There's something a lot more human in trying to succeed than in success itself, and the origin of the word essay bears this out. It comes from the French essai, meaning an attempt or trial, and ultimately, it's this fumbling, this mustering of what shaky information we possess, gaps and all, that gives the form its absolute charm. All this is beautifully reflected in "The Art of the Personal Essay," a recent and suddenly indispensable book edited, with an introduction, by Phillip Lopate.
The personal essay, according to Lopate's incisive and informative preface, is the literary form of middle age--that time of our lives where we have lost the confidence of youth, but are not yet convinced of our wisdom. The personal essay is concerned with smallness, crankiness and idiosyncrasy. It is conversational, not oracular in tone.
All this makes the collection, which spans 2,000 years, far more than a literary artifact or the study of some arcane form. Instead it is a chain created out of the human mind and spirit, which reaches across the centuries to convey the wonder and confusion, the fussiness and ecstasy of what it is to be alive.
From Seneca, who writes from a health club in the first century AD, "Here I am with a babel of noise going on all around me," to Plutarch's creepily sanctimonious attempt to console his wife over the death of a daughter, to good advice from a 14th-Century Japanese monk ("You should never put the new antlers of a deer to your nose and smell them. They have little insects that crawl into the nose and devour the brain."), to Menchen's comments on a presidential election ("Would it be possible to imagine anything more stupendously grotesque--a deafening, nerve-racking battle to the death between Tweedledum and Tweedledee--the impossible, with fearful snorts, gradually swallowing the inconceivable?"), to the 20th-Century novelist Tanazaki's hymn to Japanese culture in general and Japanese toilets in particular, to Lopate's own magically grumpy ramble titled, "Against Joie de Vivre," ("I am an ingrate."), these "attempts" all have the feel of real flesh and real blood pressing back at us.
Indeed, the personal essay is a different animal than its cousin, the formal one, that object of well-meant punishment by generations of kindly English teachers. Where the logic of the latter is meant to be airtight and its structure rigid and unshakable, the structure of the personal is far loopier, more like a poem's (Lopate is a poet as well as a fiction writer and essayist). It is a playful tweak on the nose of those awful, earnest authors of news-magazine opinions, which have names like "Speaking Out" and "My Turn."
Lopate's selection is a fine balance of less-known work by some warhorses--he chooses Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys"--and a reassuring string of necessary delights. Included are Sei Shonagon's list of "Hateful Things," Barthes' "Leaving the Movie Theater," Borges' "Blindness," Woolf's ever-upsetting "The Death of the Moth," and Natalia Ginzburg's "He and I," only eight pages long but which catches everything of love, time passing and the mystery of another human being.
Clearly then, "The Art of the Personal Essay" is a long overdue, ground-breaking anthology, and yet, as a friend of mine once observed, "to put together an anthology is to satisfy no one completely." Accordingly, to my tastes I wish Lopate had been slightly less respectful to the origins of the English essay--Addision and Steele, Hazlitt, even Johnson and Stevenson might have had fewer examples. There are only two French, one Austrian, one Italian, two Latin Americans, two Africans, one Russian and no Germans, Spanish or for that matter, Australians. The traditional American writers are right enough (Thoreau and E. B. White) but among contemporaries there are at least a dozen I might have wanted instead of Seymour Krim and Mary McCarthy, whose selections seem topical and dated, and Scott Russell Sanders, whose moving account of his father's alcoholism didn't move me. But this is boorish, ill-bred carping, and besides, the best reason for any anthology is to suggest others to follow.
It's worth noting that this collection is well-printed on good opaque paper. After you have picked up a copy for yourself, think about one for a friend who can laugh, is curious, appreciates a well-turned phrase and who won't see 40 again. It will do more for the both of you than running with wolves, swimming with dolphins or even just hanging out in the back yard, building anthills with us other ants.