I love reading essays of all kinds.
Most of what passes for the essay today is generally in the form of magazine articles, and may have more to do with weight loss or sex than the human condition.
However, it has been my pleasure for many years to read, not only current authors, but giants of literature such as Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincy, Thoreau, Santayana, and so on.
I read for both enlightenment and amusement, and have enjoyed the insight and humor of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, James Thurber, and Richard Armour, to name just a few.
Over the last few years, life has forced me, or I have let it force me, to concern myself with more practical matters, and my enjoyment of a few minutes with a great mind has suffered for it. I have, in the past, read and written poetry, and this too has been superseded by other activities.
But, I have come to a time in my life when downsizing and downshifting are taking precedence. Therefore, it was not surprising when recently, while going through a box of books, most of which were destined to be sold at Half-Price Books, I uncovered a hardbound copy of “A Treasury of the Essay From Montaigne to E. B. White”, edited by Homer C. Combs. It wound up in the “to be sold” box, but later the same day, I recovered it and placed it on my desk.
It was a few days later that, while running a tub of hot water in which to soak, and looking for a book to occupy my mind, I noticed this treasury waiting patiently, as good books will do.
I slid into the water and opened at random to an old friend, the aforementioned Dr. Johnson, and read the following words.
“I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful. For, not only every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such an uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from adventitious and separable decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill but is common to human kind. A great part of the time of those who are placed at the greatest distance by fortune, or by temper, must unavoidably pass in the same manner; and thought, when the claims of nature are satisfied, caprice and vanity and accident begin to produce discriminations and peculiarities, yet the eye is not very heedful or quick which cannot discover the same causes still terminating their influence in the eh same effects, though sometimes accelerated, sometimes retarded, or perplexed by multiplied combinations. We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.”
– Samuel Johnson, Biography
As with many essays , there was a great deal of common sense and insight in that paragraph which would have been given an “F” in many modern classes on how to write. It was a great example of why I love the essay so much, but it was also a great example of why so many today hesitate to read thoughtful pieces.
We expect the meaning of a piece of writing, or even of a movie, to be made clear to us immediately. The longer the work, the more the modern reader or viewer expects, perhaps even hopes, that all meanings will be made visible and understandable in an unfolding manner, much as is seen in a recent car commercial in which the actors comment on the big words floating around them and on the voice of the announcer.
compounding the difficulty are two facts:
1. Essays , at least those of intelligence and insight tend to be written in some form of scholarly jargon and directed at a special audience, not the average citizen. This was true of Samuel Johnson in his day, and is still quite common today.
2. Many essays which may be considered classics were written at a time when English sounded, and was written, much differently from today’s forms. Once again, the quote from Johnson, above, illustrates this point.
Our schools do not teach, and society does not seem to see a need to learn, either the ability and patience to interpret any sort of difficult concepts or to understand thoughts and wisdom expressed in older forms of the language. That is left to scholars.
However, reading, as pointed out by the Abbe Ernest Dimnet in his great little book, The Art of Thinking, should always be active. That is, the reader should be willing to make an effort to understand what has been written. Also, a modern reader should understand that the knowledge or information contained in a work will probably not be understood on the first pass, or even, probably, the second.
Good writing often contains within the visible words merely a summation of the thoughts and ideas of the author. As a practice for myself, I wrote a paraphrase of the quote above.
“I have often thought that it has seldom occurred that someone has lived whose life and experiences could not be useful if presented in a judicious and thoughtful narrative.
You see, when you stop to consider the vast number of individuals in the world, there are going to be many in the same condition. Presenting to these people a story of HIS mistakes and miscarriages, HIS escapes and solutions could provide them with immediate insight into their own state, which could be of value in ordering their own lives.
While there are exceptions due to personal states, conditions, and actions; there are still areas in which all men live similar lives. In fact, there is hardly any sort of good or bad that cannot be considered, at least possibly, common to all men. Even the lives of those who could be considered the best or worst, the highest or the lowest of mankind, or those most greatly influenced by chance, personality, or accident, most of the time will be spent in the same manner as that which could be called the life of the “common man”.
Once the basics of life, and even the special circumstances and events of these people, have been accomplished and observed, it is not hard for most to see that the same basic sets of events play out in much the same way as with anyone else, and end in the same manner.
We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.”
That would appear to give at least an overview of Dr. Johnson’s intent, and I am happy with my “translation”. However, even as I wrote the words, having read and “understood” the original paragraph, I made changes and adjustments. A couple of times, I deleted what I had written and rewrote it to better express my understanding of the message.
To be honest, however, were I to perform the same exercise tomorrow, I would probably find that I had written an entirely different piece which still, somehow, contained the essence of the author’s original work but expressed in yet another manner.
Most thoughtful writing is actually written and rewritten several times in order to make the piece say what the author wants it to say. It is commonly necessary for the reader to read and reread several times in order to more fully understand the message broadcast over time by the author.
Essays can be particularly challenging because the author is generally challenged to insert so much meaning into such a small package. It can be equally challenging for the reader to extract all the meaning on the first try. While for me, one fun part of the essay is simply in the reading, following the ebb and flow of the wordsmith’s art, another type of fun is working the puzzle the author has set before me. Often, in fact, the harder he has worked to make the subject easy to understand, the more meaning he has hidden within his work.
I have left the essay behind for many years, but now my Treasury of the Essay is either beside my bed or on the end table beside me. I will be visiting my friends much more often in the future.