The personal essay is a marvelous literary form that enables a writer to ‘try’ (the traditional translation of the French ‘essay’) to understand a topic, issue, idea, etc. The essayist has been described as one who ‘encounters’ a topic (Leslie Jamison) and as one engaged in an ‘act of attention, an inquiry, a search'(Robert Hass). The ideal personal essay should be brief, intimate, immediate, have an inquiring tone and a distinctive voice.
Literature in the past centuries has been graced with some superb essayists beginning with the man generally credited with ‘creating’ the personal essay, Montaigne in the 16th century, and moving on through Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb in the 18th and 19th centuries. In recent years, the essay has returned with great vigor after a long period of dormancy. This renewal has, in large part, been stimulated by the Best American Essays series which began in 1986 and continues today under the editorship of Robert Antwan. A guest editor chooses his/her favorite essays from the thousands that appear in magazines, literary journals, op-ed pages, and internet sites. My favorite essayists include Geoff Dyer, Jonathan Raban, Christopher Hitchens, Anne Fadiman, Zadie Smith, Adam Gopnik, John McPhee, and Daniel Mendelsohn, and every year I discover new and exciting writers and writing.
I began writing a personal essay inspired by the year’s reading to accompany my annual reading list distribution in 2010. Since those essays were specifically aimed to explicate or expand upon the prior year’s books, I have edited them and included several below. I will, from time to time, post new essays about topics that arise from my reading or life.