Sunday, 9 March 2014

A Few Favourite Essays

If you asked me to define what an essay means to me, I’d have two separate answers. The first is completed weekly for my course, considering genre or language or fragmented identity. The second type is written for my blog - the careful choice and exploration of a particular subject, topic or issue. Similarly, there are various forms of essay I love to read, both critical and creative (with plenty of crossover between the two). Some time ago, a reader asked if I might give some recommended ones to read. It was a hard list to whittle down, and is by no means a comprehensive overview of all my favourite essays – a tricky thing to compile in an age where the lines between essay, opinion column, book review and blog post have been rubbed out and redrawn. So this is just a small handful of pieces that have influenced, encouraged, motivated, dazzled, provoked and left lasting impressions.  I have given links where possible. 

  • ·      I first read Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ at sixteen, thrilled on discovering that a form I'd previously thought dry and analytical could become so alive under the right pen. Charting female literary heritage, changing values and the craft of writing, her essay is a treatise on everything from emancipation to observations that “a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built… into arcades or domes.  (See also ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, ‘The Leaning Tower’ and anything else of hers you can lay your hands on. ‘The Decay of Essay-Writing’ and ‘The Modern Essay’ are both fascinating looks at the form itself.)

  • ·      Is there a distinction between autobiography and essay? Hilary Mantel’s reflections on her time in hospital following surgery could qualify as a diary entry or short memoir piece, but also forms a powerful essay on hallucination, pain and being a patient. Her body is stripped back to its messy functions and malfunctions, experiencing “the iambic pentameter of the saline stand, the alexandrine of the blood drain, the epidural’s sweet sonnet form.” (See also her essay on Kate Middleton and the concept of the royal body here.)

  • ·      Jeanette Winterson’s ‘A Place Before the Flood’ ruminates on her four-day stay in a boat atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London (an installation based on the Roi des Belges from Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’). As gorgeous as the rest of her prose, here she becomes “a slow shutter-speed camera” to record “the tide of people flowing over the tide of the river.” As she sees and captures, “the boat itself bears witness to the unspeakable strangeness of life.” It can be heard as a podcast here.

  • ·      Laurie Lee’s ‘Writing Autobiography’ has been mentioned before, but these concluding sentences further illuminate his mastery of thought and image: “The autobiographer’s self can be a transmitter of life that is larger than his own – though it is best that he should be shown taking part in that life and involved in its dirt and splendours. The dead stick ‘I’, like the staff of the maypole, can be the centre of the turning world, or it can be the electric needle that picks up and relays the thronging choirs of life around it.” (See also ‘An Obstinate Exile’ and ‘First Love’. All are taken from the exquisite collection ‘I Can’t Stay Long’.)

  • ·      ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’ demonstrates George Eliot’s sharp intellect and keen wit in criticising the type of ‘silly’ books that “we imagine, are less the result of labour than of busy idleness,” concluding that the novel should be a form “free from rigid requirements… we have only to pour in the right elements – genuine observation, humour and passion.” 

  • ·      I’ve mentioned my treasured second-hand find, ‘A Book of English Essays’ before, discussing Maurice Hewlett’s ‘The Maypole and the Column’ here. There are other essays in the compilation worth mentioning too, particularly William Hazlitt’s ‘On Going on a Journey’, which perfectly captures the serenity of a solitary walk: “I begin to feel, think, and be myself again.” 

  • ·      Walter Pater’s Conclusion to ‘The Renaissance’ is another one difficult to condense into a word or two. It’s an intriguing ‘live-in-the-moment’ manifesto, an aesthetic theory, a stunning piece of writing. The prose twists and turns, yielding comments such as, “the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind,” and “to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,” and “what we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions.” 

  • ·      George Orwell’s ‘Books v. Cigarettes’ is an interesting discussion of the reasons given by some for not buying books – concluding that, at the time of writing, reading is the cheapest pastime after the radio. This passage is particularly resonant: “there are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life, books that one dips into but never reads through, books that one reads at a single sitting and forgets a week later: and the cost, in terms of money, may be the same in each case.”

Then there are the essays and essayists I am still meaning to read – Joan Didion, for example, and Susan Sontag, as well as the whole volume of ‘The Oxford Book of English Essays’ (ed. John Gross). I’d love other people’s suggestions to stack up on my ‘to read’ list too, so please do let me know if you have favourites that you think worth sharing. 

I thought this outfit seemed somewhat appropriate, as it's the kind of thing I'd wear for a day of lazing around reading essays (although perhaps minus the belt and heels). Everything I'm wearing is vintage or second hand. The photos were taken last summer by the ever-fabulous, always-industrious Florence Fox.  



AVY said...

That's a fantastic reading outfit.


Ivana Split said...

I think my favourite essayist (in English) would have to be George Elliot. The essay form seems so perfect for his wit. I'm not sure can Isaac Asimov be considered an essayist but I have enjoyed his essays. Margaret Atwood also comes to my mind, somehow she has a way of getting things stick in your head...I always admired the way she is not afraid to question everything and everyone.

Chomsky is one of those essayist I don't read for pleasure, but more to get informed. I must say I admire how he manages to connect so much information in one essay. I don't know anyone who talks about politics so plainly and openly. After reading one of his books, I remember thinking, 'Now, this is what an intellectual should be like'

I like your list, George Eliot is one of those essayist I really admire. I see some authors I'm not familiar with ( Laurie Lee,Jeanette Winterson, Walter Pater.) I hope I'll get a chance to get familiar with them soon.

The outfit is spectacular, just perfect for the spring. The belt is fantastic!

Lydia Armstrong said...

Thanks for the suggestions! I haven't read many essays, and I've especially wanted to read more Virginia Woolf. I love the plaid pants--the second shot is beautiful.

Closet Fashionista said...

I'm so bad with reading, I really need to start doing it...but maybe I'll try some of these. :)


I've a list of some essays I want to read this month. I would have love to grab your secondhand find of 'A Book of English Essays.'
The trousers, and colourful outfit combination is a happy pairing for a day of enjoying what you love ... reading time. Excellent recommendations!

Vix said...

Thanks for the suggestions, I promise to endeavour to read them before too long!
Love the outfit, your legs look a million miles long and your smile is glorious. xxx

Bridget said...

Oh I love A Room of One's Own! I've been meaning to read Three Guineas for a while, but I have yet to get to it. I don't remember which Joan Didion piece I read, but I know I really enjoyed it. This one image of yellow silk curtains has always stayed with me.

Sacramento Amate said...

My dear Rosalid i will just say how much I admire you, but above all how hopeful you make me of the human race.
You are adorable and so is your head and your heart.
Sending love and sunshine from Málaga- Andalusia.
We have moved to a new house 100 mts from the sea with mountains holding our backs ( we love mountains)
The weather is sweet, never hotter than 30 or colder than 9º.

Carlota Antolin Vallespin said...

Oh! Thank you for this list, I will read some of them when I have time (I love reading, but I have to press myself to start to do it in english so that I can improve my english comprehension and way to use the language). If the recommendations come from you I'm sure I will like it.

But I also have to say something about this wonderful outfit, full of color and energy! I love it, what else I can say! But specially those trousers, the spectrum of colors is delicious....oh! I wish I could have them for myself. They look really confortable, which is something really important for me.

Thank you so much for visit my blog. I didn't expect an answer from you. It made me feel so good to see your comment. Honest and real :)


Willow said...

I revere Virginia Woolf, but have only read 'A Room of One's Own' so far. I will endeavor to read more of her wonderful work and to get my hands on some of the other essays you listed. I really enjoyed the excerpts you provided and am now very interested in reading more!

Great reading outfit. It's the perfect combination of stylish and comfortable, I particularly love the way you styled the jumper with the blue shirt and belt. I have a clutch very similar to yours (perhaps a little smaller) in which I keep letters I've received from friends.
As always, beautiful shots by Florence. The second and last images are GORGEOUS and your smile in that last photo is infectious.

Izzy DM said...

Trying this again... (If you remember my last comment was blocked by my computer's own cookies!) Also, just occurred to me should try using a different web engine...

I loved this post. So much inspiration and (ack) lots more books/ essays to add to my reading list! I also read Virginia Woolf at 16, but I was so dazzled by her virtuosity that I felt like I could never be a writer. I'm glad you took a different lesson from her essay, the one I'm sure she wanted to impart to future women.

You'll love Joan Didion! Slouching Towards Bethlehem is an incredible collection. Sadly, I've only read one of Jeanette Winterson's books. I've been meaning and meaning to remedy that, especially now that I've moved out to the country. (She writes so eloquently about being a country writer... if I remember correctly. It was a while ago.) I've been dying to read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, but for some reason that keeps being superseded by other books at the top of my list. Perhaps your two examples will help me finally make room and time for a book I really, really do want to read. (You have to be in a very particular mood to read historical fiction, if that makes sense?) I think it's largely due to reading your blog (mixed with the fortuitous coincidence at my local bookstore of their selection of Daniel Deronda) that I finally discovered and fell in love with George Eliot. I fell so in love with its heroine that The Mill and The Floss caused me to weep sisyphean tears. Also on my list is giving Middlemarch another go. I used to say I was too young for it the first time, although seems ridiculous saying that to you!

Lastly, thanks for your comment on my blog! Sadly, I'd also love to drink coffee as a midday pick-me-up, but ever since I've had my baby, all I can handle is one or two cups of decaf a day. Hot chocolate or tea has had to fill the void. Perhaps eventually my system will right itself, and for now I'm having fun finding alternatives. Decaf chai lattes are lovely, too, and surprisingly, soy lattes aren't half bad. Let me know if you learn to love the taste of bitter hot chocolate! I was surprised at how addictive it became.

Glad to see you looking so joyous and colorful above (although these pics were taken last summer.) Still, their feeling matches the tone of this piece, so I imagine the sentiment is still current.


Luana Carvalho said...

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Emalina said...

'A Room Of One's Own' is a book I return to time and again. Have you tried 'The Waves' yet? Thanks for this fascinating discussion here on the art of the essay, and you're wearing the most lovely reading outfit, intelligent and playful dressing. I love those smiling shots!

OrigamiGirl said...

Well I've just spent the last half hour reading Hilary Mantel's Royal Bodies. Still a fair way to go, but so interesting. I really should read more of the books like that I have. So many non-fiction books of essays that go unopened because I usually crave stories. I need to be in the right frame of mind to read essays again. But thanks for the recommendations.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I like Hilary Mantel very much, too. I have also recently enjoyed the work of the late historian Tony Judt. His collection of essays 'The Memory Chalet' is moving and insightful.

layciegrace said...

For me, it's Gore Vidal. He was not only an essayist but a political reformist as well. Layce of

Lucinda Harrington said...

Really inspiring post! I'll have to come back to it and read my way through them.

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