Just say the word “essay” and many people are immediately transported back to high school and the trauma of having to write a paper. I have certainly had those traumatic moments but I have lived enough (or read enough?) to get to the point that I now adore reading the format. Reading a book of essays is like having a really great magazine with interesting articles but without the annoying commercial advertisements.
Essays began as a format with Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) and the word derives from the French infinitive essayer, “to try” or “to attempt.” I recently read “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer” by Sarah Bakewell. While I enjoyed learning about Montaigne, I was really enthralled with Bakewell’s expositions on his thoughts. Shortly after reading Bakewell’s book, I read my first book by Joan Didion: “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” That’s when I decided that I want to read more female essayists — a lot more female essayists. I love hearing their perspectives and their stories.
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
~Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
I love essays partially because they are short. I can read a little or a lot. I can read from beginning to end or pick and choose or even read them out of order. It’s just not the same kind of commitment as a novel or even a book of narrative nonfiction. Essays tend to be reflective and are often circular, coming back to something that had seemed incidental and set aside only to become important once revisited.
Essays can be hard to find. Because they are nonfiction, they can be just about anywhere. Sometimes they are published as a single essay as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists.” But other times, they can look like a biography or memoir like “When Women Were Birds” by Terry Tempest Williams where every chapter is its own essay and a variance on a theme. Some can be hidden in the travel section like Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.” Another favorite of mine lives in the history section: “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell where she reflects on historical events but relates it to modern day life.
A great essay is a work of art. It can expand your mind, thinking and world. An essay can read like poetry. It can turn a very personal event into an overall lesson on humanity or it can take a vast subject and make it personal. Another book I recently read by Maria Popova, “Figuring,” did all of those things for me.
“Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love?”
~Figuring by Maria Popova
In my quest for more, I have made a list of possible next books of essays by women for myself that I’m happy to share with you.