You’d think that a guy who teaches high school English wouldn’t be interested in reading any more essays than the ones he has to grade.
But I guess I’m an odd duck when it comes to this unique literary genre. Because at any given time there are at least a couple of published collections of essays lying around my house.
Those books are by a diverse cadre of writers and cover a wide range of topics, but they all have one thing in common: none of them have bookmarks sticking out of their pages. That’s not because I’m a page bender; my mother taught me long ago that dog-earing pages in books is something mighty close to a sin. There’re no bookmarks in those tomes because one thing I love about them is that I can dip in and read one or two essays, be done with them, and go on about my business. Each selection is a compact meditation on or perusal of a specific topic; they are “think pieces”, which means much thinking was supplied by the writer and some will be required of the reader.
I never read the essays in order, but just find a title that catches my fancy and start.
I’m pretty sure the first book of essays I ever read was by Peter Bogdanovich, the movie director. I bought the paperback edition of Pieces of Time: Essays on the Movies in the university bookstore at Sam Houston sometime in the early seventies.
Bogdanovich made some great films – “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon” among them – but one of his greatest legacies has been as a film historian. I really don’t remember what prompted me to plop down some of my GI Bill money for that book back then. It certainly wasn’t to quench any great thirst for a deeper understanding of cinematic philosophy; more than likely it was because Mr. Bogdanovich was famously dating Cybill Shepherd, a cute young starlet who’d caught my eye. I probably thought some of it would be about her. It wasn’t.
Whatever the reason, reading that book set me on a long road of enjoying essays. You won’t be surprised that most of the collections that I favor are by writers of fiction, but not exclusively. The late legendary sports writer Red Smith’s To Absent Friends contains a wonderful parade of the colorful characters he knew in his long career. Another gem I’ve dipped into regularly is Gerald Asher on Wine.
Here are a few compilations that are at the top of my list of favorites.
What the Twilight Says, by Caribbean poet and Nobel Prize laureate Derek Walcott, offers a plethora of pleasures, the best of which is “The Road not Taken”, his assessment of Robert Frost. And Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange and one of my top ten favorite novels, Earthly Powers, is in top form in One Man’s Chorus, especially so in the humorous piece titled “Understanding the French.”
Two more collections by novelists – John Updike’s Hugging the Shore and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Vagrant Mood – are fine. And my very favorite is Flannery O’Conner’s Mystery and Manners, long regarded as a nearly sacred text for anyone aspiring to be a teller of tales.
A recent addition to my shelf is Essays after Eighty by Donald Dell. They’re so full of life and a positive outlook they make me a little less afraid of the future.
Please share if you’re into essays and if you have any recommendations of collections.
( Parts of this were published in a Sunday newspaper article in 2011 )