“Deep experience is never peaceful.”
One balmy morning, wandering hither and yon, what should I espy, but a pile of books destined for a fate less than kind. Ah, fickle-handed fate! For what better rescuer could that forlorn pile slated for oblivion have found than a book lover and irrepressible reader? Not for me the old economics text or the exercise manual from the ‘70s. So sorry, but no! What caught my eye was a perfectly perfect paperback: Fifty Great Essays. Today, it holds a place of honor in a bookcase just outside my office.
Fifty Great Essays — what ravishing, refreshing delights they offer! The word “essay” comes from the French word “essaie” and means to try or attempt. This dynamic art form has a long and colorful history: The early Roman philosopher Seneca wrote essays on “Asthma” and “Noise” while a Japanese court lady and Buddhist monk living at about the same time pondered wildly different subjects. And then there was Montaigne, widely considered the father of the form, who wrote with candor and curiosity about everything from children to cannibals.
Like short stories, essays are pint-size, manageable models to be enjoyed, but also decoded for style and structure. Dipping into my rescued treasure-house of essays, I can find a tantalizing taste of just about everything life offers: elegance, anger, joy, wonder, bemusement, befuddlement, betrayal. It’s amazing how vast and inviting a realm the essay is — and how many ways wonderful writers have stretched and pushed its boundaries to have their say.
Frederick Douglass (Learning to Read and Write); Annie Dillard (Living Like Weasels); Ralph Ellison (Living with Music); Stephen Gould (Women’s Brains); Henry David Thoreau (Why I Went to the Woods); Mark Twain (Reading the River); and Thomas Wolfe (Only One Life) — just consider all the streams of life an essay can hold — what a vast ocean of meaning and amusement. What a treasure trove of personal ambitions, opinions, and quirks. What a wonderful art form for us as writers to savor — and study!