I already read a lot of essays but, since they’re often standalone or in very eclectic collections, I don’t often record them in my reading journal – never mind here on Alex in Leeds. So, signing up to the essay reading challenge was really a spur to write a little about the essays I’ve been dipping into.
I should really start this series of posts by defining what I mean by ‘essay’ as it’s one of those tricksy words that everyone knows what *they* understand it to mean but struggle to define for others. Luckily, the collection I began this month’s essay reading with, A Book of English Essays edited by W. E. Williams, has a handy definition in its introduction:
‘No elaborate definition of the Essay is necessary for those who read the following selection. The English Essay has a multitude of forms and manners, and scarcely any rules and regulations. A minimum definition would be to say that the Essay is a piece of prose, usually on the short side, which is not devoted to narrative. The essayist may use anecdotes to use his point; he may even take a leaf out of the novelist’s book and create characters to illustrate his own opinions. But his chief interest is not that of the storyteller. The essayist’s usual role is that of the social philosopher, the critic, the annotator.’
(Page 9, W. E. Williams’ Introduction, emphasis is mine)
I rather like his definition as it’s a practical way of admitting or refusing a piece of work the title of ‘essay’.
The only addition I would make to his criteria is that an essay should standalone as a piece of prose and that some introductions and prefaces to books, and almost all printed lectures, can be considered essays.
A Book of English Essays is a Pelican Book from 1942 and I bought it from a secondhand bookshop last year. It includes various essays on a whole variety of topics and in very different styles from twenty three male authors whose dates of birth range from 1561 to 1906.
I intend to read pieces from a wide mix of collections but this seemed like an interesting place to start the challenge and it had the added benefit of knocking a book off my ever increasing To Be Read stack. :)
The book is arranged in chronological order so the first author featured is Francis Bacon, Williams describes him as ‘the father of the English Essay’, and three of his pieces are included: Of Studies (1597), Of Ambition (1612) and Of Travel (1625). These were originally published as part of two collections that were very well received and are still well-respected today. I remember reading a couple of the essays in another anthology years ago but couldn’t remember much about them.
‘Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.’
(Page 15, Of Studies by Francis Bacon)
The real surprise is just how short the three pieces by Bacon actually are, two paperback pages or so, and how much of them I instantly recognised. I didn’t think I remembered anything about his work but clearly Bacon’s easily digested advice came in very quotable chunks as lots of sentences have been widely used elsewhere.
Although it is hard to read them without thinking of bookmarks and coffee mugs that have pillaged the better known phrases, they are timeless in their good, sensible advice and Of Studies is worth learning off by heart if you’re a bookworm. I’m even tempted to track down a collection of Bacon’s essays to read them in context. I prefer Michel de Montaigne’s more personal work with all its tangents and anecdotes but it’s curious to see what influence Montaigne has on Bacon and what Bacon experiments with.
I plan to read a wide selection of essay authors and topics over the course of 2013 but I rather enjoyed going back to the beginning of the essay’s history in England to kick start the challenge. :)