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The writer whose books simply have to be shared

A Hmong refugee. (Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

A Hmong refugee. (Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

December 17, 2018   3 mins

Have you ever accidentally said hello to a celebrity? You know: you walk past a familiar face in the street that you can’t place, so you chime in with a smile, and a greeting, only to realise it’s only him off the telly?

That unplaceable familiarity is exactly how I feel about the voice of the writer Anne Fadiman. When I open a book of her writing, it’s like starting up a conversation we’ve been having for years, over cups of tea and glasses of wine at a worn out kitchen table. I’ve bought so many copies of her two little books of essays – Ex Libris and At Large and At Small – I’ve lost count. As soon as I have a copy, I think of someone new I want to bring into the conversation, and I give it away.

If you like reading – and, as you’re currently reading an article about what to read – that’s a safe bet, you have to get these books. I don’t know anyone who writes so resonantly and intimately about the value and the meaning of words, books, reading, and writing.

Anne (in my mind, we’re pals, you see, so it’s Anne) understands the value of the book as a physical object: she tells the story in one essay of, as newlyweds, merging her book collection with that of her husband. How do you handle the duplicates? Anne will tell you. Do you group by author or by topic? Or – God forbid – by the colour of the spines? Anne will tell you.

It’s because of Anne that my holiday reading is always a book set in my destination. This summer I read Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler while staying in Baden Baden. I read the Leopard in Sicily. I once sat in St James’ Square and read an entire Georgette Heyer novel. It’s like augmented reality: the book is more vivid as you read because the places come to live in your mind. And the place comes alive with shadows of the characters you can almost see strolling down the street.

Anne has views on grammar and punctuation, of course. She’s done a lot of thinking on the best time of day to write and what happens if you get it wrong. She knows about how to catch butterflies. She’ll share with you the luxury of riffling through a second hand bookshop; the intimacy of reading someone else’s marginalia and jottings; her nostalgia for the age of letter-writing and exactly why she’s ever so slightly in love with Charles Lamb.

When you fall in love with a writer through their words, you find yourself compelled to read everything they put their name to. Anne’s read everything by Charles Lamb. And I’ve read everything by Anne.

I bought a collection of essays called The Opposite of Loneliness simply because Anne had written the foreword – and was so grateful that she had led me to it. It’s a collection of writing by a Yale student, Marina Keegan, published in her honour after her death in a car accident. It’s essential reading for anyone trying to find their place in the world (and isn’t that everyone?). It’s been five years since I opened it and yet I can still call up the emotion of my response to the titular essay in a heartbeat.

There’s one book Anne wrote herself I’d never have picked up if it weren’t for her name. The Sprit Catches You and You Fall Down is an ethnographic study of a Hmong refugee girl with severe epilepsy, and if that doesn’t sound boring to you then you’re a better person than I. I didn’t care about epilepsy and had never heard of the Hmong, but I wanted to find out what Anne thought, so I read it.

I haven’t shed as many tears over any other book. There’s one haunting passage that lives on in my soul, describing the journey of a refugee family through the mountains, starving, desperate, unarmed and pursued by war. If I have any ability to understand the enormity of the experience of life as a refugee it is thanks to this book.

Finally there’s the Wine Lover’s Daughter, a memoir of Anne’s father, which helped me love my own wine-loving father even more. Somehow Anne’s ability to translate emotion into language makes it easier to hold on to the emotions in my own heart.

And… that’s it. Anne is not prolific. She’s too busy chatting over the kitchen table, I expect, expressing wise and witty thoughts that those of us who only know her in print can only hope she’ll share one day. As I write, my shelves stand empty of Anne’s beautiful books; I must have given the latest copies away. I’ve ordered new ones. I may manage the Christmas season without turning them into presents but I’m not making any promises.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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