"The word essay
has been hijacked, blasphemed, forced into service for the enemy." Thus thunders essayist Patrick Madden
in The Huffington Post. Schools have turned the form into "a punishment
... a brief bit of prose designed as a rhetorical proof of somebody
else's ideas." Is there any chance of resurrecting this lost art? What
are essays at their best, anyway?
Some readers will see that
word, associate all kinds of negative things with it, and move on to
the books with their authors' names in huge ALL CAPS on the cover. But
others, readers like me, will get that "essays" are humble meditations
on the world's wonders; they'll associate the term with Virginia Woolf
and George Orwell, or, further back, with Charles Lamb, William
Hazlitt, Michel de Montaigne, and they'll long for the opportunity to
live in someone else's mind for a while, to co-explore the mysteries of
everyday things and to marvel at the simple joy of making meaning
Those writers may never go out of fashion, but the form itself is another question. As Madden asks, "are essays
viable in the twenty-first century?" Yet while publishers are
reluctant to publish essay collections, some "big-name writers,
like John McPhee, Cynthia Ozick, Anne Fadiman, Joan Didion, and Ian
Frazier, still choose to write essays and not hide the fact." Is there
still a place for those tossing off musing perambulations of prose,
"grasping for connection and meaning"?
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