Anne Fadiman has written two lovely books of essays, Ex Libris (1998) and At Large And At Small (2007). The first is basically about books, though books approached from slightly quirky angles; the second is more general – and, I think, slightly less successful. But in the art of essay writing (which has been dying ever since it was invented, so much so that Fadiman wryly observes that the essay mourning the passing of the essay is an important and vigorous sub-genre!) she is clearly very accomplished, and extremely witty.
In Ex Libris, in Marrying Libraries for example, she deals with the trauma of merging her husband’s and her own libraries, a mere eleven years after they started living together. Now that is something I can understand; certain books are old friends, and someone else’s copy is just not the same, and other people have such contrary views on classification. They do merge their books, but it involves long and tortuous negotiations, concessions and reluctant agreements, and it actually begins to unravel in some respects soon afterwards. And in another essay, Sir, You Must Never Do That To A Book, her brother is rebuked by a note left by the chambermaid in a hotel for leaving a book face down (a crime I acknowledge I very occasionally commit myself), and she uses this as a starting point for discussing how different people treat books. Some treat their books as sacred objects and insist on cleanliness and purity, while others regard the physical book as nothing, using torn out pages for notes, some even tearing out parts of a book they had read while travelling in order to reduce weight. I am a man of the middle ground myself, but passions run high.
In The Joy of Sesquipedelians she looks at the joys of precise but unloved and unused words – and finds no less than 22 that she didn’t know in a single book. O, alright then, they are: monophysite, mephitic, calineries, diapason, grimoire, adapertile, retromingent, perllan, cupellation, adytum, sepoy, subadar, paludal, apozemical, camorra, ithyphallic, alcade, aspergill, agathodemon, kakodeman, goetic, opopanax. One friend knew no less than nine of these, I managed 4 that I really knew, and another 3 that I’d have recognised in context. And how I've managed all these years without retromingent - "urinating backwards", I really can't say! This is only fun, but anyone following me in reading C P Snow will know his predilection for such words, hebephrenia being the most recent example I can recall - "the insanity of pubescence". My personal favourites are heteroclite and myristicivorous - do have fun with those!
Overall, I’d recommend Ex Libris to any booklover, they’re a joy; the essays in At Large And At Small, however, are of more general interest (coffee, collecting, working at night) but sometimes lack the brilliant spark of the other essays.
The title of this post, incidentally, is the name her family gave to themselves when competing against the television in an American quiz show, the equivalent of the British University Challenge. They almost always "won"!