Memory: Essays

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.

5 thoughts on “Memory: Essays

  1. I agree about essays. I recently read the bricklike Evryman edition, but it was a joy. Lamb’s and Colleridge’s essays are wonderful too. I had an abusive childhood from a brutal father, however, having been taught by my grandfather ro read at 3, I survived by reading.

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    1. A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig is one of my favorite essays, not to mention the Dean’s Modest Proposal. But thinking of Swift, is the genre Essay or Satire or Fiction or (gulp) Non-Fiction? I have always contended that it’s all Fiction. I used to reserved Non-Fiction for the likes of my lawn mower repair manual but then I realized that even the unnamed manufacturer’s writer was being selective in the prose selection, using metaphors and other rhetorical devices. That manual was just an essay with pictures and diagrams.

      So I stand firm: It’s All Fiction.

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    2. Childhood can be tough. In my case I can look back and think I had a wonderful childhood, but most of the fond memories are a sort of nostalgia for the freewheeling life of a boy growing up in the ’50s. My father was only 17 years older than me and he didn’t have a clue how to be a father. Luckily I left home after High School and my younger sister experienced most of the pain and despair.

      I never was an escape reader. I guess I survived by just doing boy things: riding my bike, playing my guitar, catching tarantulas. My reading grew out of a love of literature: you might consider it an academic affliction.

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      1. 8 left home early at 17 years old. I wasn’t really an escape reader as I have always had a burning need to learn. I did well at grammar school and university, but reading was always a release and I loved the learning. I too had a great desire for academic research. I wanted to be an academic, but the situation in the UK at the time led e to train after university for accountancy. I had a well paid career, but have always pursued books and scholarship in my spare time. I also have always enjoyed playing wind instruments , riding motorbikes with hubby, and travel. We only come this way once, I want to experience as much as possible.

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