When I was a young boy I wallowed in comic books and cheap humor magazines. Then I spent hours lingering in the candy store ogling the lurid covers of girly magazines, too afraid to actually buy a copy to hide under my bed. In High School my mushy brain was introduced the great variety of literature: poems by John Keats, novels by William Golding; dramas by Shakespeare; movies by Stanley Kubrick; Short Stories by Zacherli; modern dance by Freddie.
On to college and Grad school where poetry was my go-to pleasure—Blake, Milton, Pope—the longer the better. Although I always slipped a novel into my coat pocket (alongside two packs of Pall Malls) in case I was unavoidably detained in a vortex of boredom, I often selected flashy bestsellers and eschewed the more sustainable classics. In my defense, I was married, working (overtime), raising a garden, raising a daughter, watching too much television, pretending to be amused by Pong and Asteroids, mesmerized by my 1977 Apple ][, and engaging in vital lifestyle pleasures such as mowing the lawn, unclogging the toilet, and corralling rogue spiders in the bathtub.
One day I read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men and realized I missed the thrill of reading. Later I read Possession by A. S. Byatt—yes, every poem too—and reading, especially novels, became a priority, eclipsing gardens and spiders. By the mid-Nineties I was blending my strong interest in computers and data communications with a love of reading and soon developed an early version of this website: A Celebration of Reading. Augmented by an almost frantic involvement in online reading groups, my scope of reading grew to encompass a worldwide understanding and appreciation.
Although, as admitted to many times, I majored in English Literature and minored in Comparative Literature, I shamefully avoided reading most American literature and English novels of the Regency or Victorian periods: a scant Dickens and an occasional Faulkner at best. Recently I have been attempting to make amends and you might notice I am reading a great deal of American and Victorian novels, even some Swinburne poetry.
But one genre of literature I often overlook is the Essay. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because reading essays throughout college was most often associated with reading secondary materials and I have always considered this practice far less useful than simply rereading the primary material. Too many young (or old) readers decline to even read the literature the first time, relying on the evil of Cliff Notes instead of thinking for themselves.
But I love to read essays: I just never associated them with being the primary source. Whether it’s Montaigne or Sedaris, essays are fun, educational, and perhaps appeal more directly to our little gray cells that the thematic path through a novel or the obscure imagery of a poem. Another, possibly more personal, value of essays is that they are generally showcases of really good writing: clear and concise.
I recently read Melissa Faliveno’s memoir collection titled Tomboyland: Essays. I enjoyed the stories about growing up, being a tomboy, playing softball, even roller derby; but in a break between military presses and the whip, the author seems to summarize her thoughts on her writing:
The thing about memory is it’s transient. It moves through you as you move through the world. It degrades with the passing of time. Sometimes it sticks, and sometimes it vanishes. Traces will come back to you now and again—with a faded photo, the smell of newly cut grass or spring rain, the way a certain summer light hits the midwestern sky just right. But much of it will leave you. Some of it will break down naturally, and some of it will be buried for a reason. We can work on digging such memories up, but these things have a way of working themselves to the surface all on their own.