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The advocate

At Large and At Small Familiar Essays Anne Fadiman Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 228 pp., $22

June 10, 2007|Donna Seaman | Donna Seaman is an editor for Booklist, creator of the anthology "In Our Nature" and host of Open Books (www.openbooksradio.org), a radio program in Chicago. Her author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air: Conversations About Books."

PLEASURES both sensuous and brainy inspire Anne Fadiman's playful and erudite essays. Her delight in language is evident in each avidly crafted sentence, and her subjects range from the thrill of catching butterflies as a girl in Connecticut and gathering "natural curiosities" in Los Angeles to the heady joys of ice cream and books. As the nimblest of essayists often do, Fadiman begins with a bud of autobiography, then spirals out in unforeseen directions. In "Collecting Nature," the masterful and intriguing opening essay in her delectable second collection, "At Large and At Small," Fadiman describes herself at age 6 as "shy, cerebral, and fussy, the sort of child better liked by adults than by other children." She chronicles her compulsion for collecting, naming and organizing, thus illuminating her proclivity for assembling essay collections.

What also quickly emerges from this collection is Fadiman's attunement to beauty and her romanticism, defining the axis on which her writing revolves. At one pole reside matters scientific, pragmatic and intellectual; at the other, all that is aesthetic, dreamy and carnal. Fadiman's love for the essay itself is due in great part to the genre's capacity for exploring opposite points of view and for charting the tug of war between thought and feeling. Furthermore, as this collection's title suggests, Fadiman is engaged in contemplating the specific in the hope of discerning the universal.

In her enticing preface, Fadiman defines her form of choice, the familiar essay, by looking to its heyday in early 19th century England and observing that the best of the familiar essayists, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt among them, wrote confidingly about themselves "but also about the world": Each writer's "viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense." Fadiman strives to keep this tradition alive as advocate and practitioner.

Readers familiar with Fadiman's essays, whether in the pages of the American Scholar or in her previous collection, "Ex Libris" (her essay collections share a classic understated design and seem to promise an ongoing series), know that she has inherited her literary temperament and talent from her parents. Her mother, Annalee Jacoby, was a foreign correspondent; her father was essayist, editor, anthologist and broadcast personality Clifton Fadiman (1904-1999), who brought his singular erudition, enthusiasm and irreverent humor to such influential venues as the New Yorker, the Book of the Month Club, Simon & Schuster, radio and television, most famously as host of "Information Please!" Clifton Fadiman was a member of a now nearly lost breed, the public intellectual. So ubiquitous and admired was Clifton Fadiman in a time that seems as distant now as the era of Lamb that he gets a nod in Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," in which Sammy, a poor kid in Brooklyn during the 1930s, "dreamed with fierce contrivance, transmuting himself into a major American novelist, or a famous smart person, like Clifton Fadiman."

Growing up in a bookish, zestfully conversational household that she has dubbed "Fadiman U.," Anne readily acquired an acrobatic facility with language, an independent spirit of inquiry and an intellectual joie de vivre. "Let me confess at the outset that I have a monumental crush on Charles Lamb," she confides as she begins her remarkably empathic profile of the neglected English essayist, a biographical and critical feat she also performs in a truly affecting tribute to Lamb's great friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

At once rigorous and imaginative, her essays are memorable not only for their pinpoint facts but also for her sympathetic view of human foibles. "Coffee," a breezy yet vivid look at caffeine culture, gets its kick from a quick sketch of Honore de Balzac, a coffee fiend. "My Arctic Hedonist" offers a striking study of the arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, as Fadiman takes the measure of the divide between her initial delight in his adventures and her gradual recognition of the less-than-noble truth about them. Her finesse is the fruit of painstaking distillation and confident improvisation. Memories of her father's ardor for the ritual of the daily mail, for example, lead to a lively history of the postage stamp, which in turn inspires reflections on the pros and cons of e-mail.

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