Saturday, 26 February 2011
Down time does give me the opportunity to do some thinking about how I want to spend my up time, especially my reading hours and one of the forms I know I want to revisit is the essay. Perhaps thirty years ago I read a great many collections of essays, especially those put together from the work of arts journalists. I read everything published by Bernard Levin, for example, a journalist who had such a following that when he wrote in praise of a show or an exhibition it would turn its fortunes over night, as the RSC discovered when he waxed lyrical about their superb adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. Somehow, however, I've let the habit slip and until the last couple of weeks there have been almost no essays on my shelves at all.
The essay is a difficult genre both to compose and to appreciate, I think. By its very nature it has to be thought in a concentrated form, a distillation of many hours of deliberation. Whatever argument the writer is putting forth, it has to be set out clearly and in a concise manner, it has to make its point at the first attempt. There is no option of setting out your thesis in an opening introduction and then returning to expand on your meaning a couple of chapters down the line; you have to get it right the first time.
Likewise, as a reader you have to hit the ground running. You don't have the luxury of easing your way into a writer's style, of gradually coming to understand their point of view. Although you do, at least, have the option of returning to a difficult passage, an essay generally demands a level of concentration greater than the average novel, a commitment to follow absolutely every turn of the author's mind.
And this, I think, is the reason I have let my essay reading fall by the wayside. Concentrated thinking hasn't been my strong point over the past few years and it is a habit, which once you let it fall into disuse, takes some retrieving. Now, however, I would like to do something about this, even if it only a promise to myself to read at least one essay a week, and so, as a way of breaking myself in slowly, I've been gathering a number of books which are primarily essays about reading. If I can't read about books, what can I do?
Anne Fadiman has been on my shelves all along. I love her work and return to it often. However, someone mentioned Michael Dirda on a blog and his work looks ideal. Classics for Pleasure and Book by Book, I found easily enough and yesterday Bound to Please finally arrived. Carolyn Heilbrun was also recommended and I've managed to pick up good cheap copies of The Last Gift of Time and Hamlet's Mother and other Women on line. I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Sarah Bakewell's essays about Montaigne, How to Live. And finally, and quite by chance, last weekend I picked up second hand collections by Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, although the latter seem to be political rather than literary.
So, I can't say that I don't have enough to go at, can I, and the next thing I need to decide is how I'm going to structure my reading. And so, two questions: have any of you tackled an essay reading project and, if so, how did you go about it and are there any other collections of literary essays I might look out for? All suggestions most gratefully received.