Enticed by the Essay


In my search for a genre…

Wait a minute, who starts a post, “In my search for a genre?” / The son of a son of a writer.

In my search for a genre, I’ve lately been enticed by the essay.

When I was a kid, essays and short stories were my favorite genre to read. Nearly as rewarding as reading a novel (and sometimes just as enveloping), a well-crafted essay gives us the ability to see the world in a grain of sand. It’s a compact genre, like poetry. Yet essays can appear to be meandering, following the contours of the mind and paying off in terms of the journey, even if the destination is different for various readers. The essay seems to fit my innate need to analyze, to reflect, to meditate.

Just today, I found myself nosing through the history of the essay, realizing some of my favorite literary figures–from Arthur Miller to Flannery O’Connor–have been essayists. I guess I read more short stories (both Miller and O’Connor have composed some great ones), but I seem to recall getting lost in some Orwell piece as a teenager, or maybe it was an O. Henry story. I dunno. Obviously, some education is needed before a betrothal is made.

Flirting with the essay, though, I have been doing for decades. This admission may be too much: I loved college essays! From the literary analysis questions on the SAT test to the three-hour festschrifts of graduate school, essays have treated me well and been an enduring object of my affection. But now, I feel like I should get serious. It’s time to get to know the genre I’ve used, but never really settled with.

So, anybody have suggestions for great literary essays to read? Where should I start?