For 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?