Sunday, February 6, 2011

BW6: E is for Essays

Michel de Montaigne

Essays?  What exactly are they and what genre do they fit into and why do we care?  I think in the quest for self enlightenment and education, it's imperative we expose ourselves (not literally, but literarily -  *grin*) to all forms of literature and ideas.   Surprisingly, when I first started thinking about the idea of essays, I went on line and found very little. The search for essay brought up scores of hits on how to write an essay. I grabbed my newish 2003 World book encyclopedia and found nothing in the E book about Essays.  Hmm!   Delved into our trusty old 1958 edition and found plenty of information.  Once I did my research the old fashioned way, I had plenty of information to use to research online. Sometimes you just have to ask the right question.

In an old book I found on the shelves called "Junior Modern Essays" selected and edited by Guy N. Pocock, I found this explanation which I just loved:

"Literally it means "an attempt"--a shot at hitting the mark--a blow on the head of the literary nail that pins an idea into permanence.  Your essay may be compressed or diffuse, terse or discursive, grave or gay--but in every instance it is a literary gadget--a cameo-a frog in amber-or whatever small, clear-cut, and finished object you care to compare it to.  It belongs to a different plane from that of the great literary forms--the drama, the novel or the epic, and it is in prose rather what the lyric is in poetry."

The essay gained its name as a literary form in the renaissance period with Michel de Montaigne, a french writer who called his written conversations essai which means "an attempt" or "to try".   Sir Francis Bacon was responsible for the first works in English to be named Essays. Essayist Sir Richard Steele launched the first periodical dedicated to essays in "The Tatler" in the 1700's  and later on "The Spectator" which he co-authored with Joseph Addison.  

In the early 1800's, many periodicals began demanding essays to fill their pages. Soon authors began producing essays such a Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, followed by American essayists Matthew Arnold, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Cardinal Newman and Robert Louis Stevenson to name a few.  Among the British essayists were G.K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf.   I found a  list of essayists on Wikipedia which seems pretty accurate. Explore at your own risk. 

My challenge for you this month.  Check out the list, read an essay or two and tell me what you think.  The Well Educated Mind challenge suggests you read Michel de Montaigne. His works may be found online and/or in ebook format available at your online resources for free such as Project Gutenberg.   May I suggest:

Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on writing

John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Alexander Pope's An Essay On Man 

Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia

John Dryden's Essay of Dramatick Poesie

Andrew Lang's Essays in LIttle

G.K. Chesterton's Utopia of Usurers and other Essays

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays

Oliver Wendell Holmes's The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table 

Edgar Allan Poe's Philosophy of Furniture 

When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.

- Michel De Montaigne

Link to your reviews


  1. The #1 reason I enjoy reading your blog is for the inspiration to read something different. I just added the Emerson essays on to my list at the library. Thanks!

  2. Isn't it funny that kids are always made to write 'essays' but we really don't have them read many of them? Maybe I'll start reading aloud essays along with other forms of literature!

  3. I'm so happy to be participating in this challenge! Found an interesting book at the library this past week (Elaine's Circle) which I'm reading now, just finished reading Gentle Ben this afternoon, and am going to look at the books others are reading to get ideas for upcoming weeks.

  4. I love this idea. (Though I lack time to commit to it right now.) I'm becoming increasingly interested in essays. I hope you don't mind, I linked all your suggested essays in my sidebar, to remind me to read them, as time permits.

    Have you seen the Montaigne Readalong over at English Major's Junk food?

    I just finished reading Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" and wrote about it at my blog. Might I humbly suggest a read of that one?

    Hope you're enjoying War and Peace! We're almost a sixth in now, which is awesome. :-)

  5. @Fairy Tale Mama - running the challenge has done the same thing for me. Thank you.

    @Faith - that is an interesting idea.

    @Harvest Moon - totally forgot about Gentle Ben. will have to look into it.

    @Jillian - Don't mind at all. Will have to check out the readalong. Might be the only way I'll end up reading it. *blush*

  6. My book this week: What the Dog Saw is really a compilation of essays. Great post!

  7. I'm behind, but at least I'm on point as far as subject matter this week. "Eating the Dinosaur" is a collection of essays on sports and pop culture. Feel free to follow the link to my review and comment, and/or leave suggestions for future reading. Thanks!

  8. @LL and Keith - synchronicity, love it.

  9. I read "A Christmas Story" at Christmas time. The forward of the book stated that it was a compilation of autobiographical essays. It was delightful.

  10. @kaye. I'll have to check that one out. Thanks


Thank you for your kind comments.