My Anthology Problem and The Art of the Personal Essay

ArtofthePersonalEssayFor the last several months, I’ve been slowly reading through the essays in The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate. It’s an excellent collection, containing many of my favorite essays, all arranged in a rough chronological order to give readers a sense of how the form has developed over the centuries. And I’m finding the reading of it almost entirely unsatisfactory.

I’ve read just over 200 of the book’s almost 800 pages, which takes me through the essays of William Hazlitt, and I don’t know what to do with the experience. I’ve enjoyed some of the essays very much—Charles Lamb’s “The Superannuated Man” is particularly good, but I also liked Montaigne’s “Of Books” and Maria Edgeworth’s “An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification.” The others, however, are lost in a haze. Looking through the table of contents, I can remember that I enjoyed some of them, was bored by others, and didn’t take in a bit of still others. That’s what I’m finding unsatisfying. The essays are fine—I just don’t know how to access them in a way that makes the reading experience fulfilling.

In the past, I’ve read story and essay collections at work during my lunch break. I read maybe 100 pages of this book that way. But my job has gotten busier over the last several months, and I sometimes skip have to lunch so I can make a deadline. And even when I do take a break, the addition of a television in the office break room has made it inhospitable for reading anything that requires concentration, as some of these essays do. I’m better off with a non-taxing general-interest magazine. I sometimes take a my lunch break at my desk, but I feel odd about taking a break and reading a book at my desk. If I take my lunch break at my desk, I usually spend the time doing something on my computer. So office lunches are out–perhaps when the weather is better, I can eat outside again. That’s better for reading.

After a month or so of non-success reading at work, I brought the book home with the intention of reading an essay over breakfast each morning. But that’s no good. In the morning, I’m concerned about what I need to get done during the day, so any reading I do needs to be pretty simple—not to mention really short and easy to put down, so I can get out the door. Magazines, comics, Twitter. And sometimes I just want to sit and listen to NPR as I drink my coffee and eat my toast. When trying to read these essays, I’ve found myself worrying about whether I have time to finish and not really concentrating on the essay.

I don’t generally have this problem with collections by a single author. Those I can read like a novel because even if the stories or essays are different from each other, they come from the same mind. Part of what I enjoy about such collections is looking for the connective tissue that holds the pieces together. But reading an anthology like this in that way would feel like a forced march through a bunch of disparate pieces with no proper attention given to the individual treasures on the path. And these essays—many of them—are treasures. Looking ahead to what I haven’t gotten to yet, I see E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.”

In his introduction to the volume, Lopate says that he intentionally chose pieces that were self-contained, rather than excerpts from autobiographies that could stand alone. I respect that choice, and it makes me think I’d have more success treating each essay as its own piece, reading it without regard for when I’ll get to the next. Or maybe I’d enjoy reading one a week and posting on it, as Danielle has done for years with short story collections. (She’s currently blogging each Sunday about the crime collection Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman.) That approach has a lot of appeal, as I think many of these essays (or essayists at the very least) would be worthy of their own posts—and I’d probably find that process much more rewarding. But I’m not sure I want to commit to a weekly regimen. Perhaps, however, I could read an essay or two as the whim hits me, when I’m between books or need a break from whatever other book I have on the go.

Right now, I plan to set the book aside, leaving it on my coffee table to see if it calls to me again soon. If it does, I may return to the beginning and give those early essays a try—or I may pick up where I am now, with Robert Louise Stevenson’s “The Lantern Bearers” next in line. I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll dip into it at random, as I occasionally do with my old anthologies from college when I’m craving poetry. I’ve never felt the need to read everything in those books, but I’m so happy to have them on hand. Maybe that’s the approach I should adopt with this. We’ll see. But what I’ve tried hasn’t worked, and these essays deserve better than the desultory, half-hearted attention I’ve been giving them.

How do you read anthologies—or do you? What approaches work well for you, both in reading them and writing about them?

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25 Responses to My Anthology Problem and The Art of the Personal Essay

  1. Jeanne says:

    I read poems, essays, and sometimes short stories in a certain location, so when I’m there, I’ll pick one up. I like the idea of writing about one every time you’ve read one, because I do think it’s impossible and probably counter-productive to try to talk about them as a group.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s pretty much what I’ve done in the past, but none of those places are working so well these days. So I think it’ll be more helpful to come up with a time–such as when I’m between books.

      If I were to talk about the collection all the once, I’d just end up discussing the overall quality of the choices, which I’ve done here, so there’s not much more to say unless I get specific.

  2. Shonna says:

    I find your experience with this book interesting. It has been sitting on my “to read” shelf for years now, so maybe I should pull it down and see how I respond to it.
    I also find it hard to read in the lunchroom at work at certain times (thank goodness we don’t have a TV) due to loud conversations, and I try to read the newspaper as I eat breakfast, so will have to think about where to try this.

    • Teresa says:

      Conversations distract me sometimes too, but there usually aren’t many people having loud conversations. Lately though, I’ve been eating a little later, and there does tend to be more talking later in the lunch period. So that adds to the difficulty.

  3. Deb says:

    When it comes to anthologies of what are basically self-contained units, I feel no compunction to read from start to finish. I usually dip in and out, based on what catches my eye in the table of contents. Reading is one of life’s unalloyed pleasures and I try not to put too much stress on myself to get through something that isn’t calling me. If I were you, I wouldn’t even bother putting the book on my coffee table–just put it back on the shelf and pick up something that you really want to read.

    • Teresa says:

      I absolutely agree about not making reading stressful, but the thing is, I really do want to read most of the essays in this book. Many are by authors I admire or want to try. And the essays I read before I ever got the collection are ones that I like very much, which bodes well for the quality of the others. If I put it on my shelf I’ll forget about it, which is why I’m thinking coffee table for now–so I remember it’s an option.

  4. Love this post. I agree–anthologies are hard. No narrative line, which, as you point out, kind of exists in a sole author’s collection. I highly recommend Lee Martin’s Such a Life as a wonderful collection of essays.

  5. I’ve always had a hard time with collections like this. My best success has been to leave the anthology in the bathroom and read one every time I brush/floss my teeth. But even with that, I often grow bored and rebellious.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this. The bathroom isn’t a workable option for me because I don’t have a surface in there. The breakfast table was meant to be a similar thing, though, but morning is not great reading time for me.

  6. I saw this post and couldn’t help weighing in. I’m a mad collector of anthologies on various (literary) topics, and almost can’t resist the pull of another one when I see it on a free or low cost shelf, especially if it’s one that has stood the test of time and is well known. But I never completely read one all the way through, or at least usually not, because it isn’t appealing to me to use it in that way. I also like to write posts on things I’ve culled from anthologies, and so far this has worked out quite well for me. I have a lot of free quiet time because I work at home, so that’s not an issue, but with so many compelling things out there to read, reading something from an anthology usually happens for me because of word-of-mouth recommendations about the excerpt itself, or because I’m bored and just looking around on my bookshelves for something different to read. I often wonder, too, just how an editor of an anthology makes selections, what the editors’ mind-set is about literature in general. It’s like the difference between making a bedspread of one piece and doing a patchwork quilt, I would think: one effort shows a single whole piece of work with its perfections and imperfections, the latter showcases a host of slightly different things organized under the one loose rubric which brings them all together.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the reasons I bought this was because I’d heard good things, and it was a great deal–$4, I think! But it’s possible that trying to read it straight through isn’t the best approach for me. I like the idea of doing that because the book is arranged chronologically, which means there is a pattern that could be interesting to follow. But it might be better to just keep it on hand when I’m between books or needing a break from my current read.

  7. Alex says:

    I will turn to essays when I’ve had a glut of fiction and need something to cleanse my reading palate but I’ve never found a satisfactory way of blogging about them. I think this is because they require more of a response on my part than most novels do. I feel the need to have an opinion about whatever the writer has been discussing and to be able to define my position. that always feels like to much work, or rather it feels as if it’s gong to take up more time than I’m willing to give it. Perhaps I’m too much of a shallow thinker.

    • Teresa says:

      I wouldn’t say you’re a shallow thinker at all–and I have the same worry about trying to blog each essay. I think what Danielle does with collections is great, but I don’t know that I’d want to spend that much time on a single piece. Writing 500 words on a novel doesn’t seem like much, but a good response to an essay could require just as many words, and it starts to look like a huge time investment for something I read in 30 minutes (if that).

  8. Lisa says:

    I’m trying to remember if I’ve even read (as in finished) an anthology – I must have, surely. But most of my reading is novels or histories. I would be so upset with the addition of a TV into a break room. They seem standard now in doctors’ offices, and car repair places, and I find it so difficult to tune them out. I stay in my office at lunch, to have 30 minutes with a book – it helps me cope with the constant interruptions of the rest of the day.

    • Teresa says:

      A few people lobbied to get the volume turned down on the TV, and for a while it was silent with captions, but that didn’t last. Now it’s at a low volume, but still hard to tune out, especially if I’m sitting in sight of it. If I had an office, I’d read in there, but I work in a cubicle, so there’s no privacy. We do have two quiet rooms that I use sometimes, but the lights are low in there, so it’s not great for reading–and they’re not always free. I like to get away from my desk for a while each day, but it’s not always easy.

  9. Jenny says:

    I do tend to read anthologies straight through, as if they were novels. I think I must be an oddity in that way (though I don’t think it’s a virtue; one time I read all of T.C. Boyle’s first collection of stories, and I haven’t wanted to read any T.C. Boyle since.) This particular anthology is very, very good — I liked almost everything in it, which is such a rarity! Well worth persevering in some fashion, whatever you eventually find works for you.

    • Teresa says:

      When you’re reading them, are they the only thing you read? Or do you have another book on the go as well?

      I am hanging on to this and will return to it in some fashion. I think it might have been your review that put it my radar, so I knew it was worth getting when I saw it at the Green Valley Book Fair.

  10. jenclair says:

    This is one of my favorite anthologies. At the time I read it, I was teaching the personal essay to high school seniors, and it was the perfect book for providing ideas. My very favorite was Egerton’s “The Noble Art…” which I found so sly and so funny. I recommended it to many friends, and I don’t think any of them liked it. I also loved Lamb’s “The Superannuated Man” and Shei Shonagon’s essay about things she hated it. :) I even made my own list, but it was in no way as interesting!

    • Teresa says:

      This would be a great anthology to teach from–it covers so many styles and eras.I liked Shonagan’s essay, too, but I haven’t gotten to Egerton. I think the Lamb was my favorite so far.

  11. Stefanie says:

    I have this book. I have not yet read everything in it. I have approached it as a book to dip into and skip around in rather than read straight through. Maybe instead of reading one after the other in order try skipping around and reading whatever one strikes your fancy that day. Eventually you will get to all of them.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m such a methodical sort of person that reading straight through feels natural to me, but I’ll definitely give that approach some thought. Maybe my methodical side would be satisfied if I check them off on the Table of Contents as I read.

  12. Rebecca H. says:

    When I read anthologies, I usually read them straight through, but I don’t think I’ve ever tackled anything as long as the Lopate one. Actually, pretty much the only anthologies I ever read these days are the Best American Essays, unless you count collections by a single author, which aren’t really anthologies. I think if I were to try to read something like Lopate in order, I’d get bogged down in the earlier pieces, which are interesting in their own way, but harder to get into and maybe harder to fall in love with. I’d be looking forward to the later, possibly more accessible ones, but feeling like it was going to take forever to get there. Maybe jumping around is the best option? I’d feel uncomfortable about that myself, as I like to read methodically, but maybe the reading experience would be more satisfactory that way.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you pinned down exactly what happened with me. I got bogged down early on in stuff that was interesting but not necessarily sheer joy to read (and especially not in a hurry or in a noisy room). Reading from beginning to end suits my methodical temperament, but it wasn’t right for this.

      I did have an idea yesterday that I might adapt Alex in Leeds’ book jar idea to create an essay jar. Working my way through the jar would appeal of my methodical side, but the randomness of it would allow me to mix things up.

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