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Coming to Life
An interview with the writer and editor Anne Fadiman, whose new book, Ex Libris, proves what she has always suspected -- that there is an essayist lurking inside her

October 28, 1998

Ex Libris By the age of six Anne Fadiman was a lepidopterist, netting butterflies and pinning their delicate dead bodies onto rectangles of balsa wood; by age eight she was a co-curator of what she and her brother dubbed THE SERENDIPITY MUSEUM OF NATURE, an ongoing exhibit featuring "not only things that had once been alive but things that had once held life," such as the skin of a garter snake, a cicada skeleton, and a pickled human tapeworm. At some point during these busy years Fadiman also started collecting sesquipedalians (long words, that is), a habit that seems to have foreshadowed a lifelong fascination with language -- a fascination that has brought her all the way to the editorship of The American Scholar.
Discuss this feature in the Books & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

Redefining Rape (October 1998)
Alarmingly, when it comes to sexual assault, "no" doesn't always mean "no" in a court of law. The legal scholar Stephen Schulhofer talks about his new book, Unwanted Sex, and about why the laws need to change.

Body Language (October 1998)
What's behind the work of John Edgar Wideman, the author of the new novel Two Cities, is simple: if you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk.

Manifest Destiny (September 1998)
A conversation with Robert D. Kaplan, whose latest work, An Empire Wilderness, suggests that the future of the United States won't be at all what we expect.

Fear of Falling (September 1998)
Andrew Todhunter talks about his new book, Fall of the Phantom Lord, about the rock climber Dan Osman, and examines the lure of putting one's life on the line.

Eve's Bible (August 1998)
An interview with Cullen Murphy, whose new book, The Word According to Eve, explores the revolutionary implications of feminism's encounter with religion.

Bittersweet (July 1998)
Roy Blount Jr. looks back at the complicated source of his career as a humorist -- his mother.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Fadiman's latest book, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, is a collection of essays originally published in the Library of Congress's Civilization magazine, where Fadiman served as one of the founding editors. It is a book entirely about books -- from the purchasing of them (preferably in out-of-the-way bookstores) to the reading of them (preferably in bed) to the handling of them (always write in the margins; go ahead and crack the spines; pay no mind if you drop crumbs between the pages; shelve American literature alphabetically by author, English literature chronologically). The essays reveal Fadiman's profound love of both literature and the volumes in which it has traditionally been stored. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997), Fadiman's first book, chronicles the trials of an epileptic Hmong infant and her family living in Merced, California. Fadiman's sensitive, incisive treatment of the unbreachable gulf between the Hmong and American medical systems won her a National Book Award.

In addition to her editorial responsibilities, Fadiman writes an essay for each issue of The American Scholar, as she once did for Civilization, but this time under a pseudonym, Philonoë, which, loosely translated, means "a lover of things of the mind."

Fadiman lives with her husband and two children in New York City. She spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.

fadipic picture
Anne Fadiman
When you started writing your column for Civilization magazine, your editor told you to forget about reportage and write about yourself -- "a fiat," you've written, "that was initially alarming but ultimately emancipating." How so?

When Steve Smith issued that command from on high, he essentially gave me permission to be a personal essayist. For years I'd had an essayist lurking inside me, but I was afraid to let her out. Because essay writing was a genre my father excelled at, I think I had to turn forty before I had the confidence to venture into that territory.

When I originally conceived the column, it was going to involve more reportage. Steve was adamant, however, that I should not be calling up John Updike and asking him whether he arranged his books chronologically or alphabetically. He insisted that the characters in my essays be drawn entirely from my own circle of family and friends, something I would have never done on my own, thinking it would be much too narcissistic. But once I'd received the job description I thought, Ah, it's out of my hands. I've got to do it this way. It's not my fault.

Between your journalistic and essay writings you cover a wide range of topics -- from the Hmong culture in California to butterfly collecting to your crush on Charles Lamb. How did you come by this assortment of interests?

For me, literature is a way of enlarging myself by learning about people who are not like me. And I view writing, particularly reportorial journalism, as a form of travel, a way of expanding my own horizons. One of the reasons I chose to write about Hmong culture in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was that the Hmong are about as different from me as anybody could possibly be. The problem with the literary hothouse of New York City is that people spend so much time looking in the mirror. They go to parties with people who are just like them, and they write novels about people who are just like them. It's limiting.

I would like to attribute my range of interests to being an independent intellectual, but although I'm independent, I'm not sure I qualify as an intellectual. Basically, I'm an old-fashioned amateur. There's a book coming out this winter called The Amateur, by my old college roommate Wendy Lesser, who is now the editor of the Threepenny Review. She, unlike me, qualifies as an independent intellectual. She's sort of like an eighteenth-century English gentleman who is interested in the classics, poetry, and ornithology, and has a collection of beetles. Of course, the hallmark of an amateur is a certain amount of dilettantism, for it's the shallowness of dilettantes like me that allows them to spread themselves out over a wide variety of fields.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down In the preface to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, you wrote that "the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet." Can you expand upon this thought a bit?

Again, it's the sense of not wanting to insulate myself from things and people that are different from me. I think the only way you can do that is to stand at the margins and bump into the people on the other side of the line.

Take a map of any country. If you think about the center, it's going to seem rather safe and secure and possibly bland. But if you think about the borders where two cultures are coming together -- if you think about Iowa versus Tijuana, say -- I'd take Tijuana any day. There's always bound to be excitement and often humor wherever there's incongruity, and there will certainly be incongruity wherever two things that are different meet. The same goes for weather fronts. It's when warm and cold air meet that you get meteorological excitement.

It is commonly assumed that successful books are not "serious" works, yet The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down -- well-researched, very serious, grappling with social and cultural complexities -- won numerous awards, and is now out in paperback. Were you surprised by the book's popularity?

Yes, I was hugely surprised. I did pick a remarkably obscure subject for my first book, and during the eight years I was writing it I was afraid that when I finished, only eleven or twelve peculiar people would read it. I can't tell you how many friends teased me. Wow, they'd say, I bet there's a really big market niche for books about epileptic Hmong toddlers! Or, Hurry up, aren't you afraid you'll get scooped? But I just got into the subject, and once I got into it, I was hooked. Every once in a while I'd stick my head up and think, This is so odd, I can't believe I'm writing my first book about this. But I was fascinated, and there was no getting out.

The book's popularity is a wonderful example of the value of procrastination. Writing the book took much longer than I'd originally expected, but if it had come out four years earlier I don't think anyone would have read it. People are much more interested now in cross-cultural issues and health issues. So I'm afraid this isn't a very useful moral lesson. Instead the lesson is, Spend a really long time on your project and it will all turn out better in the end.

The subtitle of Ex Libris is "Confessions of a Common Reader," a reference to the title of Virginia Woolf's essay collection, The Common Reader. I assume she is a favorite essayist of yours. Any others?

Charles Lamb is my hero. He lived at the same time as the Romantic poets; his best friend was Coleridge. He applied to his essays the same confessional attitude toward life that the Romantic poets were advocating. So although the language is quite antique -- his writing style was archaic even in 1800 -- he was remarkably modern in his discussion of his feelings and emotional experiences. Lamb had a very difficult life, the central trauma of which was that his sister murdered their mother. But instead of breaking all ties with his sister, after she was released from an insane asylum he took care of her for the rest of his life. He was a fascinating person and is my primary literary role model. His greatest work, The Essays of Elia, is out of print in the United States, but for those who haven't read him, I suggest trying a second-hand bookstore (which I think everyone should frequent in any case).

I'm also very fond of Hazlitt, and yes, Virginia Woolf, whose books The Common Reader and The Second Common Reader were an inspiration for Ex Libris. Two of my favorite current essayists, completely different from each other in style, are Nicholson Baker and Cynthia Ozick. All in all, between the Best American Essays anthologies, Phillip Lopate's new Anchor Essay Annual, and the work I hope The American Scholar does in trying to provide a home for the essay, I think the essay is in great shape. In fact, it hasn't been so healthy in decades.

Regarding essay writing, Virginia Woolf warned against ornament, long words, and "the impurities of literature," among other cautions. Do you have any essay writing pointers of your own?

I love Virginia Woolf, but I have the sneaking suspicion that the affection might not be mutual. Many of my essays are rather excessively ornamental, and one of the ones in Ex Libris is about long words. As for how pure Woolf would find me, I'm not certain.

The most important thing when starting out with essay writing is to find a voice with which you're comfortable. You need to find a persona that is very much like you, but slightly caricatured. Think of it as your own voice turned up slightly in volume. That doesn't mean that the voice needs to be strident; it just needs to be a distilled version of you. Once you've found that voice, you'll discover that the essay is something you can be serious or funny with, or both. And once you feel comfortable, you can write about issues that are very important to you, or about things that are very minor, and the genre will accommodate both. I write a column for The American Scholar called "At Large and At Small," a name I picked in order to make that point explicitly.

Are you much of a letter writer?

I am too busy these days to be a letter writer, but I believe the letter is a wonderful form of writing. In fact, I think the personal essay is the genre closest to the letter, and that the kinds of essays that I write are quite a bit like letters.

When my essays started to come out in Civilization, I received avalanches of letters from readers. The more I heard from readers, the more I felt, each time I wrote an essay, that I was writing a letter to a friend. After I wrote an essay about how I'd lost my old Parker 51 fountain pen, a reader sent me an old Parker 51 as a replacement. Recently my publisher -- Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- asked me to write a letter at the beginning of Ex Libris for a special edition that they were giving to booksellers. I had to sign my name one thousand times, which is an amazingly difficult task. I made it fun by choosing to use that Parker 51 pen. And since the book contained the original essay about the pen that had inspired the gift of the pen, I felt that I was really coming full circle.

The problem with thinking of essays as letters is that correspondence goes in two directions. You don't just send letters out into the void. Hearing back from readers made my essays feel like letters in response. It also helped that as readers got to know the various characters I was writing about, I didn't have to reintroduce them all the time. Everybody already knew my husband and children and parents and brother. It was kind of like writing one of those Christmas letters about how your dog is doing, and photocopying it, and sending it to two hundred friends.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Digital Culture: Portable Musings, by Sven Birkerts (September 10, 1998)
The book is the network, the network is knowledge, and soon you'll be able to curl up in bed with all of it. This calls for some serious rumination.

You write about your affection for the smell and feel of old books, especially those adorned with marginalia. How will you fare in the era of electronic books?

Horribly. It's not that I think that computers don't have their place, but surely their place is not in bed, which is my favorite place to read, and surely their place is not snuggled up with a cat in your lap in an old armchair. You can't have your laptop computer and your cat in your lap simultaneously, while trying to manage a cup of tea, which you might spill on your computer. On the other hand, if you spilled your cup of tea on your book -- well, Charles Lamb would probably just like it better. He once said that he particularly liked books that had old muffin crumbs in them. Muffin crumbs in your computer would not be a good idea.

But that doesn't mean that I'm a Luddite. I think, for example, that CD-ROMs have certain advantages, such as enabling one to search for a particular word. I've always wished that novels had indices. An index would be immensely helpful for the times when you encounter a minor character on page 497 of War and Peace whom you know you've met before but just can't remember. Searching for a name on a CD-ROM would be the easiest thing in the world. And I think that universal library access would be wonderful. Some day, as soon as a book is printed it will be simultaneously put into digital form. That will be a wonderful research tool, but it will never substitute for holding the book. I feel certain that at least within my lifetime, everyone will still be going to the bookstore and buying printed books. Thank God I'll die before I have to worry about whether the printed book itself will disappear. That's something I don't want to live to see.

What is your response to the warning that literature as we know it is in danger? How much do you think new technology has to do with it?

Literature as we know it is always in danger because literature as we know it is constantly in flux. That is the definition of literature. If literature now were exactly the same as it was when Charles Lamb was writing, that would mean it hadn't evolved. Each time you have an interval of two centuries you're going to have major changes. The advent of the printed book, which was once a new technology, surely changed literature as much as current technology will. So literature is changing, but I do not feel that it is dying. It is evolving just the way written correspondence is evolving because of e-mail. E-mail is keeping it alive. It's just changing its form.

Any thoughts on the influence that chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders have had on literature?

When several Barnes & Noble bookstores opened in Manhattan, I refused to go for an entire year. I thought I would just hate them. I am fond of quirky, independent bookstores, the sort with odd shelving systems, say, so that the assistant can't find what you're looking for when the owner is out with the flu. But the assistant is likely to be enormously well-educated, and the owner probably knows every book on every shelf. Superstores are certainly crowding out many such stores, which is a tragedy. Especially since superstore salespeople tend to be far less knowledgeable. I went into a Barnes & Noble, for instance, and asked if they had any books by Charles Lamb, and the saleswoman asked me how to spell his name.

But these days I have more positive than negative feelings about chain bookstores. I now think places like Barnes & Noble and Borders have had a very good influence in many ways. For one, Barnes & Noble bookstores have become a social gathering place, a singles bar for somewhat cerebral singles, a place where you can get your latté and your bestseller at the same time. Here in Manhattan I often take my children to a nearby Barnes & Noble, and it's just buzzing. Everywhere you look people are reading or buying books. And people are carrying Barnes & Noble shopping bags with Virginia Woolf's face on them all over New York. Before, you were either highbrow and books were your life, or you were just buying mass-market paperbacks. The notion of the bookstore as an enjoyable and comfortable gathering spot for everybody in the middle is something very worthwhile that superstores have created.

You've just finished your third issue as editor of The American Scholar, an appointment occasioned by the forced resignation of Joseph Epstein. Loyal readers -- wary of the change, feeling betrayed -- were up-in-arms at first. Has the tide changed?

Not all of the readers of the Scholar felt betrayed, but all of them were wary of the change. As a reader of the Scholar I was also wary of the change. I heard that Joseph Epstein was leaving when I was approached by the search committee, but I assumed that he had retired. I was shocked when I found out that he had been asked to leave. Had I not been given the job, I would have been one of those wary readers looking with some suspicion on the first issue of the new editor, whoever it was.

I received many letters from people both before and after my first issue. Some were enormously enthusiastic, and some were very negative, including one from a reader who suggested that an inhibiting curse be put on me and all future editors of the Scholar. But most of the letters have been very kind. Many people have written in to say, "I've been reading the Scholar for twenty years, and I'm a great admirer of Joseph Epstein, and will miss him, but I'm very interested to see what you're going to do, and I wish you the best."

I miss Joseph Epstein too. He had every reason not to like me, and instead has been extraordinarily generous with his time. He is a very gallant person. He's also a very fine essayist. Mr. Epstein wrote an essay at the beginning of every issue of the Scholar -- every three months -- under a pseudonym, Aristides, and they were still fresh and funny and erudite after twenty-three years. I really miss picking up the Scholar and having Aristides there.

Is the journal taking up all your time, or do you have any other books in the works?

I'm not planning a reportorial book for the next several years, partly because the Scholar is so consuming and partly because my husband, who is also a writer, is working on a book. Emotionally and financially our family can afford only one book at a time. I'm very content to be the bridesmaid for a while instead of the bride. To be in the background as an editor to writers who are much better than myself is very exciting. I just finished sending to the printer an issue that has pieces by Peter Gay, Cynthia Ozick, and Phyllis Rose, and in previous issues I worked with Hortense Calisher, Edward Hoagland, Garry Wills, and Alfred Kazin (in one of his last pieces). It's an incomparable opportunity. It also enables me to be in touch with some of my lifelong heroes. A few weeks ago I opened my mailbox and in it were two poems by John Updike. It was a wonderful moment. It was as if the books on my shelf had come to life.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Discuss this feature in the Books & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.
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