On those occasions when you’d like to learn something in twenty minutes, and also be challenged and entertained, you can hardly do better than to read Rebecca Solnit, Eva Brann, Joseph Epstein, or another of a handful of contemporary essayists on everyone’s A-list. For that matter, look back over the past hundred years to names like Orwell, Borges, Pritchett, and, more recently, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, and Edward Hoagland, and marvel at culture-altering, shift-causing works of intellectual art, intimate explorations of self, and a style of power writing that will make your head wobble.
Why, you might ask, are some of the world’s best and smartest committed to essays? Hard to pinpoint, of course, but based on the personal, twinkle-in-the-eye tone adopted by most of the aforementioned and other masters of the craft, it seems the writers view the work as sport, as if they’re set on having a little fun.
Since Michel de Montaigne invented the discipline in 1680 or so, essayists have chosen to write in a familiar, introspective style. And as the discipline developed, especially in England, the genial humility of the writers was viewed as authentic and likable, endearing to readers.
Phyllis Rose tagged Montaigne a “verbal riff” master, the “father of jazz,” the first to make art “by letting one thing lead to another.” And like jazz, the brilliant moments in an essay arrive at that point of connection between topics. Suddenly, we’re off in a wildly different direction, and the writer seems delighted, as if he’s along for this train-off-the-tracks experience, as well.
The great essayists are miracle workers because of their huge reservoir of worldly knowledge, the ability to ponder any number of compelling ideas at once, and the writing chops to wander from subject to unlikely subject—sandwiched around a whimsical anecdote—in a fluid waltz of words while making it all seem incidental, a simple two-step.
“For a writer like Rebecca Solnit, it is impossible to walk through a pitch dark labyrinth in Iceland without thinking of Athena hacking her way out of Zeus’s head, labias, certain Christians who believe the Virgin Mary conceived through her ear, and this mesmerizing passage: ‘Darkness is amorous, the darkness of passion, of your own unknowns rising to the surface, the darkness of interiors, and perhaps part of what makes pornography so pornographic is the glaring light in which it transpires, that and the lack of actual touch, the substitution of eyes for skin, of seeing for touching.’”
I wrote that last in a review of Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, a Trinity University Press book, back in October of 2014. She was a new name to me and I was transfixed by the serenity of her voice. She was just so cool and smart. In the main, I read because I want to learn something and Solnit has never disappointed me.
Solnit’s last two collections of essays are Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, by the University of California Press, and Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, by Haymarket Books. The Mother of All Questions: Further Reports from the Feminist Revolutions, also by Haymarket, will be released in March of 2017.
Eva Brann’s Doublethink / Doubletalk: Naturalizing Second Thoughts and Twofold Speech was published in August by Paul Dry Books.
With the news media in disarray, an overwhelming amount of data and information at our fingertips, news feed services that cater to our biases, conspiracy theories and propaganda campaigns rife on the internet, the difficulty of fact checking in what seems to be a post-truth world, we are all left a bit weary and uncertain about the things we thought were solid and fundamental. With its gentle tone and transparency, the essay just may be the ideal format for our time.
Matt Sutherland is Editor in Chief at Foreword Reviews. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.