What should an essay be?

Reading The Best American Essays of 2015 was, by-in-large, a joy.

71TCICa82VLThe New Yorker’s  Ariel Levy, the editor of this year’s volume, writes in her introduction that composing an essay is like “catching a wave;” you have to learn to surf, but once you do, an idea carries you through the writing process. Similarly, Levy writes that the joy of reading an essay lies in how you don’t have to wait for the right wave to ride. “You just lie back on your towel and gaze out toward the horizon” at the surfer.

For me, there is joy in reading essays because you get to surf on someone else’s idea.

But perhaps more importantly, reading an essay means learning what it feels like to be another person.

While I read this collection of 22 essays, I also read a few David Foster Wallace essays, including “Consider the Lobster.” After thinking over “Consider the Lobster,” I came to the conclusion that the essay isn’t fundamentally about the ethics of eating lobsters or even the critical process that should come with making ethical choices. Instead, I believe the essay is fundamentally about what it’s like to be DFW. The reader goes on a journey through DFW’s mind and is ultimately left with a taste of DFW’s probing but dissatisfied subjective experience.

Fushimi_Inari_Taisha_(伏見稲荷大社)One of my favorite essays in the 2015 collection was Rebecca Solnit’s “Arrival Gates.” (Note to self: read more Rebecca Solnit.) In her piece, Solnit reflects on the meaning of passing time and being present as she walks through Fushimi Inari-taisha, a garden in Japan filled with big orange gates. One could analyze Solnit’s piece from a philosophical point of view, but more than anything, the essay gives a sense of what it’s like to be Rebecca Solnit in that moment.

Similarly, my other favorites in the 2015 collection give a real taste of what it’s like to be someone else. In “This Old Man,” Roger Angell describes what it’s like to be 93. In “Smuggler,” Philip Kennicott describes his journey as a gay man reckoning with the problematic way so much of the classic cannon treats homosexuality (though Kennicott is grateful that these works in some ways validated homosexuality for him). In “A Man and His Cat,” Tim Kreider describes what it’s like to own a cat and ultimately be a little less lonely. The list goes on.

I certainly like how these essays allow the reader to understand a snippet of someone else’s subjective experience, but the writer in me also hopes that essays can do something else. The ideas in essays do matter.

In his foreword to this edition, the editor of the Best American Essays series Robert Atwan describes how Montaigne’s essais, the original essays, were “anti-systematic” and “anti-rhetorical.” In this way, they disrupted the dry, systematic philosophy of the time.

These days, I actually think the opposite disruption is needed. We live in an age in which very few people read philosophy or theology. I believe essays have a role to play in offering some solid footing to stand on. I’m certainly not saying essays should be Baconian treatises, but I do think there’s room for essays that consider themselves to be less provisional and more thought-through than Montaigne’s original essays.

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