Wednesday, April 6, 2016
E is for Essay
What is a blog, after all, but the work of 21st century essayists? Well, I suppose it's any number of other things, but the act of expressing our own thoughts about what we see around us definitely is closely related to that elegant 18th century literary art.
I actually haven't read many classic essays, beyond what might have been assigned in school. I have, however, enjoyed many modern essay collections, starting with a minor obsession with the annual "Best American Essay" anthologies a college professor introduced me to in the late 1980s. If you want variety of not just subject, but also mood, approach, and style, this is a great place to start. I just had to go check that they're still being published, and it turns out the 2015 edition came out last October.
Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" is a classic feminist essay. Following in her footsteps, Ursula le Guin and Barbara Kingsolver are great essayists, but they will each get their own day to shine when I hit U and K, respectively. Classics of environmentalist essays include Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Aldo Leopold's Sand River Almanac and Edward Abby's Desert Solitaire. I read all of those back in the era when I occasionally showed up at environmental rallies and workshops, completely confused as to why a fist fight would break out at a rally for clean water. (Now I know it was because closing the aluminum plant on Lake Champlain would cost jobs, and there's nothing quite like having a bunch of out-of-state college students claiming that their ideals trump your employment. I still side with clean water, but I do at least see where that anger came from.)
I also read travel essays, gobbling up Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, the Victorian A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, and anything by Pico Ayer. I read humor essays, starting with writers my parents loved--Emma Bombeck, Will Rogers, Dave Barry, Tim Cahill, Patrick F. McManus. I challenged my politics with P. J. O'Rourke, alternately enraged and entertained by his brand of humor. Speaking of politics, I loved reading collections by newspaper columnists Molly Ivins and Mike Royko, who in addition to being wildly entertaining, informed my thinking about national politics and widened my understanding of local politics outside my locale. David Sedaris and Bill Bryson came later, writing absurd comedy that still somehow fit the essay designation. I kept finding great essay collections: Douglas Adams' Last Chance to See, Po Bronson's Nurture Shock, Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies.
My essay tastes are pretty clear. I want to be entertained while being moved, or possibly informed while being entertained. There's a fine line between memoir and essay in many of the above examples. My reasoning is that if a chapter could be lifted from the book and read alone, then it's an essay, but if you need the whole context, it's memoir. Still, the personal is obviously deeply interesting to me. I want to know not just what the essayist thinks, but how they feel. I want to know not just the results of their research, but also the effects of their lived experience.
Some of the my favorite bloggers are essayists in this tradition. Beth Woolsey of Five Kids is a Lot of Kids, Stacy at Is There Any Mommy Out There? and everyone's beloved Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery all write insightful, carefully wrought pieces that go far beyond the off-the-cuff rambling of your ordinary blogger. Emma Oulton at Eggplant Emoji mixes up book reviews with thoughtful analyses of modern feminism. Creative nonfiction is their forte. Blogging is their platform. But Francis Bacon, Samuel Johnson and Motaigne would surely recognize all of these writers as fellow essayists.