Have I written about how much I love essays? Danielle has been writing about them, reminding me that I’m always on the lookout for good essay collections. She’s got some interesting questions about defining the genre, which, no surprise, turns out to be troublesome to pin down. There are essays that are highly personal, some that are highly factual, some that are highly philosophical or theoretical, some that do all of these things. Some are close to journalism or history, others are close to memoir, others close to polemic. As usual, I have more questions about the genre than answers.
The truth is, however, that what I really care about when it comes to an essay is not the type of essay it is, but the voice it contains. The essay can be about absolutely anything, as long as it’s written in an intriguing way with a strong sense of personality behind it. That’s what’s really so great about essays: that they give you a sense of the writer lurking behind them. That writer must be companionable or witty or sympathetic or brilliant or entertaining, or something enjoyable, and as long as the writer is one of those things, he or she can write about nail clippers for all I care — as Nicholson Baker does in his book The Size of Thoughts. (But good lord has anyone read his essay on lumber? There are limits to these things.)
My favorites include the great and wonderful Michel de Montaigne, whose complete essays I will one day read in their entirely (Stefanie has a wonderful series of posts on these essays). I adore a Virginia Woolf essay. My favorite essay of hers is “Street Haunting,” which you can find in The Art of the Personal Essay, my favorite essay anthology ever. Woolf’s Common Reader series is excellent. I’ve read many a George Orwell essay with pleasure: this collection is particularly good. And I know I’ve mentioned how fond I am of Mary McCarthy’s essays, particularly “My Confession” and “Artists in Uniform.”
I’ve read Addison and Steele’s essays with pleasure; I love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay “The Crack-up” (found in Lopate); I find James Baldwin’s essays powerful; and I’ve read several Richard Rodriguez essays that I’ve loved. I’ve read my way through The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
Does anybody have a favorite collection of essays? I’m particularly interested in single-author collections, but if you have a favorite anthology, I’d love to hear about that too. Any other essay enthusiasts out there?