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At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays [NOOK Book]

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In At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman returns to one of her favorite genres, the familiar essay--a beloved and hallowed literary tradition recognized for both its intellectual breadth and its miniaturist focus on everyday experiences. With the combination of humor and erudition that has distinguished her as one of our finest essayists, Fadiman draws us into twelve of her personal obsessions: from her slightly sinister childhood enthusiasm for catching butterflies to her monumental crush on Charles Lamb, from ...
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At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays

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Overview


In At Large and At Small, Anne Fadiman returns to one of her favorite genres, the familiar essay--a beloved and hallowed literary tradition recognized for both its intellectual breadth and its miniaturist focus on everyday experiences. With the combination of humor and erudition that has distinguished her as one of our finest essayists, Fadiman draws us into twelve of her personal obsessions: from her slightly sinister childhood enthusiasm for catching butterflies to her monumental crush on Charles Lamb, from her wistfulness for the days of letter-writing to the challenges and rewards of moving from the city to the country.

Many of these essays were composed "under the influence" of the subject at hand. Fadiman ingests a shocking amount of ice cream and divulges her passion for Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip and her brother's homemade Liquid Nitrogen Kahlúa Coffee (recipe included); she sustains a terrific caffeine buzz while recounting Balzac's coffee addiction; and she stays up till dawn to write about being a night owl, examining the rhythms of our circadian clocks and sharing such insomnia cures as her father's nocturnal word games and Lewis Carroll's mathematical puzzles. At Large and At Small is a brilliant and delightful collection of essays that harkens a revival of a long-cherished genre.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Fadiman, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall, makes a bold claim: "I believe the survival of the familiar essay is worth fighting for." The "familiar essays" that Fadiman champions and writes are in the mold of the early 19th century, rather than critical or personal works as we've come to know them. Her essays combine a personal perspective with a far-reaching curiosity about the world, resulting in pieces that are neither so objective the reader can't see the writer behind them nor too self-absorbed. And spending some time with Fadiman is a pure delight. She loves the natural world and taxonomies of all kinds, as well as ice cream and coffee. Her love of the romantic age goes beyond the stylistic, and she prefers Coleridge and Lamb over Wordsworth and Southey. The collection rolls good-naturedly through its subjects until the final piece—an account of a whitewater rafting trip that went tragically awry, a harrowing reminder of the stakes on which all endeavors rest. This collection is a perfectly faceted little gem. Essayists, of both the critical and personal sort, could do worse than to follow Fadiman into the realm of the familiar. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429922968
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/27/2008
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 704,593
  • File size: 237 KB

Meet the Author


Anne Fadiman is the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, an L.A. Times Book Prize, and a Salon Book Award. She is also the author of the essay collection Ex Libris and the editor of Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love. Her essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among other publications. She is the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale.
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  COLLECTING NATUREThe net was green. The handle was wood, and the grip was uncomfortably thick, like that of a tennis racket borrowed from an older player. The mesh bag was long enough that if we caught a tiger swallowtail—or a spicebush swallowtail, or a mourning cloak, or a European cabbage, or a common sulphur, or a red admiral, or a painted lady, or a monarch, or a viceroy—we could, with a twist of the wrist, flip its tapered tip over the wire rim and trap the butterfly inside.Then, being careful not to scrape off the colored scales, we pinched the wings shut and transferred the butterfly to the killing jar. (Our bible, A Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America, East of the Great Plains, by Alexander B. Klots, recommended a more complicated method of transfer that involved holding the handle between one’s thighs, grasping the bag just below the butterfly, slipping the jar into the net, and coaxing the butterfly into the jar. But this technique demanded a prodigious level of coordination—on the order, say, of that displayed by the Cat in the Hat when he balanced a goldfish bowl on an umbrella while standing on a rubber ball—and we were never able to master it.) My brother and I had started with a shallow plastic container, like a petri dish, which came in the children’s butterfly kit that we had rapidly outgrown, but because the hindwing projections of the swallowtails tended to get crushed against the perimeter, we graduated to a large glass jar from which our mother had scrubbed the last traces of strawberry jam. At the bottom of the killing jar was a piece of cotton saturated with carbon tetrachloride.“Carbon tet,” we called it, not because it was easier to pronounce—we shared a weakness for long words—but because the nickname suggested that we and it were on familiar terms, as was indeed the case. Thirty years later, a friend of mine dabbed some spot remover on a sofa, and I instantly recognized the smell of the killing jar. During the fifties, when my brother and I started chasing butterflies, potassium cyanide was still in use as well, but because it is a deadly poison, Professor Klots recommended liquid carbon tetrachloride, which is “not very poisonous unless inhaled deeply,” and which we persuaded our parents was as innocuous as smelling salts. The butterfly would flutter for a few moments, sink to the bottom of the jar, and slowly expire.The murder was less grisly than it would have been in, say, 1810, when insect collectors stabbed their specimens with pins, asphyxiated them over the flames of sulphur matches, and skewered them with red-hot wires. Around 1820, the vogue in Europe was the “stifling box,” a sealed container submerged in boiling water. The killing jar was introduced in the 1850s, after the royal physician used chloroform to ease the delivery of Queen Victoria’s eighth child, and net-wielding country vicars across Great Britain realized they could amass their collections of marbled whites and Camberwell beauties without overt violence. They could simply anesthetize their specimens to death.The problem with chloroform, as with potassium cyanide and carbon tetrachloride, is that these poisons freeze the butterfly’s muscles into an extreme version of rigor mortis, and the wings cannot be spread. My brother and I therefore popped the corpse into a “relaxing jar”—now there’s a euphemism right up there with Orwell’s Ministry of Peace—that dampened it into pliancy, whereupon it could be pinned to the spreading board, a balsa rectangle with a groove down the center that allowed the wings to be flattened without squashing the thorax and abdomen. Caught, killed, relaxed, and spread, the butterfly was laid to rest in a Riker mount, a shallow glass-topped box filled with absorbent cotton—a sort of mass grave for soldiers who had given their lives on the battlefields of suburban Connecticut.When did we realize that this was horrible? My brother, Kim, and I had started collecting butterflies when he was eight and I was six. Shame set in about two years later. 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. A tiger swallowtail is an unbelievable thing to find in your backyard: a big butterfly, five inches across, striated with yellow and black, with blue splotches on the hindwings rendered iridescent by light-diffracting scales—“like the colors,” wrote Professor Klots in a memorably lyrical passage, “produced by a glass prism, the blue of the sky, the spectrum of the rainbow, and an oil film on water.” Who would not wish to take such a creature home? To glimpse something so gaudily tropical, more like a quetzal than a sparrow, on your own home ground; to pursue it across the lawn, down the stone steps, around the two topiary peacocks that stood guard over the wading pool, and along the flower border, until it lit on a phlox or a zinnia; to swoop your net through the air and see something fluttering inside; to snatch that bit of life from the rich chaos of nature into your own comparatively lackluster world, which it instantly brightened and enlarged; to look it up in Klots and name it and know it—well, after you did that a few times, it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for Parcheesi.
 
 “The next two days were so wet and windy that there was no going out,” wrote Alfred Russel Wallace in 1869, about a collecting trip to the Aru Islands, north of Australia:
[B]ut on the succeeding one the sun shone brightly, and I had the good fortune to capture one of the most magnificent insects the world contains, the great bird-winged butterfly, Ornithoptera poseidon. I trembled with excitement as I saw it coming majestically towards me, and could hardly believe I had really succeeded in my stroke till I had taken it out of the net and was gazing, lost in admiration, at the velvet black and brilliant green of its wings, seven inches across, its golden body, and crimson breast. It is true I had seen similar insects in cabinets at home, but it is quite another thing to capture such oneself—to feel it struggling between one’s fingers, and to gaze upon its fresh and living beauty, a bright gem shining out amid the silent gloom of a dark and tangled forest. The village of Dobbo held that evening at least one contented man.
Few people read Wallace anymore, even though he founded the science of island biogeography and, independent of Darwin, evolved a theory of natural selection. A few years ago, I borrowed a 1902 edition of one of his books from a large university library and noticed that it had last been checked out in 1949. But he has long been a favorite of mine, in part because no one has ever done a better job of capturing the euphoria of netting a really beautiful specimen. And unlike the editor of a 1975 book on butterflies—who, when he quoted this passage, squeamishly omitted the phrase “to feel it struggling between one’s fingers”—Wallace made no bones about how crucial the violence was to the thrill.While Wallace was chasing butterflies in the Malay Archipelago, thousands of his compatriots were doing the same thing back home in England. A special butterfly net was even invented that, when folded, looked exactly like an umbrella, so that one could take it on a stroll without attracting undue attention. (As the British historian David Elliston Allen has pointed out, one did look rather a fool if it started to rain and one’s umbrella remained obstinately furled.) Sunday afternoons, after church, were a favorite time for entomology, which was considered a high-mindedly Christian pursuit. An 1843 pamphlet titled Instructions for Collecting, Rearing, and Preserving British & Foreign Insects—it now reposes in an envelope in the Library of Congress, as fragile as a sheaf of butterfly wings—begins with the following words:
The contemplation of the works of the CREATOR is the highest delight of the rational mind. In them we read, as in a volume fraught with endless wonders, the unlimited power and goodness of that Being, who, in the formation of Atoms, and of Worlds, has alike displayed unfathomable Wisdom. There are few objects in Nature which raise the mind to a higher degree of admiration, than the Insect creation. Their immense numbers—endless variety of form—astonishing metamorphoses—exceeding beauty—the amazing minuteness of some, and the complex and wonderful organization of others, far exceeding that of the higher animals—all tend to prove an Almighty artificer, and inspire astonishment and awe!
I sympathize with these views. When I was in high school, a churchgoing friend attempted to rouse me from my agnosticism by asking, “Isn’t there anything that seems so miraculous it simply has to be by design?” I answered, “Butterfly metamorphosis.” I knew it could be explained by rational principles, but it still seemed to hold an irreducible spark of divinity. When Brahma watched the caterpillars in his vegetable garden change into pupae, and thence into butterflies, he was filled with the certainty that he, too, would attain perfection in a future incarnation. Brahma, however, was content to observe the works of the CREATOR, whereas the author of the 1843 pamphlet (using methods he detailed in a thirteen-page chapter called “On killing and preserving Insects in general”) believed he could appreciate them most fully only if he did them in.Any parent of a small child is familiar with the impulse to own that which one admires. It is why my husband and I used to tell our daughter, before she was too old to be so easily duped, that FAO Schwarz was a toy museum. When we were very young, my brother and I could not yet divorce our ardor for butterflies from our desire to flatten them in Riker mounts and hang them on the wall. Distinguishing the two required an unchildlike conjunction of self-control and guilt: the sort of moral conversion, for example, that might transform a trophy hunter into a wildlife photographer. We threw away our killing jar not because we wished to stop causing pain—crushing an ant or a cockroach, which presumably had a nervous system similar to that of a tiger swallowtail, stirred few qualms—but because, unlike Alfred Russel Wallace, we grew uneasy with the pleasure it gave us.During the period of withdrawal, when we still caught butterflies but were ashamed of enjoying it, a luna moth settled on the grille of the air conditioner that was bolted into the window of our father’s dressing room, on the second floor of our house. If you have ever seen a luna moth—pale green, hindwings tapering to long slender tails, antennae like golden feathers—you have not forgotten it. It was a hot, humid, firefly-filled summer night, and Kim and I were sitting outside on the front lawn. The light from the house illuminated the moth with a spectral glow. We could not reach it from the ground. We could not open the window from inside. I cannot remember ever desiring anything so much.
 
 Aside from the fact that I did not grow up to be a serial killer, my future character was already present, in chrysalid form, in the six-year-old girl who wielded the green butterfly net. She was shy, cerebral, and fussy, the sort of child better liked by adults than by other children; she was obsessed by nomenclature; she derived a false but pleasant sense of competence from mastering lepidoptery’s ancillary gear; her conception of nature was incorrigibly romantic; she was painfully affected by beauty; she was a compulsive arranger; she focused on small details—the precise curve of a mourning cloak’s forewing, the exact shade of the red spot on a zebra swallowtail’s hindwing—rather than on larger and more important questions of behavior and habitat. Although she now collects books instead of butterflies, I cannot say that the intervening thirty-eight years have changed her much.All children collect things, of course, but the difference between collecting stamps and collecting butterflies is that you do not have to kill the stamps. Also—and this casts lepidoptery in a slightly more favorable light—the rarity of certain species of insects can be naturally experienced, whereas the rarity of stamps must be looked up in a book. A child knows that a common sulphur is less precious than a luna moth because she has seen thousands of the former and only one of the latter, but how could she guess that an 1856 British one-penny rose is worth a dollar and an 1856 British Guiana one-penny magenta is worth $935,000?I once read a book on collecting that included photographs of collectors of toilet paper, Weetabix boxes, and airsickness bags. They were all male and all nerdy-looking. My father’s first cousin, William James Sidis—a child prodigy who learned Latin and Greek at three, entered Harvard at eleven, and ended up an ill-paid backoffice clerk—collected streetcar transfers, of which he eventually accumulated more than two thousand. Billy Sidis was nerdy, too, as well as deeply unhappy. Surely the desire to collect inanimate objects with no intrinsic beauty or meaning, as opposed to paintings or books or antique Chinese snuff bottles, reflects a yawning lack of self-confidence. All collecting is a form of spuriously easy mastery, but it is almost unbearably pathetic that a man of Sidis’s ability was so incapable, in either his work or his hobby, of picking something anywhere near his own size.Collecting insects is less pathetic than collecting streetcar transfers, but most people would consider it more sinister. Is it surprising that the revolutionist Jean-Paul Marat, the author of a 1790 pamphlet advocating that “five or six hundred heads be cut off,” was an amateur lepidopterist? Is it entirely a coincidence that Alfred Kinsey, before he collected eighteen thousand sexual histories (along with innumerable nudist magazines, pornographic statues, and pieces of sadomasochistic paraphernalia), collected tens of thousands of gall wasps? Was it not inevitable that John Fowles should have made Frederick Clegg, who collected a beautiful art student and imprisoned her in his cellar, a collector of butterflies as well? I read The Collector when I was sixteen, and I got a perverse insider’s kick when Frederick drugged Miranda with chloroform and carbon tetrachloride, both of which he had previously used in his killing bottle to drug fritillaries and blues.But on the other side of the scale—and I believe he carries enough weight to outbalance an entire army of lepidopteran weirdos—there is Vladimir Nabokov. It is my view that if you have never netted a butterfly, you cannot truly understand Nabokov. (This, of course, may be merely a rationalization, the ignoble offspring of my desire to believe that the tiger swallowtails of my misspent youth did not die in vain.) Only Nabokov, eloping at age ten with a nine-year-old girl in Biarritz, would have taken, as the sum total of his luggage, a folding butterfly net in a brown paper bag. Nabokov chased butterflies on two continents for six decades; spent seven years as a research fellow in entomology at Harvard, where, during the course of his taxonomic studies, he permanently damaged his vision by spending long hours looking through a microscope at dissected butterfly genitalia; discovered several new species and subspecies, including Cyclargus erembis Nabokov and Neonympha maniola Nabokov; and wrote twenty-two articles on lepidoptera, including a 1951 review of my own Alexander B. Klots in The New York Times Book Review. He called it “wonderfully stimulating.” (He did not mention page 164, where, under the heading “Genus Lycæides Scudder: The Orange Margined Blues,” Klots wrote, “The recent work of Nabokov has entirely rearranged the classification of this genus.” Years after the publication of Lolita, Pnin, and Pale Fire, Nabokov took a copy of Klots from his shelf, showed a visitor that sentence, and said, “That’s real fame. That means more than anything a literary critic could say.”)In a 1931 story called “The Aurelian”—an archaic term for butterfly collector—Nabokov describes a butterfly shop in Berlin whose windows are full of “eyed wings wide-open in wonder, shimmering blue satin, black magic.” To the left of the shop there are stores that sell soap, coal, and bread; to the right, a tobacconist, a delicatessen, and a fruit seller. This is how Nabokov viewed butterflies. One may progress through life surrounded on all sides by drabness, but if there are butterflies at the center, there will never be a want of beauty or romance. What more appropriate passion could a writer have? Lepidopterists, more than naturalists of any other stripe, have long inclined toward the literary, as one can tell from looking at the names they have given the objects of their study. There are butterflies named after Homer, Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Propertius, and Persius; after dozens of characters in Greek and Roman mythology; and even after punctuation marks—the question mark, the long dash, and the comma. (Nabokov described the comma in a famous passage about listening to his governess read French classics on the veranda of the family estate outside St. Petersburg, while his attention was joyfully diverted by the comma-like markings on a butterfly that had settled on the threshold.)Nabokov began the sixth chapter of Speak, Memory —the greatest essay on butterfly collecting ever written—by describing the first butterfly he wanted to catch (a swallowtail) and, in the last paragraph, wrote:
[T]he highest enjoyment of timelessness—in a landscape selected at random—is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.
(My four favorite words in this passage are “and their food plants.” Only a true entomologist, as opposed to a starry-eyed amateur, would include them in such a lyrical effusion and, what’s more, clearly believe they were lyrical themselves.) Many of the themes in Nabokov’s fiction—metamorphosis and flight, deception and mimicry, evasion and capture—are lepidopteran. And to my ear, his very language is too. The first canto of Pale Fire contains, within its four-and-a-half-page compass, the words torquated, stillicide, shagbark, vermiculated, preterist, iridule, and lemniscate. Nabokov collected rare words, just as he collected rare butterflies, and when he netted one, especially in the exotic landscape of his second language, his satisfaction is as palpable as if he had finally captured the brown and white hairstreak that once eluded him when he was a boy. Nabokov’s style is not just poetic; it is taxonomic. He mentions with something close to hatred the village schoolmaster who, taking his charges for a nature walk, used to quash young Vladimir’s hunger for precision by saying, “Oh, just a small bird—no special name.” And what scorn Nabokov bears for us, his clueless audience, when he writes, “I had found last spring a dark aberration of Sievers’ Carmelite (just another gray moth to the reader).”
 
 Phase Two of my life as a collector—again, one shared with my older and wiser brother—was an intemperate, catholic, and nonmurderous surrender to the urge to identify the small bird and the gray moth. If catching was the central theme of our childhood, curating—classifying, labeling, sorting, arranging, displaying—was the central theme of our adolescence. Butterflies were the slender wedge that opened up something much larger: an earnest attempt to stuff the entire natural world, down to the last kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species (I can still rattle these off in the proper sequence, having learned the mnemonic “King Philip, Come Out For God’s Sake” at age twelve), into our spare bedroom. It never occurred to us that it would not fit.The spare bedroom, on the southwest corner of the second floor of our house in Los Angeles, to which we had moved when I was eight and Kim was ten, had a sign on the door that read:
THE SERENDIPITY MUSEUM OF NATURE NO SMOKING, PLEASE
The sign was embossed in blue with a Dymo Labelmaker, than which there was no more perfect gift, circa 1963, for a pair of children who were crazy about naming things. I am not quite sure why our parents turned over this room to us, nor why they let us hammer pieces of whale baleen into the striped tan wallpaper, nor why they permitted us to fill the bathroom with dirt in order to accommodate our pet California king snake. All I can say is that I am profoundly grateful that they did.In Our Mutual Friend, Silas Wegg visits a shop belonging to “Mr. Venus, Preserver of Animals and Birds, Articulator of human bones.” Mr. Wegg is there because—could anyone but Dickens ever come up with this one?—he wishes to retrieve his leg, which Mr. Venus purchased, for potential inclusion in a skeleton, from the hospital in which it was amputated. “I shouldn’t like,” says Mr. Wegg, “to be what I may call dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself as a genteel person.” (Mr. Wegg may thus be the only collector who has ever collected himself. He does get his leg back, though not until later in the book; it arrives under Mr. Venus’s arm, carefully wrapped, looking like “a sort of brown paper truncheon.”) Mr. Venus shows Mr. Wegg around the shop. “Bones, warious,” he explains.
Skulls, warious. Preserved Indian baby. African ditto. Bottled preparations, warious. Everything within reach of your hand, in good preservation. The mouldy ones a-top. What’s in those hampers over them again, I don’t quite remember. Say, human warious. Cats. Articulated English baby. Dogs. Ducks. Glass eyes, warious. Mummied bird. Dried cuticle, warious. Oh, dear me! That’s the general panoramic view.
The general panoramic view of the Serendipity Museum of Nature was similarly warious. It bore a far closer resemblance to Mr. Venus’s shop, or to a seventeenth-century Wunderkammer crammed from top to bottom with miscellaneous natural curiosities, than it did to any museum we had actually seen.We displayed not only things that had once been alive but things that had once contained life: the discarded skin of a garter snake, the exoskeleton of a cicada, the speckled egg of a scrub jay, the pendant nest of a Baltimore oriole. Blowfish dangled from the ceiling on strands of dental floss. In the southeast corner, pinned to the wall, were scraps of fur—leopard, tiger, polar bear, rabbit, otter, nutria, mink—left over from coats tailored by a local furrier. Next to them was a man-size piece of Styrofoam into which we had stuck hundreds of feathers. On the west wall we had nailed a desiccated sand shark, which looked like a crucified demon. Shelves and card tables held, among other things, a stuffed mouse, a stuffed bat, the skeleton of a pit viper, a hornet’s nest, a mounted ostrich egg, a hunk of petrified wood, the fossils of ammonites and foraminifers, several dried salamanders, a dead tarantula, three dead scorpions, a sperm-whale tooth, a box of our own baby teeth, the foot of an egret, a pickled squid, a pickled baby octopus, and a pickled human tapeworm, about which I am said to have exclaimed, when I received it on my tenth birthday, “Just what I always wanted!” There were also about a dozen bird and mammal skulls that we had retrieved from road kills and cleaned with bleach. (Pending their Clorox baths, our mother permitted us to wrap the corpses in aluminum foil and store them in the freezer, as long as we labeled them clearly enough to prevent her from confusing them with dinner.)Our old Riker mounts hung on the south wall, but the black and yellow stripes of the tiger swallowtails were fading. Our new passion was shells, which we housed in a huge metal cabinet, typing the genera on little slips of paper and gluing them to the drawer fronts. In conchology, as a mid-nineteenth-century British magazine observed, “there is no cruelty in the pursuit, the subjects are so ornamental to a boudoir.” It is true that on the Florida island where we spent our spring vacations, we did occasionally collect live king’s crown conchs, boil them, extract the animals, and clean the shells with muriatic acid. (Being trusted with dangerous substances was a continuing theme throughout our childhood.) But it was more sporting, and more fun, to walk along the beach and, among the jetsam of broken cockles and clams, to spot a banded tulip, an alphabet cone, an apple murex, or (great find of my youth!) an angulate wentletrap.Last week I was reminiscing about our museum with my brother. Kim said, “When you collect nature, there are two moments of discovery. The first comes when you find the thing. The second comes when you find the name.” Few pleasures can equal those of the long summer afternoons we spent sitting on the floor in a patch of sunlight, our shell guides spread out before us, trying to identify a particular species of limpet or marginella—and finally, with a whoop of delight, succeeding. Without classification, a collection is just a hodgepodge. Taxonomy, after all—and I think we unconsciously realized this, even as teenagers—is a form of imperialism. During the nineteenth century, when British naval surveys were flooding London with specimens to be classified, inserting them into their proper niches in the Linnaean hierarchy had undeniable political overtones. Take a bird or a lizard or a flower from Patagonia or the South Seas, perhaps one that has had a local name for centuries, rechristen it with a Latin binomial, and presto! It has become a tiny British colony. That’s how Kim and I felt, too. To name was to assert dominion.“You’re like a miser,” Miranda says to her captor in The Collector. “You hoard up all the beauty in these drawers … . I hate people who collect things, and classify things and give them names.” That’s the popular notion, all right. Even my husband finds it a wee bit pathological when he finds me taking the shells he has collected and arranging them in rows, by species. But I believe it is no accident that the three greatest biological theorists of the nineteenth century—Alfred Russel Wallace; Henry Walter Bates, who developed the theory of mimicry; and Charles Darwin—were all, at their cores, collectors. Wallace, who collected plants as a boy, returned from the Malay Archipelago with 125,660 “specimens of natural history,” mostly insects. Bates, who collected bugs as a boy, returned from the Amazon with 14,712 different species, again mostly insects, of which eight thousand were previously undiscovered. When he was a boy, Darwin collected coins, postal franks, pebbles, minerals, shells, birds’ eggs, and, above all, in the days when “to beetle” was an infinitive, hundreds of specimens of the order Coleoptera. His zeal was such that once, with a rare beetle in each hand, he spied a third species, and popped the beetle in his right hand into his mouth. (Unfortunately, it ejected a foul-tasting liquid and he had to spit it out.) He later sent home from South America box after box of specimens—birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, fish—that he had skinned and stuffed and pickled while fighting terrible seasickness in the Beagle’s poop cabin. It was not enough just to see the Galápagos finches; he had to collect them, and get help classifying them, and compare their beaks back home in England, before he was able to develop the theory of the origin of species.All nature collectors share a particular set of tastes and skills: pattern recognition; the ability to distinguish anomaly from norm; the compulsion to order experience. A few of them also have brilliant imaginations, as well as what Darwin called the capacity for “grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” Collections of facts. Those of us who lack the latter two abilities will never change the course of science, but when we invite a new shell or butterfly into our lives, we are doing a part of what Darwin did. And lest the primacy of the collecting instinct be underestimated, let us reflect that Darwin was never able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry, but at age sixty-seven, looking back on the beetles of his youth, he wrote, “I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees and banks where I made a good capture.”
 
 We sold the Serendipity Museum of Nature. My brother and I were off to college, our parents were moving to a smaller house, we thought it was time to grow up, and … well, we just did it. We put an ad in the Los Angeles Times, and over the course of a weekend, a stream of strange people walked underneath the blowfish and took away the field guides and the fossil ammonites and the desiccated sand shark and the pickled human tapeworm. The things we prized most, because we had found them ourselves, were worthless. I remember jamming dozens of birds’ nests into plastic garbage bags. I was almost seventeen; it was the last day of my childhood.Thank heavens, we kept the shells, because they were small and easily stored. Today they rest inside a glass-fronted cabinet in the home of our elderly parents, who surprised us a few years ago by moving to the Florida island where we had collected the shells in the first place. When I visit, I still cannot resist picking up the odd murex or limpet when I walk along the beach. They do not have the same meaning they once did, but, as Swann said in Remembrance of Things Past, “even when one is no longer attached to things, it’s still something to have been attached to them.”Three years ago, I found a 1951 edition of A Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America, East of the Great Plains, by Alexander B. Klots, in a secondhand store in upstate New York. There was a stamp on the school library bookplate that said DISCARDED. Discard Klots? How could anyone do that? I suppose for the same reason that I once discarded Klots myself: because there wasn’t room. When I was younger, I didn’t know what I wanted from life, so I wanted everything—new experiences, tiger swallowtails, egrets’ feet. Now that I have collected a family, a home, a vocation, and a few thousand books, my New York City apartment and my life are full. Before my husband’s last birthday, I sent for a copy of the Carolina Biological Supply Company catalog so I could buy him a flower press. I felt the old thirst when I read about the tarantula spiderling kit, $49.95; the owl pellets, “fumigated and individually wrapped,” $3.20; the live salamander larvae, $11.45 a dozen; the slime mold box, “preferred by professional slime mold collectors” (a lovely phrase; I had never thought of it as a profession), $5.80. I knew, however, that I would never order these things. There isn’t room.My favorite Nabokov story, “Christmas,” is about a man named Sleptsov who has recently lost his son, a butterfly collector. In an agony of suicidal grief, Sleptsov looks through his son’s belongings—spreading boards, specimen files, a net that still smells of summer and sun-warmed grass. Suddenly, from the biscuit tin in which it had been stored, the dormant cocoon of a great Attacus moth, stirred into life by the unaccustomed heat, bursts open. A wrinkled black creature the size of a mouse crawls out and slowly unfurls its wings. As soon as he witnesses this miracle, Sleptsov knows he must stay alive. “Christmas” is a story about lepidoptery, but it is also a story about parenthood. One reason we have children, I think, is to experience through them the miracle of the Attacus moth: to learn that parts of ourselves we had given up for dead are merely dormant, and that the old joys can re-emerge, fresh and new and in a completely different form.I have two children. Henry, who is three, owns three rubber caterpillars—a black swallowtail, a pipevine swallowtail, and a zebra heliconian. I know their species because he likes to match them up with the pictures in Klots, which now sits on a shelf in his bedroom. Henry is at an age when anything seems possible, and the other night, having just looked at a diagram of metamorphosis, he saw a housefly crawling across the ceiling and said, with dreamy excitement, “Maybe that fly will turn into a stag beetle!”Susannah is eight. When she was six, we gave her a kit containing five painted lady caterpillars. She watched them pupate. After they broke out of their chrysalises as fully formed butterflies, she carried them in a net enclosure from our cramped apartment to a nearby garden. Then she loosened the net and let them go.Copyright © 2007 by Anne Fadiman
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Table of Contents


Preface     ix
Collecting Nature     3
The Unfuzzy Lamb     25
Ice Cream     43
Night Owl     61
Procrustes and the Culture Wars     75
Coleridge the Runaway     95
Mail     111
Moving     127
A Piece of Cotton     143
The Arctic Hedonist     157
Coffee     177
Under Water     191
Sources     197
Acknowledgments     217
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