Julia Felsenthal in Vogue:
“I am quite convinced,” writer Clifton Fadiman once observed, “that our culture makes it difficult, if not impossible, for children ever really to know their parents.”
If you’re not familiar (and if you’re anywhere close to my age, chances are you’re not), Fadiman was the Brooklyn-born son of immigrants who rose meteorically from humble origins to become, in the middle part of the 20th century, an essayist, critic, editor, public intellectual, radio personality, peerless wit, and something of a household name. At 28, he was the editor in chief of Simon & Schuster; at 29, the book critic of The New Yorker; at 34, the host of Information Please, an NBC radio quiz show that at its height drew 15 million listeners (at a time when that was roughly one in 10 Americans). Later he was a cofounder and longtime judge of the Book of the Month Club; a serial editor of anthologies; a prolific writer of forewords and afterwords, prefaces and introductions, essays and articles; author of a children’s book, a guide to world literature, and an encyclopedic tome for oenophiles. So devoted was he to the written word that his New York Times obituary—he died at 95 in 1999 from pancreatic cancer, after going effectively blind in his late 80s—charmingly dubbed him a “bookworm’s bookworm.”
He was also the father of three children, among them a daughter, Anne Fadiman, a bookworm and author in her own right, best known for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a journalistic account of the devastating clash between Western medical practice and Hmong spiritual belief as it played out in the unfortunate case of an epileptic toddler whose refugee family resettled in California’s Central Valley in the 1980s. The Spirit Catches You, published in 1997, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and became an unlikely cult favorite, a touchstone for a generation of social scientists, teachers, doctors, and journalists (including this one).