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At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays

At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays

by Anne Fadiman

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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


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.

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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At Large and At Small

Familiar Essays

By Anne Fadiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2007 Anne Fadiman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2296-8



The 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 back-office 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 Lycœides 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.)


Excerpted from At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman. Copyright © 2007 Anne Fadiman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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.

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 two essay collections, At Large and At Small and 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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