The Verb "To Essay"
My dad recently gave me a book of A.J. Liebling essays to read. Essays are probably my favorite medium in which to read. They’re somewhat short. The ability of great essayists to explore an idea by analyzing and describing the world around them is remarkable. But there’s more to it.
Liebling is a true essayist. Not a columnist; but an essayist. His forays into French cuisine and World War era trans-Atlantic boat trips are long and meandering. Sometimes I’ll finish reading one and remember what I read but be unable to summon the point or the message of it all. But sometimes there isn’t one and sometimes that’s by design.
It’s tempting to look up the word “essay” in the dictionary, marvel at the English language – how silly it is that a word can mean multiple things so totally different from one another – and simply move on:
1. (noun) a short piece of writing on a particular subject.
2. (verb) attempt or try.
I suppose it is unusual and amusing that words can have such disparate meanings, but that is not the case at all for the word “essay.” The less common and non-literary definition of the word preceded its counterpart and this particular form of writing was originally called “essay” specifically because of that existing definition.
The way the word is used now, basically any short piece of writing on a particular topic can be reasonably called an “essay” but the original idea was for the term to apply to a sort of searching. Attempts to explain; not self-assured proclamations. Explorations of a subject; not authority. Contemplations of a problem; not unassailable solutions. Unfortunately, however, such uncertainty seems to be decidedly out of fashion.
We’re in something of a golden age of opinion journalism, and I really do mean that. I have instant access to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vox, National Review, and The Wall Street Journal basically any time I want. There is some really wonderful writing from all sorts of ideological corners but it almost always comes in the form of assertions. Columns that can be boiled down to a short central argument. There is nothing wrong with this sort of writing (in fact it is often exceptional persuasive writing) but it is decidedly a sort of writing. Assertions and arguments and criticisms are wonderful but they don’t replace the sort of exploration that an essay offers.
I am convinced that the exploration and searching are vital and are rapidly becoming more so in the current political environment. For better or worse (it’s the latter) we are heading into uncharted social and political territory. History is instructive but it’s often cryptic; dealing in rhymes and patterns and hypotheticals. Rationality and logic are indispensable but emotion will remain raw and wholly valid. Rooting through the mess of signals and feelings and thoughts and noise and threats and glimmers of hope will be an unparalleled challenge and the willingness to rummage without reservation is worthwhile.
Author and Atlantic columnist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, was interviewed recently and said the following of why he couldn’t bring himself to write much during this year’s election cycle:
“One of the reasons I didn’t write too much was because I just didn’t want to have to play this ‘oracular’ role. Like – there was no space to try to figure it out. There was no space to think about it. There was no place to go through the argument.”
I hope in the coming months and years, people take the verb more seriously. I hope that people see the value in exploring avenues and lighting corners and peering over edges. Sometimes a tunnel will terminate without illuminating a comfortable or satisfying destination but that is of little consequence. We leave very little room for ourselves to dig around for answers and in this time and place, not only are the answers important but the digging is therapeutic.