At Large and At Small, By Anne Fadiman

Lamb with ice-cream and a sweet American sauce
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As any publisher or agent will tell you, these days it is essential for an author to be easily located within a genre otherwise the bookshops won't have any idea which section to put you in, and the readers won't know where to look. Anne Fadiman is unfortunate, or stubborn, in this respect, since she writes within an increasingly obscure, if not moribund, genre: what she terms "the familiar essay". Clearly, the familiarity has little to do with her readers' habituation to the genre, or to do with the material, which is often fairly recondite.

Rather, it is a matter of tone, an assumption of ease and intimacy between writer and reader. In the preface to her latest collection a successor to her Ex Libris she defines the familiar essay in opposition to the critical essay (more brain than heart) and the personal essay (more heart than brain). The familiar essay has equal parts of both.

The vagueness of this (slightly self-promoting) formulation gives Fadiman licence to pursue a pleasing variety of topics: she offers social histories of ice-cream and coffee, together with voluptuary accounts of her own relationships with them; she questions the pose of moral superiority adopted by early-rising larks, from the standpoint of a night-owl; she delineates the history of the postage stamp, and the effect it had on the art of letter-writing, together with a perhaps too-familiar lament for the decline of the letter in the age of email; and uses her move from New York City to the countryside as the basis of a disquisition on the trauma and necessity of change.

She also includes biographical sketches of three of her heroes, of whom the most surprising is Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Icelandic-Canadian explorer, whose book The Friendly Arctic claimed that the polar regions, if you treat them right, offer the most hospitable and enjoyable conditions anywhere on earth. The other two are Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, most importantly, Charles Lamb.

Lamb is the presiding spirit of the volume: his Essays of Elia provide a model for Fadiman's own discursive, learned, sometimes whimsical writing, and her piece about him, "The Unfuzzy Lamb", is among the most satisfying here. Fadiman argues that generations of readers have been tricked by his surname into seeing Lamb as a reassuring figure, overlooking the complicated passions that shaped his life and writing. When he was 21, his older sister, Mary, lost her wits and killed their mother with a carving-knife; Lamb's grief was concentrated on his mad sister, his mother barely mourned.

But while Fadiman values awkwardness and emotional strain in Lamb, these are precisely the qualities I miss from her work with the sole exception of the final piece, "Under Water", a vignette about a student experience of seeing a boy drown.

These essays are skilfully constructed, packed with odd little nuggets of fact the percentage of butterfat in brands of ice-cream; a list of the brigands whom Theseus encountered on the road to Athens, and their different methods to entrap and murder passers-by; the precise dimensions laid down in statute for the American flag and the surprising connections between them.

What I don't like is a fusty quality to her writing (who says "lest" or "alas" these days?), and I felt an intermittent irritation with Fadiman's desire to tell us about her adorable, quirky family and their agreeable life. To be fair, At Large and At Small is not meant to be ingested reviewer-style, in great gulps; the odd sip now and then would be, I think, an enjoyable experience.

Allen Lane 12.99 (220pp) 11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897