Celebrating the ever-popular essay
This week it’s time to break out the champagne, pop that cork, and raise a flute of bubbly to the essay.
Once the property of magazines and newspapers, the essay is now the vehicle of choice for thousands of online bloggers. Everyday we can go to our computers and pull up essays on every topic imaginable. Anyone can create a blog, and the essay, usually short and focused, is the ideal form for posting thoughts and opinions on that blog. Name a topic — household budgets, the novels of John Gardner, black bears, guitars, love, Ebola — and you’ll find amateur essayists sharing their observations online.
More remarkably, many of these essayists, who just 20 years ago would never have dreamed of writing, much less publishing, these observations, are excellent. They lucidly and enthusiastically share their ideas, and bring illumination and pleasure to those who read them. Those of us who follow certain blogs come to the computer in the morning with a cup of coffee and a high sense of anticipation.
Collections of in-print essays are also seeing a sort of golden age. Books of essays commonly make the best-seller lists, and certain essayists gain fans who eagerly await their latest work.
One of these writers, whom some call America’s greatest living essayist, is Joseph Epstein. This year Epstein published A Literary Education and Other Essays (ISBN 978-1-60419-078-6, 537 pages, $24), his thirteenth collection. Here Epstein combines memoir with reflections on the state of the arts, culture, and education.
Epstein’s writings on culture offer topics that should attract many general readers. In “Prozac, with Knife,” he wittily examines our current obsession with youth, beauty, and plastic surgery. Near the end of the essay, he describes his own 60-something face, then adds: “A face, clearly, begging for the knife. Yet, just as clearly, it is not going to get it: for I have grown accustomed to this face, a poor thing but my own.”
In “You May Be Beautiful, but You Gonna Die Some Day,” Epstein begins his short look at death by writing “We are all born with a serious and unalterable birth-defect: we grow old — at least the lucky among us do — and then we die.” Epstein then contrasts Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die, a book on the “depredations and bloody horrors of old age,” with the thoughts of Cicero, who found in old age “the study and practice of decent, enlightened living.”
What adds luster to Epstein’s style and thought are the wide range of topics addressed in A Literary Education. He delivers opinions on the health of the United States in “Whose Country ‘Tis of Thee?”, takes an affectionate look at the world of comedians in “Stand-Up Guys,” revisits the Jewish delis of his youth in “Nostalgie de le Boeuf,” and critiques our obsession with raising children in “The Kindergarchy: Every Child a Dauphin.”
Closer to home is Chris Cox’s The Way We Say Goodbye (ISBN 978-0-9906968-0-3, 123 pages, $15). Cox, who has written for The Smoky Mountain News and is the author of Waking Up in a Cornfield, another collection of essays, here gives us a bittersweet look at life: “there are some laughs,” he writes, “but also some sadness, a ‘casting off,’ if you will.”
With those words, Cox accurately sums up his book. There is a great deal of humor here, but also many goodbyes. He writes lovingly of his deceased father and several other family members, regrets some of his own failures, and gives us a portrait of a man who tries to do the right thing, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.
One of the best passages in The Way We Say Goodbye comes in the essay “Call Him, but Don’t Lecture.” Here Cox looks at his father’s habits — smoking, eating country cooking, lack of exercise — that have caused three heart attacks. Many of us are tempted to lecture those we love, wishing them to change their ways so as to live longer or healthier lives. Cox tells us that he finally stopped lecturing his father when he came to this realization:
“He is a man, his own man, and if he wants to dodge cars in the road, so be it, and if he wants to touch something hot, he may as well grab it with both hands. He doesn’t want — or need — us to save him. He wants to live his life on his own terms, not having to monitor every breath, or count every calorie, or account for every action. Unlike the poet T.S. Eliot’s emotionally paralyzed J. Alfred Prufrock, my father refuses to ‘measure out his life in coffee spoons.’”
Like Epstein, Cox casts his eyes on a variety of subjects ranging from the death of George Lindsey, who played Goober on the television show “Andy Griffith,” to a bad day at a barbecue joint, from taking up golf to a rueful wish that he’d had children.
In the introduction to A Literary Education, Epstein writes that the essayist “comes to the world dazzled by it. The riches it offers him are inexhaustible. Subjects on which he may scribble away are everywhere.” Both Epstein and Cox are fine writers who bring the world’s dazzling beauty to the page.