Fantasies, like dreams, can surprise you. My fantasy is always the same. The sun streams over my shoulder—that crisp, new light of early morning hours. I sit in an armchair sipping my first cup of coffee. The aroma fills my nostrils and delights me almost as much as the taste. My cat, a Maine Coon with aspirations to obesity, rests contentedly in my lap. I am at peace. I have no pressing obligations, no incessant demands. Just the stillness of the morning to enjoy.
It is rare to find someone who can share in such pleasures, who can savor silence; but in my vision I am not alone. My wife sits nearby, reading. She glances up from the page and catches my eye. We both know better than to spoil this moment with speech. We return to wherever we left off, and that—the book in my hands—is the key component of my pleasure.
In this recurring image I always find myself with a book of essays. My surprise at this fact may have something to do with the genre’s status. Had I been reading a hefty Victorian novel, a fat fist of pages in each hand, I would feel no need for explanation. And certainly none for a slender volume of verse—though that fantasy involves a bed of turf in midsummer and sunlight streaming through trees. Not so for the essay. The genre lacks something of the splendor we grant other literary forms. It is all too often a humble drudge bearing ignoble loads. The essay is tasked with articles, book reviews, and other ephemera; forced to play the messenger and carry the news; to recount even our gossip, and to do so everywhere. The form is ubiquitous—perhaps the most widespread literary genre. It stuffs the pages of any paper, any journal, with bad prose and insipid observations. But its indignities do not end there.
The essay is also the most widely taught genre. Whole semesters are devoted to it; entire courses take this form as their matter. Yet despite these efforts most students struggle to muster five awkward paragraphs—each a misshapen bead—strung together by no inner logic or subtle transition but the red margin that travels down each wide-ruled page. These assignments pass for essays as would trinkets for fine jewelry: every attempt an evident failure. Few are the students who encounter the multifaceted brilliance the form is capable of, fewer still who contribute to it. Too often they write not essays, but papers. This poor attempt at a taxonomy hints at something of the genre’s problem.
What we unthinkingly call essays are often mere assignments or tests, and our lack of clarity further confuses our students. We spend years instructing them in a genre they can barely deploy with competence, a genre they certainly don’t understand, and a genre they develop a loathing for: it is but schoolwork to them. The examples they’ll encounter in later life are not even likely to be recognized as such. The problem isn’t in their classification. The essay, after all, is the most versatile of forms. But we lack useful distinctions for it.
Even the genus suffers in this manner. We name it negatively nonfiction as if the form were not made, not shaped and wrought as Greeks understood poetry to be: a making. Our dissatisfaction with the term is evident in our poor efforts to dress it up with that stylish adjective “literary.” Tricked out in such glamour, the essay can become an object of serious attention. Literary nonfiction commands a few devotees and a modest shelf in what now passes for a bookstore. But what more readily testifies to the intellectual impoverishment of our age than our treatment of the essay? What genre is more widely read yet less admired and considered? In high school alone the hours devoted to instruction in the essay must dwarf the time spent in even the most intensive creative writing programs. What form is more often taught? And yet what art is more poorly executed? Students learn the rudiments of an instrument—the piano, the guitar—in a matter of months. But years of instruction prove incapable of giving college freshmen more than a passing familiarity with the need to declare a thesis and the deluded desire to recapitulate the supporting arguments of a two-page paper.
Of course no one can be expected to perform an indefinite task, and almost no student could tell you an essay’s purpose. This is why they fail—or one reason at least. But what is that purpose, what is its essence? One answer might draw out the sense of the original French. An essay is an attempt, an effort, a trial. But if so, at what? Obviously it’s nonfiction; an essay is supposed to be something true, though as restrictions go that’s quite a subjective criterion. It is useful, however, in establishing the dual nature of the endeavor: an essay is the result of a mind, of a writer, engaging with something real. I would define an essay as a mind’s attempt to address an object in prose. I wouldn’t even say another object since a writer might engage with his or her own mind—more commonly in memoir, but the First Critique reminds us that epistemology is just the mind’s attempt to know itself.
And Kant may help us here. Whether or not we can know a real object, the Ding an sich, the objects of an essay remain forever in a noumenal world. We know them only through the prose of the author. We might therefore say the essay is the form of their subjectivity. What this means of course is that in any particular example we’re concerned with the mind of the writer as much as the object of consideration.
It is the mind of the writer that makes for the most brilliant essays. Reality—whether the material world of our senses or the intellectual world we apprehend—is of intrinsic interest. It exists, according to some thinkers, eternally in the mind of God, an object of divine contemplation. If our attention wanes it is only because we lack the godlike capacity to consider such objects—“the meanest flower that blows” or the cosmic fires overhead—with the attention they deserve. Had we the mind of a philosopher we might be able to observe the distant stars, their light, perhaps a photograph of what once was, and contemplate with love the fate of suns or our own mortality. But we scurry beneath sublimity, and when we glance up we blink.
Those who can attend, those who can make us stop and see some precious portion of reality, these people possess a gift. Call it genius if you want. It may be merely childlike wonderment. But whatever it is, such minds enable us to see something of the beauty of existence. In spite of the fatiguing demands on our attention, in spite of our daily dullness, essayists demonstrate that the world is interesting. And they do so simply by taking interest. Chesterton could make the contents of his pocket fascinating, and he does so in a brilliant essay. But other writers discuss books or a distant land or even a departed friend with equal insight. Yet their vision is not innocent, and here we encounter a paradox of the essay.
The genre focuses our attention, through the mind of the writer, on a particular object; and in doing so it enables us to consider some aspect of reality. The novelty of the perspective is key. But it almost always comes from a mind that has seen and considered much. Through the greatest essayists—Montaigne, Johnson, Emerson—we turn to the world with experience and gray hair; we consider reality from the vantage of the wise. Or if not from the perspective of wisdom, at least from its oft-mistaken counterfeit: erudition. The writers I enjoy most seem always possessed of enormous learning; they have what we might call a well-furnished mind. Their commonalities could provide a course of study for future essayists: immersion in the classics, deep reading in European languages, knowledge of Asian literature, wide travel, and an omnivorous interest in arts and letters. Essayists, after all, are bookish people. It is no coincidence that the genre arises in the sixteenth century: it is the product, one of the most refined pleasures, of print culture. It is the exaltation of the bookish mind. For of all forms, the essay is the most literary.
By this claim I make no special argument for the hierarchical status of the genre. I’ve already said it is content to serve. I take literary, however, as I take literature: the terms refer at their roots to letters—to litterae. You can cordon off fiction or even literary fiction; you can build a special preserve for the Classics. But the house of literature is far more capacious than such narrow conceptions imply. Its prerogative is the written word, and it contains all the books we want to remember, everything from the greatest works of genre fiction to the classics of scholarship. In this house are many mansions. The more adventuresome will investigate the corridors, the cellar, the attic. They will discover secrets and surprises beneath its gables—passages no one has traversed in many years; forgotten rooms, dusty yet still habitable. Appetite is the only passport for exploration, a lifetime the only limit to our discovery. We are led to this mansion in childhood. The house’s forecourts are decorated like the walls of a classroom, and its front doors—carved, elaborate—resemble the cover of a children’s primer. Above this portal reads the same stirring injunction that moved Augustine: Tolle, Lege.
Take and read.
Reading is the only requirement for entry. Reading grants us access to the house of letters, and the essay provides us deeper insight into this act. Consider the woman on her front porch, a cup of tea steaming by her side, a book in her hands. What is this but a mind addressing an object? The reader mirrors the essay writer, or more precisely, the essayist is but an image of the reader, and in more ways than one. In the essay we encounter the form of the writer’s subjectivity, and by reading we make that subjectivity our own. Yet I resist this way of putting it. We focus too much on ourselves. We kill the author and post his corpse on social media. We could just as easily say that the form remakes our subjectivity. That in the greatest essays we experience, despite our limitations, what it’s like to be James Baldwin or Joan Didion, Annie Dillard or David Foster Wallace. That our subjectivity, the narrow prison in which we live, can assume for a brief moment someone else’s form.
Such access is one of the most remarkable features of literature. A painting can give us vision; through its limited particularity we can actually see the world anew. But a book can remake that world. In it we live, we breathe, we feel; we experience life in different eras, different places. We recognize not only the sights or sounds we share, but the common delights of sensuous life. While reading a book in June, we press our feet to an icy floor in midwinter. Literature encompasses more than our animality, though. We also touch, however briefly, however distant, the human heart. We feel with another, we think with another, and that is a large part of why we read. To escape the self. To expand the self. To know and experience more and more. “Life piled on life were all too little,” Ulysses tells us, and such a sentiment surely motivates all readers. We want more. Think of it. At one level Tennyson’s poem is saying that even The Odyssey is not enough—to have lived, to have read. We press on towards more, towards new experiences.
Life piled on life, and book stacked on book.
Fiction can provide such experiences of course; poems and plays and novels are full of life, and I have no doubt that in certain ways Holden Caulfield and Frodo Baggins possess more reality than you or I. The essay is not unique in granting us greater life. We can inhabit a character’s subjectivity as easily as another person’s. But the essay clarifies for us what is involved in this act. In considering Joan Didion on loss and mourning or James Baldwin on race and America, we discover what reading entails; we discover our own subjectivity as—but only as—it is changed by another’s. We catch sight of ourselves in the mirror of another mind. Trying to glimpse yourself directly is like trying to see the back of your head. You can only know your limits by stepping outside them.
Reading is the bond between those minds, between the prison cell of self and another soul. It is the crack in the wall through which Pyramus and Thisbe—or any two people—can speak. By reading we encounter life as another. In saying this now we can recognize a far deeper truth about reading’s effects. Other people make us who we are. The reader is someone whose mind has been formed, whose subjectivity shaped, by the thoughts and feelings of others. Life piled on life. The reader is someone whose mind is made of paper.
The essay by turns is a paper mind. It is an attempt—an author’s attempt in prose—to address an object. It is the generic form of subjectivity. Writing itself is the unique product, the precious effluence of a person because thought is most often verbal. So a writer works in the medium of thought, an artist of mentation. Such are the contents of books. No wonder people have feared them, no wonder tyrants have burned them. Milton said a book was “the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.” He spoke in this passage about the immortality of great works, but we can see in his words not only something to remind us of Tennyson’s, but an explanation for literature’s durability. Great books attain “a life beyond life” for a very simple reason; they are life-giving. That is the true paradox of reading: what lives is what gives us greater life, gives us life beyond our own, and perhaps an inspired text is just a text that inspires. Such a definition would enlarge the canon. It would remind us that words, however common and ordinary, have been the vehicle for the most inspired thoughts.
I wonder about the form my vision took. Why the essay, the servant of literature? Why, when I can read anything, am I reading that? But as the form of an author’s subjectivity, the essay most closely mirrors the actual experience of reading, and it does so because that experience is itself one of encountering another mind, real or imagined. My paradise is a vision of reading, a still morning with a book—not an ethereal eternity, but an earthly hour where I live my life with the joy of another mind.
Brad Holden is Managing Editor for the Marginalia Review of Books. He earned his Ph.D. in English and Renaissance Studies at Yale University, is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, and has received fellowships to study in Israel and Germany. He has taught creative writing at Yale and other universities. He currently teaches at the Ranney School in New Jersey.