Continuing with Good Prose: The Art of Non-Fiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. This week I read about essays. I love to read essays. Like short stories, you can dip into a book of essays and read just one while you are having a cup of coffee or tea, then put the book away, and think about what you read. Did I agree or disagree? How would I say it differently? Why do I like this essay (or essayist) or why do I dislike what I’ve read?
Here are a few quotes about writing essays:
Most of the work that we call personal essay goes beyond logic and fact into the sovereign claims of idiosyncrasy. This is not to suggest that essays should be illogical, but they may be, and generally should be, extra-logical–governed by associative more than by strictly linear thought.
What gives you license to write essays? Only the presence of an idea and the ability to make it your own. People speak of the “personal essay” as a form, but all essays are personal. They may make sweeping pronouncements, but they bear the stamp of an individual mind. Original ideas, those hinges on which an era turns, are rare. It is unlikely that you will write The Origin of Species. Or that you will be Emerson. But originality and profundity are not identical. Profound ideas bear repeating, or rediscovery, and many original ideas do not. Essays are like poems in that they may confront old wisdom in a fresh way.
Self-doubt, fatal in so many enterprises, fortifies the essay.
Every essayist deals with the same general ingredients–self and experience and idea–but everyone deals with them differently. Good essayists share the ability and the confidence to use the power of their own highly specified convictions.
We read many of the essayists from past centuries: Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Charles Lamb, Emerson and Thoreau. We also like to read more modern essays be G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers.
I also enjoy reading essays by Virginia Woolf, Jan Struther, Wendell Berry, and Anne Fadiman.
Here are some links to essays that I especially appreciate. I hope these whet your appetite to read more of this wonderful genre of writing and perhaps they will even inspire you to try your hand at writing an essay of your own.
On Learning in War-Time – by C.S. Lewis
On Lying in Bed by G.K. Chesterton
Of Age by Montaigne
The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
The Two Races of Men by Charles Lamb
AINSWORTH-ZAZOULIAN by Jan Struther
Never Do That to a Book by Anne Fadiman