At Large and at Small: Familiar Essays

by Anne Fadiman

Published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux

220 pages, 2007






On the Necessity of Ice Cream

Reviewed by Diane Leach


I first read Anne Fadiman during graduate school, borrowing The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down from the campus library. Soon I was totally engrossed in the heartbreaking story of Lia Lee, a young Hmong girl suffering from epilepsy, her family, and the Western medical establishment they crash against.

One night I was making dinner. Spirit was open on the dining room table: I kept dipping into it between visits to the stove.  The phone rang.  It was the library, demanding the book back.  Somebody else wanted it. 

“But it’s not overdue,” I protested. 

No matter.  Could I please return it immediately?

No, I could not.  Rushing toward an unhappy ending under duress is never a pleasant experience, but Spirit made it worthwhile.

Happily, At Large, if not always lighter, is certainly more amusing. An exploration of the familiar essay, At Large variously examines lepidoptery, Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sleep, arctic exploration, flags, coffee and that most critical of substances, ice cream. 

Fadiman’s winding sentences are finely wrought; the adjective that comes to mind is the rather archaic “charming.” Quoting her father, the late Clifton Fadiman, she writes:

“A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay” is a familiar essay, and it therefore vibrates with a Chinese-box-like meta-ness.  Its own excellence fights against its message.”

On caffeine:

Anyone who doubts that caffeine is a drug should read some of the prose composed under its influence.

On the culture wars:

...great writers are not machines that produce, out of nothingness, of series of words that happen to be more perfect than other people’s words; they are flawed mortals, often imprudent and uncivil, who are so large (that’s what greatness is: size) that every part of them deserves to be understood.

The book opens with an essay on lepidoptery. Along with her brother, Kim, young Anne joyously netted prey and carefully dropped them into jars, where the poor insects expired in a cloud of carbon tetrachloride. Oh, for the good old days, when children of six and eight years could handle such items with aplomb, along with another popular killing agent, potassium cyanide.

But the gravity of their behaviors begins to prey upon them.  At ages eight and ten:

I remember a period of painful overlap, when the light of decency was dawning but the lure of sin was still irresistible.  Like alcohol, nicotine, or heroin, lepidoptery is hard to renounce.

Instead of renunciation, Anne and Kim transform a bedroom in their Los Angeles home into “The Serendipity Museum of Nature,” an amazing collection of natural artifacts -- bird skeletons, snakeskins, whalebone, scraps of fur, fish bones.  Forty years later, it is difficult to envision two children so enthralled by nature that they spend entire afternoons cataloging their natural finds, happily ignoring rap music, gaming and the Internet’s siren song. 

Certain women, myself amongst them, fall for a certain kind of man: irresponsible, plain of face, depressed, tending toward drug and/or alcohol addiction. All too often these types are charismatic and given to poetry. Thus Fadiman’s passion for Charles Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lamb, who cared for his sister Mary after she fatally stabbed their mother, penned many an essay while toiling in positively Dickensian conditions at the East India House, where he (poorly) tallied figures. Like his sister, he battled insanity, though somewhat more successfully. Unlike Coleridge, he held a job, albeit an awful one:

In the narrow space between anarchy and regimentation lay his essays, which I believe were made possible by -- and also protected him from - his life’s opposed poles.

In “Procrustes and the Culture Wars,” Fadiman warns against reading work with the author’s biography in mind; that is, the fatal error of hating Hemingway’s writing because one hates the man.  I agree with her, only her essay on ice cream is so clearly indicative of a like mind that I think we might make fast friends:

I frequently took a pint of Häagen Daz Chocolate Chocolate Chip to bed, with four layers of paper towels wrapped around the container to prevent digital hypothermia.

She further divulges her capability of polishing off a pint over the course of an evening.  Her favorite flavors are chocolate, vanilla, coffee, and nut-related; she dislikes fruit flavors as they are “insufficiently redolent of sin.” I don’t know about sin, only that, in the depths of weight loss mania, ice cream was the one food I could not bear to give up. Like Fadiman, I feel low-fat ice creams (such a misnomer!) and sorbets are ridiculous. Also like Fadiman, I married a man who is indifferent to ice cream’s sensuous depths. Fortunately, he has many fine qualities compensating for this grievous lack.

Turning from her husband George, consumer of sorbets, Fadiman again finds an ally in Kim. Like his polymath sister, Kim Fadiman is something of a special case. After years of experimentation, he meets a geochronologist who suggests making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Should you wish to attempt ice cream in this manner, please see page 57. And be extremely careful. Liquid nitrogen can be hazardous to your health. 

In “Night Owl,” Fadiman sings the praises of wakefulness in the wee small hours. Those who truly wake at sunset inhabit another world, one Fadiman prefers. There’s the quiet, the sense of unity amongst night owls, the creative juices that flow when all is dark. Those of us awake only against our insomniac wills at three a.m. are left envious and exhausted as usual.

“Procrustes and the Culture Wars” is an amazingly level take on the battles raging through the academy: should we read the “great works” for moral instruction or inherent value? Does a nasty author equal a bad book? What about outdated plots?  (Rumblings about Twain and the n-word, as my college professors would say). Fadiman navigates us expertly through the shoals: we should read because it enriches us. We should not lump the writer in with his or her work -- imagine all the books we’d have to give up! Finally, we should be sufficiently broadminded to understand that Dickens wrote before the advent of feminism.  He did the best he could. 

Close in my affections for favorite essay in this collection is “Mail,” wherein Fadiman describes her late initiation into e-mail. Coming as she did from a life without cars, VCRs, compact disc players, and cellular telephones, this was quite the luddite’s leap, one that many readers of a certain age will empathize with. Who among us has not forgotten an attachment or sent, as she did, an x-rated email to her husband, only to realize she had the wrong e-mail address? (What, me? Oh, never. Well, maybe. Actually, yes. I was mortified. The wrong recipient, mercifully, was amused.)

Other essays are more elegiac in tone. “A piece of cotton,” is nominally about the United States flag but aptly describes how many of us felt after 9/11: sickened, saddened, enraged at our government, and how those mixed feelings told on our treatment of a red, white and blue bit of fabric. “Moving” aptly captures the lunacy of the real estate market, along with the attendant anxieties of leaving a long-term habitation.  “Underwater,” written about the drowning death of a young man named Gary Hall, ends the collection on a somber, watchful note, not out of keeping with the moment.

At Large is a lovely read -- informative, amusing, wide-ranging. It’s also a tough act to follow. Whatever you read next needs to be especially fine, or it will pale considerably in comparison. It will be akin to eating frozen yogurt when you really want a pint of Häagen Daz chocolate. And life is too short for bad books and fake ice cream. | August 2007


Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.