New essays appear every day on the Internet, and each month new collections are published. In an effort to introduce readers to essays, Signature has turned to these older books for inspiration. Among the choices are essayists who focus on issues of politics, on race and society, nature, religion, relationships, and solitude.
Readers are invited to check out the following collections, or this list of superb collections by women essayists or this list of books released in 2016, and check out this quick refresher on the many different kinds of essays.
Annie Dillard is often lauded for her writings about nature, but those reading the essays in For the Time Being will find that she has turned her attention to the “Prime Architect” of nature, God. These essays take readers back to questions that have troubled theological scholars for years: If God is all-powerful, then why does God permit evil to exist in the world? Does that make God responsible for evil? Christian theologians solved the problem of theodicy by making the devil a fallen angel who was operating with God’s permission, but who was responsible for tempting humans to commit evil.
Each time I’ve gone walking in the Poconos, I’ve been reminded of John McPhee’s line from one of his essays about the bears who live near the Delaware Water Gap: “Bears in winter in the Pocono Plateau are like chocolate chips in a cookie.” The essay about the bears, “Under the Snow,” is just one of the subjects considered in Table of Contents. McPhee also writes about the then-new medical specialty called “Family Practice,” which offered whole care to entire families, especially in areas that had been under-served. He also meets a pilot from Maine named John McPhee – a man who also writes – who takes McPhee up flying while they talk. McPhee is one of our greatest living practitioners of creative nonfiction.
Albert Camus has gone out of fashion. Back in the post-war era, where a lot of young people wore black and proclaimed themselves to be “existentialists,” Camus was a rock star philosopher. He was dark and handsome as were his writings. One of his biggest concerns as an existentialist was how one lived a meaningful life if life had no ultimate meaning. How could one be opposed to violence and yet still oppose violent regimes? These were not rhetorical questions for Camus, who had published a secret newspaper in France during the Nazi occupation and had risked his life for the right to write.
In one of the essays contained in this collection, “The Unbeliever and Christians,” Camus stood in front of a group of Catholic monks and told them that priests who blessed executions (as Spanish priests had done during the Spanish Civil War) were no longer priests, they were “dogs … who did not wish to do the dirty work themselves.” The book also contains an essay on capital punishment in which he argues that the death penalty is not based on principles; it is based on emotions, and emotion cannot be the basis for human law. In his own time of chaos, Camus offered both passion and distance with which to combat tyranny.
Jo Ann Beard
Jo Ann Beard’s essay collection contains the incandescent “The Fourth State of Matter,” a braided essay about the men at the University of Iowa that Beard had worked with, and which causes me to tear up each time I read it. But the boys of Beard’s youth include a boyfriend who becomes a husband and then an ex-husband; friends, co-workers, and relatives. Reading the work is like sitting next to Beard on a cross-country journey, listening to her tell you the stories of her life while you keep an eye out for the exit signs for the next tourist attraction on the road.
Notes of a Native Son / Nobody Knows My Name / The Fire Next Time / No Name in the Street / The Devil Finds Work
James Baldwin was among our greatest writers, a man who spent years as an ex-pat in France because his black skin made pre-Civil Rights America just too dangerous for him to live. Contained in this omnibus of work by Baldwin is “The Fire Next Time,” an essay that Baldwin wrote for his nephew in which he explains what the future looks like.
Baldwin also questioned the role of religion in the life of black citizens, and he was critical of both Christianity and the growing Black Muslim movement. He argues that the hypocrisies within Christianity disillusioned him as a young man. Baldwin had become a Christian with great joy, but felt that the religion had done nothing to protect him from the oppressive system of racial law in America.
Hunter S. Thompson
If one’s only exposure to Hunter S. Thompson was the film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” starring Jonny Depp, you’ve missed out on some tremendous writing. Thompson’s reporting and essays are tales of first-person journalism – what he called “gonzo” journalism – in which the writer immersed himself in his subjects’ lives. The essays in this collection feature sports writing, such as his profile of French sex-symbol skier Jean-Claude Killy; political writing about Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George McGovern; and various writing adventures that took place in Mexico or out on the high seas.
Journeys on the Threshold of Memory
Barry Lopez writes on a variety of subjects. He is well-known for his nature writing, and the first section of this book includes essays that are set in Antarctica. But he also writes autobiographical essays about his troubled youth, when the people who were supposed to protect him did not. One of the most moving essays, “Apologia,” is a contemplation of roadkill as Lopez drives across the country. He stops for a number of animals on the side of the road in order to give them a proper burial. As you read, you’re haunted by the sheer amount of wasted life that is wiped out by traffic each year, but it’s the tenderness displayed by Lopez toward these animals that leaves a gentle ache just below your sternum.
One of the astounding things I used to find when talking to students was how few of them could read a map. Most of them had learned to drive with cars that contained GPS systems. As a consequence, many of them had never looked at a roadmap. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit offers a number of essays and anecdotes about people throughout history who became “lost” while they were away from home. She recounts stories of explorers, such as Cabo de Vaca, and pioneers who headed in the wrong direction to the land they were seeking to settle.
But Solnit also examines the more metaphorical ways we have of getting lost, when we lose track of what we are doing in our own lives, and lose sight of what we would like to accomplish. Sometimes, there is great joy to be found in wandering and not knowing where you are, the pleasure of feeling as if you are somewhere that you’ve never been before. Of course, getting lost in the wilderness is also a terrifying experience, that sudden sense that you will never find your way home and might die of exposure or hunger before someone finds you. And we write fairy tales about lost children who are rescued by people who are not what they appear to be, but who turn out to be witches or beasts who mean us harm.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. gathers together a variety of stories about prominent black men – Harry Belafonte, Anatole Broyard, James Baldwin, for example – to construct these essays that use each man’s life as a jumping-off point to talk about race and class in America. The title essay refers to Gates’s piece about O. J. Simpson, whose trial acted like an earthquake in exposing buried fault lines about race and masculinity.
While many white commentators focused on their surprise at black relief at Simpson’s acquittal, what was more disturbing was the ways in which white naivete was exposed. Long before Ferguson and a series of prominent national shootings of unarmed black men by police officers, white reaction to Simpson’s trial showed black intellectuals how little white people claimed to know about police interventions in black communities.
Gretel Ehrlich writes about the American West in language that evokes the howl of the wind on the Wyoming plain, the cut of the icy air as she saddles up her horse, the heat on the tongue of that first cup of coffee in the morning. Her poetic prose captures the fullness of solitude for a writer. She is not afraid to be alone, even as she is going through a break-up. Rather, as she grows accustomed to her own company, Ehrlich provides testimony to the beauty of a day spent with animals, and how animals cannot inflict emotional pain the way human beings can.