Review: At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman; or, A Review Post that Took a Turn for the Introspective

Verdict: An excellent and eclectic collection of essays.

I liked-not-loved the first Anne Fadiman collection I read, her book Ex Libris, which contained essays only about books. I think the problem may have been the similarity in subject matter — when everything’s books, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m in an argument with Anne Fadiman about one thing or another. The essays in At Large and at Small cover a much wider range of topics, from ice cream to Arctic explorers to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the constant throughout is Anne Fadiman’s enthusiastic interest in and affection for each of these subjects.

Her voice as an essayist is enthusiastic and subjective and intelligent and wry (all qualities I like in an essayist). She moves easily from her own childhood to the Darkest Polar North, as comfortable poking fun at herself as at arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whose abandonment of his family troubles her about as much as his abandonment of his men on one arctic mission. (It’s not clear whether he intended to come back for them; Fadiman believes that he did, but who knows?)

Some of the essays — like the ice cream one and the butterfly collecting — were less aligned with my interests, but Anne Fadiman’s writing puts it over. She’s so interested in things, and if there is one thing I can consistently say about my opinions on people, it’s that I like people who like liking things. (Yes, I used the verb “like” three times in one clause. Deal with it.) Even when she’s writing an essay that’s critical of her subject, like “Procrustes and the Culture Wars,” she’s clearly delighted with her metaphor (not in an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing way! in an endearing way!). And the writing is just fun to read:

I do not suggest that the attractions of a single set of marching orders are easy to resist. It is far more work to start from scratch every time you open a book than to let someone else make up your mind before you read the first word.

This, y’all. This right here. I admit that I have let myself fall victim to this with particular authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, hated women writers. Good. Me and Nathaniel Hawthorne have no further business to transact. He will not like that I exist, and I will not read any of his books or stories. That frees me up to read other nineteen-century writers. I like this kind of exclusion because it makes my life simpler, and I have made up my mind about all of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books without the bother of reading them (except The Scarlet Letter and some of his short stories, which I did not care for).

Anne Fadiman argues (persuasively, but I stick to my guns because SHUT UP NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE) that this is maybe a lousy idea:

But if you believe, as I do, that great literature can be written by bad people, then your library can remain intact, no matter how much respect you lose for the authors as individuals.

It’s hard for me though! Respect and love are intertwined for me in this really instinctive way, and I’ve never figured out how to separate them. It is hard for me to bother about people I don’t admire or at least respect. I have a hard time being interested in people who were not sufficiently bothered about being good to their loved ones (like Charles Dickens or Anne Sexton), for instance — it’s not that I would never read them, but it’s that I sort of veer away from them. Even Milton I did not feel the same way about after learning how he treated his daughters. I still like Paradise Lost a lot, but it’s impossible for me to be unreservedly enthusiastic about it, the way I was when I read it for the first time in college. You know?

(To take it to a sports place: Watching Drew Brees play football (or like, Jimmy Graham or Adrian Peterson) fills my heart with unabated happiness. He is a good person and good at his job. When he throws a touchdown pass, there is nothing in me but joy. If I discovered that he or one of those other guys had beaten his girlfriend or wife, I would stop enjoying watching them succeed. I am not in control of this. It’s just what happens, willy-nilly. When I discover that someone is an actively good person, I enjoy watching them play football more.)

I guess the exception is funny people? If people are funny? Funny, or admirable. One of those two things. Ideally both, like Stephen Colbert or Amy Poehler or W. Kamau Bell. But funniness goes a long way. I love Oscar Wilde with a fierce and unrelenting love, and he is not really the dude you admire.

Fadiman also takes up a question that I’ve discussed in this space before, which is how to deal with books whose authors appear not to want you. I feel this way about Ernest Hemingway, for example — that he not only wasn’t writing for me but that he doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of someone like me. And there are authors like this throughout the Western canon. (More on this later! I am reading The Madwoman in the Attic and I have a lot of thoughts.) Anne Fadiman says:

What should you do when a work’s language excludes you? If the very words leave you on the sidelines — because, for instance, they are addressed to men and you are a woman — should you stick your tongue out and say, “Well if that’s the way you feel about it, I reject you too”?

And I still don’t know the answer. Should you do that? Should you say, reasonably enough, “There are plenty of fascinating and beautiful books in this world that don’t exclude the possibility of me as a reader, and the number of books I am able to read in my life is finite. I am not going to be bothered with Hemingway anymore”? Or should you persist because you want to be able to participate in the cultural conversation?

Well, this post turned into a discussion of authorial biography, which I did not exactly intend. But weigh in please! Does admiration factor into your reading enjoyment, and if so, how much? Do you, like me, rejoice to hear stories about the kindness of your beloved authors? Does it sadden your heart to hear about their failings? Do you wish Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen had not trash-talked each other because it forces you to take sides in your mind? (I love Charlotte Bronte better but find her criticism of Jane Austen unfair.) Are you able to completely separate an author’s biography from his or her writing?

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