my year of excellent essayists

my excellent essayists

So I’m beginning this blog project with a bit of trepidation, knowing it may well bore the hand-knit socks off many of you. But I also realize that if the topic bores you, you can quite easily hit your back-button and move along to the next blog in your subscription. And I promise that my next post won’t be so pedantic. (Yep, I used my thesaurus for that one.)

But before I start a new project, I think I should retire another that’s been languishing. That would be the 100-Species Challenge. It’s a fine idea for a project, but I liked the idea of doing it with my kids. And my kids, you may remember, weren’t particularly interested. They’re happy enough to learn plant names, but the photography and the documentation were up to me. And I really didn’t want to put that much effort into something I didn’t need. Because plant names–both common and Latin–are one of the few things that stick in my meager brain.

Plant names and the words to just about every commercial jingle from the 70’s.  Don’t get me going on the Fig Newton song…

So, one project retired, and a new one begun. The idea of studying essayists came to me in late December, when I was reading some writer’s list of favorite writers. And I realized, with plenty of despair and loathing, that although I’ve been reading and writing essays for thirteen years now, I would have a hard time coming up with a list of favorite essayists. I could give you a couple names, but a couple is a set, mere salt and pepper shakers. Not a list.

It isn’t that I haven’t read many essayists. I’ve read hundreds over the years, for classes I’ve taken, for writing inspiration, for sheer entertainment. The trouble is, I haven’t read most of those essayists in depth. I haven’t lingered with them, and studied them.

Well, I did study one essayist. A few years back I became smitten with the work of Adam Gopnik. I read his books with a green highlighter in my hand. I striped his books, you could say. I wrote down lines I liked in my journal, and went so far as to write down why those lines worked, and why they spoke to me.

And guess what? I can tell you a thing or two about Adam Gopnik’s writing. I can tell you that he writes like the valedictorian in your high school class–with smarts that force you to reread sentences, and occasionally make you want to tell him to stop showing off. He writes with a poet’s ear; sometimes his lines sashay and sing. And what I may love most: beneath his considerable brain beats a heart as sappy as a 70’s Kodak commercial (the ones that featured Paul Anka singing “The Times of Your Life.” And yes, I can sing it.) Gopnik wants to impress you with his smarts, but he also wants to knead your heart just a little–and he’ll do it, unfailingly, in the last lines of his last paragraph.

I feel justified listing Gopnik as a favorite because I can verbalize why he’s a favorite. Why he’s an influence. And I’d like to be able to do that with other writers.

My plan is to read the work of one essayist each month, highlighter in hand–or a journal nearby, for library books. I’ll share some admired lines with you, and tell you what I learned from the essayist’s work. Nothing too studied: I don’t want to lose interest in the project because it’s become too consuming, and I certainly don’t want you losing those hand-knit socks.

I’d planned to start off with Virginia Woolf because it seems one ought to have read Virginia Woolf–and I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed the few Woolf essays I have read. But then, in a frustrated morning with my own writing I remembered an idea I had for an essay: an essay about parenting with the eyes of Annie Dillard. So Annie Dillard it is–and maybe I’ll even get an essay out of it.

I’m giddy with the notion of a year-long project, giddy like those knitters who vow to knit a sweater a month. (Insanity!) Giddy with the thought that at the end of 2009, I’ll be able to rattle off a list of favorite essayists-with reasons, even. And maybe–no, surely–my own writing will have improved through simple osmosis.

I told you I was an egghead.

Got any essayists to recommend? Any long-term projects to share?

6 comments… add one
  • susan Jan 16, 2009 @ 8:46

    I don’t have any hand knit socks to lose–yet! Supposed to start my first hat any day now. I just took a look at The Writing Life–that is some good writing. I love David Quammen’s writing. I suppose he is more a writer of non-fiction books than an essayist, though he did win the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay. (ooh!) His book Song of the Dodo is just fantastic. Others I have enjoyed and remember Susan Orlean, Malcolm Gladwell, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe.

  • melissa s. Jan 16, 2009 @ 9:08

    The essayists that popped into my head are Anna Quindlen and Michael Pollan, because parenting and food are forefront in my life right now. I’m looking forward to your essayist journey and I’m pretty sure my knit socks will stay happily on my feet!

  • patricia Jan 16, 2009 @ 10:16

    Thanks so much Susan and Melissa, for responding to my post. I really was afraid that this project might be a little too “out there” for the rest of you to care about, but I appreciate you for indulging me!

    I love what the essayists you mention say about you–many of Susan’s are writers steeped in science, and Melissa’s, as you pointed out, are related to food and parenting. Just what you write about on your blogs.

    I haven’t read most of your suggestions, so I’ll keep them in mind as I choose a new writer each month. And I appreciate the supportive feedback you two unfailingly give.

  • Barbara Jan 17, 2009 @ 7:29

    As for Woolf, you really can’t go wrong with A Room of One’s Own. I read it years ago, but I’m sure that so much of it would resonate with a mama writer.

    And though she isn’t primarily an essayist, and this book is more of an autobiography, I just love One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty. Such a beautiful book.

    A favorite mama essayist is Ayun Halliday. The Big Rumpus made me laugh out loud.

    And I saw Barbara Kingsolver already in your pile. I love her!

    Hmmm…I think I need to go find some of these books to read myself…see, it’s catching!

  • Barbara Jan 17, 2009 @ 7:32

    p.s. one of my all-time favorite essayists is Lewis Thomas. He writes so beautifully about science and life. (I was a bona-fide science geek in an earlier part of my life, so I love good science writing). My most favorite (though slightly dated) is “On Embryology” in The Medusa and the Snail.

  • patricia Jan 17, 2009 @ 10:55

    Thanks, Barbara! All of your recommendations sound intriguing. I already checked out A Room of One’s Own from the library before I switched writers for the month, so maybe for February…

    I’d never heard of Ayun Halliday, but I just read some online reviews. Sounds good!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.