On the Reading and Writing of Essays


There are those today for whom the genre known as the literary and cultural essay is their favorite kind of reading…and writing. In his brief introduction to the 2012 edition of The Best American Essays, David Brooks provides an excellent introduction to the essay as a literary form. Brooks concludes his remarks on the essay by noting that it seems to reflect the human impulse toward self-improvement through a wider understanding and appreciation of life in its rich intellectual and cultural diversity. He  writes: “That self-improving ethos was something that was taken for granted in the mid-twentieth century, and now we are fortified by the knowledge that the things that re most lasting and edifying are the things that lodge in the brain most deeply, which means they are emotional, enjoyable, and fun.”

Brooks does a fine job of identifying many of the great essayists in the history of the genre. These include the usual suspects: Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Emerson, Thoreau, Walter Lippmann, Lionel Trilling, Isaiah Berlin, George Orwell, Irving Howe, Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt, Alfred Kazin, and many others.

He also mentions some of his favorite literary-cultural journals and related websites. These include The Partisan Review, Arts & Letters Daily, the Browser, Longform, and  Tyler Cowen, who blogs for Marginal Revolution. Brooks points out that Cowen is an economist at George Mason University, “but he blogs knowledgeably about ethnic foods, chess, the culture of northern Europe (and everywhere else), novels, politics, cognition, and on and on.”

And isn’t that the point about all literary and cultural essayists, many of whom are also blogging today? Nowhere is the word “polymath” evoked in considering the vocation of the essayist, but in a society of increasingly narrow specialists the essayist stands out as a liberally educated humanist with wide and diverse intellectual and cultural interests. Of course some essays choose to specialize in their “day job,” whether as travel writers, nature writers, science writers, book reviewers, film reviewers, and so forth. But if you scratch a little beneath the surface in most cases these specialized writers have much wider interests that they get to explore in their “free time” or through blogging.

While some essayists have are  partisan polemicists, others by temperament prefer to “weigh and consider” many points of view without “voting” upon them. Each approach has its own value and merit. Some essayists prefer to explore the human condition in its complex diversity without choosing sides or becoming identified with any particular ideology, while others think the whole point of writing essays is to exposite and defend a particular idea or  ideology while critiquing others. Some essayists remain neutral and detached on some issues but partisan and parochial on others. I confess that my own pre-disposition is to be a passionate moderate and radical centrist in the Pragmatist tradition, who nevertheless has some sympathies with the partisan polemicists who are out correct the ignorant, explose the frauds, denounce the wicked, protect the weak, and save the world. Some one has quipped, “I can’t decide whether I want to save the world or savor the world, and that makes it hard for me to plan my day.”

I can’t think of a better education for today’s bloggers than to make it a daily habit not only to follow other bloggers who have something to say and who say it well, but also to read the great essayists of the past and present. Reading the yearly editions of The Best American Essays is a good place to start, along with such websites as Arts & Letters Daily, the Browser, and others.

The best essayists are able to write about many things at once without imposing an oppressive order or falling into total chaos. They are friendly rather than hostile toward the experience of the mysterious, ambiguous, paradoxical,  dialectical, ironic, incommensurable, perplexing,  oblique, oxymoronic and “chaordic.” They care about “the great questions of life” and at the same time notice the small and idiosyncratic things that add charm and color. They are able to weave a interlacing patchwork of widely varied experiences, memories, stories, ideas, metaphors, analogies, creations, discoveries, theories and practices into a broadly reflective and  imaginative “gestalt”, and to do this without any “reductionism” that would minimize or over-simplify the rich diversity and vast complexity of life.

Before there were bloggers there were essayists. Blogging itself represents a global revolution in the sharing of the varieties of human consciousness. It has greatly “democratized” the writing life. The down-side of this phenomena is that it can simply degenerate into  a vast pooling of ignorance. The great essayists provide us with standards and guidelines for intelligent blogging. We need to be reading and learning from them. These are our natural mentors and master teachers.

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