their work, and that's an aspect of the essay that I'm especially enamored of and that couldn't be farther than the average high-school student's stereotyped "Go home and write an essay on boring topic" essay.
Jill: "What I Did This Summer."
Fadiman: Yes. Hoagland and Baker might write about what they did last summer, but boy, it would surprise you.
Jill: What are you reading in general, these days?
Fadiman: On the plane here, I read On Chesil Beach, and spent much of last night in my hotel room trying to get the couple back together again. Alas, I failed, because Ian McEwan was so determined to keep them apart. Suite Francaise, which I thought was a surprising and wonderful work of fiction.
I've also been sick for the last few months, so if I were to be honest about what's going on my bedside table, it's mostly books on breast cancer, most of which are very poorly written. A couple, however, are very good, so I might as well recommend them, in case anyone who's reading this interview is in the same pickle. The best is called After Breast Cancer, by Hester Hill Schnipper, someone who is an oncology social worker but has also had breast cancer herself, and I thought emotionally really hit the nail on the head. And informationally, Susan Love's Breast Book, I found both clear and humane.
Jill: You've said you like new bookstores to be brightly lit and alphabetical, and secondhand bookstores to be more chaotic and include sleeping cats. I'm curious what you think of Powell's, which is both new and secondhand, if you've been there yet.
Fadiman: I have. Last time I was in Portland on a book tour, I came to Powell's to sign, but I didn't get to read there. I read at another bookstore in town, and I'm very glad to have been invited into the sacred precincts of Powell's itself this time.
I think that your store is a paradise! I haven't seen any sleeping cats there —
Jill: We have one, though she lives at the Technical store.
Fadiman: Tonight, I'm hoping to get to Powell's early, so I can prowl among some of the secondhand books. I'm less interested in books that have just been published than books that were published a long time ago, which is why most of the books cited in my source notes have rather venerable publication dates, but a store that combines the two is a kind of paradise for me, because it means that it's possible to find the new stuff but one can also wander among the stacks of the old things.
In both cases, wandering among the stacks is what is missing on the internet. I've bought more than my share of books from Amazon.com, and I'm glad that it exists, but what you don't get on Amazon is the pleasure of seeing the books to the left and the right on the shelf, particularly at a secondhand bookstore where the organization isn't quite so perfect, and there's more serendipity in the book-shopping experience. You end up meeting a lot of books you never otherwise would have, whereas when you're buying from Amazon, you're very focused, you're very directed at all times. You always find what you're looking for, but you're less likely to find what you weren't looking for, and sometimes that's even better.
Anne Fadiman visited Powells.com before her reading at Powell's City of Books on June 14, 2007.
Books mentioned in this post