When three-month-old Lia Lee Arrived at the county hospital emergency room in Merced, California, a chain of events was set in motion from which neither she nor her parents nor her doctors would ever recover. Lia's parents, Foua and Nao Kao, were part of a large Hmong community in Merced, refugees from the CIA-run "Quiet War" in Laos. The Hmong, traditionally a close-knit and fiercely people, have been less amenable to assimilation than most immigrants, adhering steadfastly to the rituals and beliefs of their ancestors. Lia's pediatricians, Neil Ernst and his wife, Peggy Philip, cleaved just as strongly to another tradition: that of Western medicine. When Lia Lee Entered the American medical system, diagnosed as an epileptic, her story became a tragic case history of cultural miscommunication.
Parents and doctors both wanted the best for Lia, but their ideas about the causes of her illness and its treatment could hardly have been more different. The Hmong see illness aand healing as spiritual matters linked to virtually everything in the universe, while medical community marks a division between body and soul, and concerns itself almost exclusively with the former. Lia's doctors ascribed her seizures to the misfiring of her cerebral neurons; her parents called her illness, qaug dab peg--the spirit catches you and you fall down--and ascribed it to the wandering of her soul. The doctors prescribed anticonvulsants; her parents preferred animal sacrifices.
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.
The editor of Rereadings is Anne Fadiman, and readers of her bestselling book Ex Libris (FSG, 1998) will find this volume especially satisfying. Her chosen authors include Sven Birkerts, Allegra Goodman, Vivian Gornick, Patricia Hampl, Phillip Lopate, and Luc Sante; the objects of their literary affections range from Pride and Prejudice to Sue Barton, Student Nurse. Each has selected a book or a story or a poem--or even, in one case, the lyrics on the back of the Sgt. Pepper album--that made a deep impression in his or her youth, and reread it to see how it has changed in the interim. (Of course, what has really changed is the reader.)
These essays are not conventional literary criticism; they are about relationships. The relationship between reader and book is a powerful one, and as these writers attest, it evolves over time. Rereadings reveals at least as much about the reader as about the book: each is a miniature memoir that focuses on that most interesting of topics, the protean nature of love. And as every bibliophile knows, no love is more life-changing than the love of a book.