The Art of the Personal Essay

If you’re getting tired of blogs–and Christ knows, there’s fluff in these navels–I recommend Philip Lopate’s anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay. This is desert island stuff: 75 essays, from Seneca to Richard Rodriguez. It stops just in time, before this last decade’s boom in pity-me memoir and precocious autobiography.

As more of us choose tell the world our opinions on our breakfast, it’s good to be reminded that a fine personal essay can make us feel more alive. And that soul-baring, like strip-tease, intrigues most when it reveals slowly and artfully.

Try this catalogue from Sei Shonagon, a tenth-century Japanese court lady who kept lists worthy of Live Journal. The essay is called “Hateful Things.”

Some children have called at one’s house. One makes a great fuss of them and gives them toys to play with. The children become accustomed to this treatment and start to come regularly, forcing their way into one’s inner rooms and scattering one’s furnishings and possessions. Hateful!

A man with whom one is having an affair keeps singing the praises of some woman he used to know. Even if it is a thing of the past, this can be very annoying. How much more so if he is still seeing the woman! (Yet sometimes I find that it is not as unpleasant as all that.)

Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason–and then that person goes and does something hateful.

Fleas, too, are very hateful. When they dance about under someone’s clothes they really seem to be lifting them up.

6 thoughts on “The Art of the Personal Essay”

  1. It’s pretty annoying when someone you dislike for no particular reason goes and does something nice for you, too.


  2. I have wandered into this blog twice in the one week, and it could be an ENFP thing, could this just be a coincidence or do you have a meesage for me?


  3. Hmm. Let’s see.

    Contentment is a choice.

    Or: watch out for the speeding red Corolla when you pick up the Chinese takeaway tonight.

    Either of those work for you? šŸ˜‰


  4. Hmmm … I don’t feel it is incumbent upon me to blog my literary best … it’s a simple daily journal on-line, and no one is compelled to look. And funny, but I like to read about the daily details of others’ lives. I do like the loftier, more filtered content, as well, but I enjoy the casual, neighborly exchange of the less ambitious blogs. Of course, I read them for much different reasons than those that draw me to essays and novels.

    But I am grateful for book suggestions. Very grateful. You have a wonderful wishlist, too. I appreciate being able to find new authors from someone who clearly loves reading so much. And you do write beautifully, so I should say thank you for so carefully and beautifully writing about your experiences. I am glad that there are bloggers out there like you, who love language and use it so well to reflect their worlds.


  5. Hi Julia,

    I was kind of making fun of myself as a blogger and blog reader (but you knew that šŸ™‚

    I liked your piece a while back on blogs being your soap operas–they’re mine, too. And in this book of essays, the ones I liked best had the same intimate, personal vibe going, whether it was Orwell talking about his schooldays, Fitzgerald on his crack-up, or Sei Shonagon with her cranky lists. I think you’ll enjoy it.



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