I guess I'll start at the beginning. I don't read many essays, though the few collections I've read in years past (Anne Fadiman comes to mind) have been really good and have made me want to read more. Not entirely sure where to begin or how to organize my year of essay reading I've picked up Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay. It seems like a good, solid collection arranged by theme as well (to some extent) as by region and period. I hadn't given much thought about the types of essays I might read this year until I started reading the introduction, but these are personal essays, which is a subcategory according to Lopate. Perhaps it might do well to get a definition?
According to the Wikipedia (I know, I know, the Wikipedia is hardly scholarly, but since this isn't school and I just want general information here goes).
An essay is usually a short piece of writing which is often written from an author's personal point of view. Essays can consist of a number of elements, including: literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. The definition of an essay is vague, overlapping with those of an article and a short story. Almost all modern essays are written in prose, but works in verse have been dubbed essays (e.g. Alexander pope's An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man). While brevity usually defines an essay, voluminous works like John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population provide counterexamples.
That sounds pretty broad, doesn't it? I expect I read far more essays than I even realize. Although I will likely draw heavily on the Lopate book I will also look for different anthologies with other types of essays (or find them online or in magazines?). I have The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates on hand, which has a variety of essays from 1901-1997. So this year may be full of weekly meanderings, which is just fine by me.
So, what does Lopate have to say about the personal essay? Actually quite a lot in his very detailed introduction, which I'm not going to try and discuss in full here.
"The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue--a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship."
I like the idea that a personal essay reflects the human condition. Michel de Montaigne said "every man has within himself the entire human condition." So when the essayist is talking about himself we're sharing in his plight so to speak. Lopate goes on to tell us what a good essayist will do in his work. Along with intimacy, a good essayist is one who is honest and reliable. The author may be frank but that doesn't mean he will necessarily give up his privacy. An essayist isn't afraid to contradict himself. He is not "out to win an audience's unqualified love but to present the complex portrait of a human being." An essayist is willing to look at both sides of an issue even if it goes against the "grain of public opinion." Lopate writes that the essay is "a notoriously flexible and adaptable form."
"The essayist attempts to surround a something--a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation--by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter. In a well-wrought essay, while the search appears to be widening, even losing its way, it is actually eliminating false hypotheses, narrowing its emotional target and zeroing in on it."
Enough definitions and explanations, I think I'm ready to just start reading. I will likely return to Lopate's introduction as he also writes about individual essays and authors and I'm guessing it will all make better sense after I've read some of the essays included. I'm not sure whether I'll start with the first, Seneca's "On Noise" or just dive in somewhere in the middle. I'm looking forward to reading and writing about some good essays, however!