I adored Anne Fadiman’s last collection of familiar essays, Ex Libris, about matters bookish, so my expectations for this new volume were high. The familiar essay is a literary genre in decline, as Fadiman acknowledges, though she believes it is one ‘worth fighting for’. In this slim volume of twelve essays ‘about the author but also about the world’ she proves, to this reader’s satisfaction at least, that she has the necessary qualities for fighting that fight.
In modern times, the familiar essayist has been superseded not only by the newspaper columnist writing for a mass audience, but also by the blogger writing for an audience that may be mass or niche. The classic familiar essayist, a Charles Lamb or a William Hazlitt, ‘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 favourite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching before them’.
Since there is nothing of the polemicist about the familiar essayist (that would not be appropriate), Anne Fadiman is not given to splenetic effusions. Instead, she is discursive and ruminative, effortlessly combining personal anecdote, historical reflection, literary references and general curiosities.
Eleven of the essays published in this collection first appeared