by Mike Coakley
For some time now, I’ve been hungrily purchasing essay collections. I used to avoid them; when an undergraduate professor of mine assigned pieces from Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, I haughtily skimmed them and sat mostly silent in class. I cared little for Montaigne’s musing on monstrous children, and sitting down to read from Kenko’s Essays in Idleness sounded like a dreadfully—well—idle thing to do. The essay as a form seemed sickeningly personal, a woolgatherer’s trick to circumnavigate narrative, and essay collections and anthologies struck me as repositories of unrelated smatterings of directionless thought. But I’ve converted, and repented. Just last week, Mark Slouka’s Essays from the Nick of Time and Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth both arrived in my mailbox. I’d placed the order voluntarily.
I’ve come to love the essay collection for the same reasons I used to avoid it, for the same reasons so often cited by champions of the form. “The advantage of the heterogeneous essay collection by a single author,” writes Lopate in his River Teeth essay “In Defense of the Essay Collection,” “is that it shows you how a particular mind moves through the world. If you are attracted to an essayist’s mentality and way of speaking, ideally you can surrender happily to his or her take on various subject matters, the more diverse the better.” Maybe he’s just defending his own practice, having essayed subjects as seemingly disparate as empathy and baseball in the same book. He admits such a possibility himself. But there’s something about that word— “particular”—that immediately justifies the grouping of unlike essays. For a writer in any genre, particularity is a valuable commodity.
The idea is that the elements of a collection are unified by the mind that puts them there, and by the very fact of their proximity. A writer can place a piece about American politics next to one about his or her affinity for Frito Lay snacks and the essaying mind unifies the two—the writer’s approach, the writer’s voice, the writer’s way of seeing. Even the most dissimilar essays reveal a sudden likeness. Essayist Lia Purpura has called it the “cohering eye.” Whether this is enough or if a collection requires a more purposeful unity is up for debate (it’s admittedly hard to publish an essay collection without a “topic”), but the argument says something about the organizing power of the mind. It leaves its trace. It crafts narratives without having to try too hard, though it might be unaware of its own workings. It can spin a yarn using even the rawest material.