“The most important thing when starting out with essay writing is to find a voice with which you’re comfortable. You need to find a persona that is very much like you, but slightly caricatured. Think of it as your own voice turned up slightly in volume…Once you’ve found that voice, you’ll discover that the essay is something you can be serious or funny with, or both.”
That is Anne Fadiman, author, essayist, editor and teacher. She has many achievements to her name, including a National Book Critics Circle award, but she is best known for her essays.
Her best-selling essay collection Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a book entirely about books — from purchasing them, to reading them, to handling them, loving them and finding more room for them.
The London Observer called Ex Libris “witty, enchanting, and supremely well-written.” It has been or will be translated into fifteen languages, including Korean and Catalan.
The book is full of insightful observations and interesting asides and it contains essays with charming titles such as, ‘Marrying Libraries’, ‘The Joy of Sesquipedalians’, ‘Never do that to a book’, ‘The PM’s Empire of Books’ and so on.
Fadiman’s most recent essay collection is At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, in which she discloses her passions for (among other things) staying up late, reading Coleridge, drinking coffee, and ingesting large quantities of ice cream. The Christian Science Monitor called it “as close to a perfect book as you will ever hope to read.”
Today is the birthday of William Hazlitt. He was born in Maidstone, England on 10th April, 1778. He was a journalist and essayist by profession and one of the pioneers of the familiar (or informal) essay. Hazlitt is exceptionally good at this kind of writing. He begins most of his essays with a thought, an idea or an observation and before you know it, you are drawn into a conversation and you find yourself nodding in agreement or shaking your head…and you come away from reading, feeling as if you’ve been walking along with him on a sunny afternoon or sitting by the fireplace on a cold winter evening, talking all the while
Here is an excerpt from one of my favourite Hazlitt essays. It’s called On a Sundial. I read it nearly twenty-two years ago and it has stayed with me all these years.
Horas non numero nisi serenas [I don’t count the hours unless they’re tranquil]—is the motto of a sundial near Venice. There is a softness and a harmony in the words and in the thought unparalleled. Of all conceits it is surely the most classical. “I count only the hours that are serene.” What a bland and care-dispelling feeling! How the shadows seem to fade on the dial-plate as the sky lours, and time presents only a blank unless as its progress is marked by what is joyous, and all that is not happy sinks into oblivion! What a fine lesson is conveyed to the mind—to take no note of time but by its benefits, to watch only for the smiles and neglect the frowns of fate, to compose our lives of bright and gentle moments, turning away to the sunny side of things, and letting the rest slip from our imaginations, unheeded or forgotten! How different from the common art of self-tormenting! For myself, as I rode along the Brenta, while the sun shone hot upon its sluggish, slimy waves, my sensations were far from comfortable; but the reading of this inscription on the side of a glaring wall in an instant restored me to myself; and still, whenever I think of or repeat it, it has the power of wafting me into the region of pure and blissful abstraction.
Here’s the link if you want to read the rest of the essay.