Title: At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays
Author: Anne Fadiman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: Just over half a century ago, in “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay,” a dispirited writer mourned the imminent death of a genre that was “setting to the horizon, along with its whole constellation: formal manners, apt quotation, Greek and Latin, clear speech, conversation, the gentleman’s library, the gentleman’s income, the gentleman.”
I loved Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, and any thoughts that I only loved it because it was about my most favorite thing – books – were put to rest when I opened At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays. Fadiman has managed to write another book of delightfully engrossing essays on topics ranging from essayist Charles Lamb to coffee to moving to being a night owl to the joys of receiving mail to the meaning of the American flag after 9/11.
The best kind of essay is one that teaches you a little something, challenges your thoughts or beliefs, and makes you laugh or cry, engaging your emotions. The essays in this volume all accomplished those things in one way or another, while adding to my to-read list and giving me some wonderful passages to copy down so I don’t forget them.
I recently calculated (assuming an average consumption of one pint of ice cream per week, at 1,000 calories per pint, and the American Medical Association’s reckoning of 3,500 calories per pound of stored body fat) that had I eaten no ice cream since the age of eighteen, I would currently weigh -416 pounds. I might be lighter than air, but I would be miserable. Before I was married, I frequently took a pint of Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip to bed, with four layers of paper towels wrapped around the container to prevent digital hypothermia. (The Nutrition Facts on the side of the carton define a “serving size” as a quarter of a pint, but that’s like calling a serving size of Pringles a single potato chip.) Now, under the watchful eye of a husband so virtuous that he actually prefers low-fat frozen yogurt, I go through the motions of scooping a modest hemisphere of ice cream into a small bowl, but we both know that during the course of the evening I will simply shuttle to and from the freezer until the entirety of the pint has been transferred from carton to bowl to me. A major incentive for writing this essay was that during its composition this process was not called greed; it was called research.
~ from “Ice Cream”
His desk was made of steel, weighed more than a refrigerator, and bristled with bookshelves and secret drawers and sliding panels and a niche for a cedar-lined humidor. (He believed that cigar-smoking and mail-reading were natural partners, like oysters and Muscadet.) Several books were written on that desk, but its finest hours were devoted to sorting the mail. My father hated Sundays and holidays because there was nothing new to spread on it. Vacations were taxing, the equivalent of forced relocations to places without food. His homecomings were always followed by daylong orgies of mail-opening – feast after famine – at the end of which all the letters were answered; all the bills were paid; the outgoing envelopes were affixed with stamps from a brass dispenser heavy enough to break your toe; the books and manuscripts were neatly stacked; and the empty Jiffy bags were stuffed into an enormous copper wastebasket, cheering confirmation that the process of postal digestion was complete.
It is a truism of epistolary psychology that a Christmas thank-you note written on December 26 can say any old thing, but if you wait until February, you are convinced that nothing less than Middlemarch will do.
~ from “Mail”
We kept our flag at half staff longer than President Bush decreed that we should, and then, after raising it to full staff, we continued to fly it after most of our neighbors had put theirs away. Maybe we were making up for lost time. Maybe we needed to see our flag flying in order to convince ourselves that even though anti-Muslim protesters marching near a mosque in Bridgeview, Illinois, had waved flags and chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” we could choose another meaning in Whately, Massachusetts: the one a Chicago flag committee had in mind in 1895 when it called the Stars and Stripes “our greater self.”
~ from “A Piece of Cotton”