The art of the essay

How many times have you wished out loud that you had time to read for pleasure in your hectic daily life?

How many times in the past few years have you picked up a novel and, after reading a few pages, set it down, never to pick it up again?

Essay provides a solution to the idea of being too busy to read, a respite from the tedium presented by the 500-page novel on your bedside table. A literary genre for the 21st century, modern essay doles out its prose in bite-sized pieces.  

Essay is a literary category that includes the iconic names of Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Eliot and Langston Hughes, as well as many contemporary authors today writing about interesting and innovative topics. Subject matters range from humorous personal anecdotes to political manifestos, but all of them share one quality: the writer’s personal voice.

Essay is an art, as influential as it is underrated. The word essay comes from the French word “essayer,” meaning to attempt or try. And this is how many essayists describe their own writing: an attempt at putting their ideas on paper, an experimentation of prose. Whether in a narrative or argumentative style, the writer may begin in one place and, by the end, come around to a completely different stance or truism. Essayist and revolutionary Joan Didion said it well, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

There is no fixed length or style to an essay – its nature is to be as flexible and diverse as its authors. As Aldous Huxley (famous author of Brave New World and renowned essayist) has said, “The essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.”

That being said, essay is also a great place to start off as a writer. You can put all of your ideas on paper, mix them up and reword them until you feel you’ve created something presentable. Many essayists are also novelists, journalists, academics and generally influential people. What makes them essayists is simply their ability to write something concise, imaginative and impactful.

There is so much to gain from a few short but powerful pages of literature. Take, for example, this line from essayist Toure’s piece “No Such Place As Post-Racial America,”: “If your neighbor’s house is on fire, or gets foreclosed, you have a problem. If your neighbor’s soul is on fire you have a major problem.”

In so few words, Toure expresses the impact of racism on not just people of color, but every American, especially in a time when the term “post-racial” gets tossed around thoughtlessly. Such is the power of essay: each sentence has a very definite purpose, a contribution to the whole.

Next time you’re skimming the shelves of a bookstore (or more likely, Amazon), consider picking up a book of essays for maximum entertainment in an easy to digest format. A book like this, you can be sure, will never collect dust.

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