In his introduction to ‚ÄúThe Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present,‚ÄĚ¬†Phillip Lopate writes: ‚ÄúThe hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom.‚ÄĚ
This comprehensive volume starts in ancient Rome with Seneca‚Äôs ‚ÄúOn Noise‚ÄĚ and Plutarch‚Äôs consolation to his wife following the death of their two-year-old daughter. Then it arcs through history to include Michel de Montaigne -- credited with inventing the contemporary literary form of essay (named for "essai," the French word¬†for "trial" or "attempt") in the sixteenth century -- Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Jorge Luis Borges, Henry David Thoreau, E.B. White, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and many more.
If Lopate‚Äôs evocation of that connection between writer and reader sends a chill up your spine, read on to experience what some of today‚Äôs best personal essayists have to whisper in your ear.
‚ÄúGeneration Why?‚ÄĚ by Zadie Smith
Smith‚Äôs characteristically incisive commentary¬†on The Social Network, the 2010 Facebook movie penned by Aaron Sorkin, as it relates to Jaron Lanier¬†‚Äės book ‚ÄúYou Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto,‚ÄĚ explores her possibly ill-timed dream ‚Äúof a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and‚ÄĒwhich is more important‚ÄĒto herself.‚ÄĚ¬†Originally published in¬†The New York Review of Books, it was later anthologized in "The Best American Essays 2011."
"Drinking at 1,300 Ft: A 9/11 Story About Wine and Wisdom" by Cal Fussman
Published in¬†Esquire¬†on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and honored last week in the James Beard Foundation Awards‚Äô¬†personal essay category, this account of Fussman‚Äôs attempt to write "a story that balances the fun I had discovering wine with the horror of 9/11‚ÄĚ begins: ‚ÄúWe all know the feeling of wanting to do something so well and so badly that we try too hard and can't do it at all. In the end, though, there's no trick to being yourself. So I'm simply going to tell this story the way it happened.‚ÄĚ With grace and vulnerability, he connects his musically inspired immersion in wine education at the World Trade Center‚Äôs Windows on the World Wine School to vivid imagery of Philippe Petit‚Äôs 1974 tightrope dance between the two towers to the unfathomable loss of that September morning. How he does it becomes clearer with each rereading of the piece.
‚ÄúMy Tortured Relationship with the New York Giants‚ÄĚ by¬†David Kamp
In this poignant account of the 2008 Super Bowl for¬†The New York Times¬†Magazine¬†‚ÄúLives‚ÄĚ column,¬†Vanity Fair¬†contributing editor David Kamp¬†takes us on the emotional roller coaster of sharing the ‚ÄúNew York Giants miserabilist‚ÄĚ legacy with his father and son. ‚ÄúMy father died that Saturday night, the eve of the big game," he writes. "In my grief, I didn‚Äôt want to spend Super Bowl Sunday watching the undefeated New England Patriots dismantle my Giants. But my wise wife insisted that my son and I turn on the game. A game that the Giants, absurdly, won‚Ä¶My memories of that victory will always be tempered by thoughts of my father‚Äôs death, and my sadness over my father‚Äôs death will always be mitigated by the euphoria -- yes, euphoria -- produced by that victory.‚ÄĚ The catharsis he describes should resonate with anyone who's ever been made breathless by a loss or a win.
‚ÄúInfinite Ache: My First Mother's Day Without Her‚ÄĚ by¬†Saeed Jones
Leading up to the one-year anniversary of his mom‚Äôs death, which falls the day before Mother‚Äôs Day, Jones writes for¬†Ebony: ‚Äú‚Ä¶grief is vast. I thought it would be like a river, powerful but with a clear direction. Instead, though, I‚Äôve found that grief is an ocean. There is hell in grief, to be sure, but there is joy too. Now, though I sometimes cry, I more often feel a sense of awe at the depth of my connection to my mother.‚ÄĚ¬†It‚Äôs easy to be knocked over -- and picked up again -- by the palpable force of love in his writing.
‚ÄúAll the Single Ladies‚ÄĚ by¬†Kate Bolick
In this much-buzzed-about November 2011¬†Atlantic¬†cover story, an essay about changing social dynamics resulting in a thriving population of educated single women, Bolick's voice is loud and clear. Her ambivalence about entering into a traditional marriage leads her to explore her own romantic patterns and international trends embracing unconventional arrangements as marriage alternatives. After initiating a breakup with a wonderful guy because ‚Äúsomething was missing," she was torn: ‚ÄúOn good days, I felt secure that I‚Äôd done the right thing. Learning to be alone would make me a better person, and eventually a better partner. On bad days, I feared I would be alone forever. Had I made the biggest mistake of my life?‚ÄĚ Despite not having the answers, Bolick is brave enough to live the questions and share her discoveries with us.