Books give us the wings to be wide-ranging, enabling us to travel in spirit to places far distant from our own tiny existence. But sometimes we stumble upon associations that make the reading world seem very small – the literary equivalent of running into our hometown milkman while we are on a mountain-climbing adventure in Tibet.
I had such an experience this morning when I picked up Anne Fadman’s collection of essays, At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist. It’s been on my shelf for a while, having been brought home on impulse from the Indigo bargain bin.
Today, though, I flipped through the hardcover and settled in to read the introduction – and there discovered that the author is the daughter of Clifton Fadiman, whose name I know only because his was the first quotation I memorized, at the age of nine or so, from my mother’s battered old copy of Bartlett’s Quotations.
“Ennui,” he said, “felt on the proper occasions, is a sign of intelligence.” After finding out what ‘ennui’ meant, I was delighted to use this quotation to justify my tendency to glaze over or feign illness to get myself out of school.
So I settled in to read Anne Fadiman’s introduction feeling like we had already been introduced by a mutual friend. She, as was her father, is a devoted essayist, and she writes that “Conversation was at the center of my father’s life, it’s at the center of mine, and it’s at the center of the familiar essay.”
She then goes on to give her definition of the familiar essay, which may be inspiring to those of us who enjoy writing in the genre, but don’t want to fall into the traps enunciated by Fadiman:
“Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal – very personal – essays (more heart that brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).”
The familiar essay found its heyday with Charles Lamb in the early nineteenth century, she says, when “The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire with their cravats loosened, their favorite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching before them. His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was so enthusiastic, that his word were suffused with a lover’s intimacy.”
She says that her character, a blend of ‘narcissism and curiosity’, lends itself well to writing the familiar essay. If that’s the case, many of us wordsmiths would do well to try penning one ourselves!test Filed under From Peggy, Inspiration, Memoir, On Books, Quotations, The Writer's Path | Comments (2)