I’m trying to remember my introduction to the personal essay. I think it was in high school and I think it was Orwell. But I could be wrong. I might be misremembering. And somehow, my confusion about this seems fitting – considering that essays tend (and are designed) to sneak up on a reader unawares, to insinuate rather than insist.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say it was Orwell. “Why I Write,” (for yes, I wanted to write), or maybe “Shooting an Elephant,” (for I had a soft spot for animals and my political ideals were distinctly left-wing).
Whichever one I started with, I quickly read the others. Here was the voice of an intelligent someone, talking – so it seemed – directly to me. At the time, I felt much in need of intelligent conversation, but like many girls of my generation (or maybe any generation) I felt a certain pressure to disguise the need. It wasn’t “cool” to be interested in ideas. So the fact that this conversation was silent and could be carried on at home in private was a virtue, as far as I was concerned.
From Orwell, I swam the channel to Camus. From Camus to Colette, to a rusty-red book of sketches about her mother, Sidonie, and her early years with that wily monster, “Willy,” that I picked up in a second-hand shop.
Soon, I began working in a book store myself, the old Reader’s Den on Bloor Street in Toronto. Here were riches never before imagined. The pay was lousy, but the perks were great – the colleagues, with whom I could be myself instead of someone else, the view of Philosopher’s Walk from the plate windows, the sometimes eccentric and always interesting customers and the drama when one would try to filch the stock.
And the books, of course. The books. In spring and fall, sales reps would come with their catalogues. We’d cluster round them, salivating about the season ahead. When the boxes arrived we’d go through them like kids at Christmas, plucking favoured volumes and placing them on a shelf “to be bought” in the crowded staff room. Half our pay or more regularly went to books.
When business was slow I used to leaf through the New York Review of Books. There, I read long review essays about books that put them into context. There, I was introduced to Oliver Sacks. There I read Sontag, and from Sontag I stepped sideways to Berger and backwards to Benjamin. I read Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. Adrienne Rich. Richard Rodriguez. Alice Walker. Cyril Connolly. Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher. And more. From book to book I leapt, learning something, I hope, from each, and always attracted by that speaking, remembering voice, by a writer who was writing to think and to understand.
Sometimes when we’ve read something and loved it, we imagine that everyone in the world must already know it, too. But that isn’t true, and maybe it’s especially untrue about essays, since so few people read the genre. So it occurred to me that I might share some of my favourites. In the weeks ahead I will quote from well-loved essays. Snippets to whet the appetite and spark the mind.