I marvel at well-crafted essays. Virginia Woolf was a master, of course, right up there with Montaigne, whose name is most identified with the form. Lately, though, I’ve been absorbed with the work of contemporary work, personal essays in particular. E.B. White is one of the reigning champions of the genre, but my current favorite is Anne Fadiman.
I’d read a couple of her essays in Best American Essays collections and went looking for more. I wasn’t surprised to find that she’s a Woolf enthusiast. Her first collection, Ex Libris, is subtitled Confessions of a Common Reader—the homage makes her affinity pretty clear. She loves books and in these personal essays she writes about them lovingly, intimately, humorously. My favorite is the first one, “Marrying Libraries,” in which she talks about the true test of love and commitment: after five years of marriage, she and her husband decide to merge their books and bookshelves, their “mutually quarantined Melvilles.”
I identified with her in “Insert a Caret,” about compulsive proofreading, how misspellings and punctuation errors jump out at her from restaurant menus. In “Eternal Ink,” she writes about pens as muses and fall-guys, citing Woolf’s proclivity to do the same. (Woolf: “What am I going to say with a defective nib?”)
I read her newer collection with a combination of awe and envy—these are the kinds of essays I’d like to write. The works in At Large and At Small (Confessions of a Literary Hedonist) are what Fadiman calls “familiar essays,” personal essays with a larger scope. Each one has a broad focus—butterflies, Charles Lamb, ice cream, and sleep patterns to name a few—that she researches thoroughly but brings home with personal experience.
Essays, she says, “provide for the writer a chance to move into the sort of leisurely, slightly hedonistic mode that, in the 21st century, has become a luxury.” They are “pools of opportunity to stop, and sit, and slow down, and think.”
Fadiman claims Woolf as one of her two favorite essayists (the other is E.B. White). Woolf, along with Coleridge and Lamb, would be guests at her ideal dinner party. “Virginia and I would be the centre of attention,” she says.