I’m a sucker for essay collections. Perhaps this explains my enduring love for David Sedaris and my recent infatuation with David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster. But my favorite collection of essays is by my favorite writer of all, Anne Fadiman. A journalist and editor of such classy publications as The American Scholar and Civilization, Fadiman writes the way I wish I could write. She’s erudite without being at all pretentious. (I have to hopscotch across some of her vocabulary words — no doubt this woman would kick the GRE’s butt in a heartbeat.) She’s published three books of her own writing, and I can’t recommend them all highly enough.
The first one I read, and the one I return to over and over, is Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, which is a small tome of essays about her and her family’s love for books and language. Fadiman’s parents were both writers and critics, and she and her brother were raised on poetry and punctilious attachment to grammar. among the treasures in Ex Libris are her essay on merging her own library with her husband’s — their analysis about organization is priceless.
The second book I read by Fadiman is her nonfiction account of a Hmong child with epilepsy and the struggles between Western biomedicine and Hmong cultural practices. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is so illuminating about Hmong culture — something I didn’t know anything about before reading the book — and really thought provoking about Western notions of control over patient care. I gave it to my stepdad, who’s a physician, and he laughed out loud, which unsettled me a bit. I guess that’s the difference between a doctor, who’s been there and done that, and someone who’s only been on the receiving end of medical care.
Fadiman’s most recent book is called At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, which came out last year. It’s not as bibliocentric as Ex Libris — she takes on the draw of coffee, her fascination with the writer Charles Lamb, and her brother’s way of making ice cream with liquid nitrogen — but the writing is just as wonderful.
I missed out on seeing Anne Fadiman when she came to Iowa City in March, and I kicked myself for not being able to see her myself — why, oh why, didn’t she come when I was there for 5 years! But I got close to the next-best thing: an interview she gave to NPR. I was a little surprised at how husky her voice is — quite lovely. Here’s are a couple of interviews and excerpts: Ex Libris and At Large.
So, when asked for my favorite book, I unhesitatingly name Anne Fadiman. Who’s your go-to writer or what’s your go-to book recommendation? More importantly, why haven’t you read Anne Fadiman’s books yet?