And Now for Something Completely Different: Essayer, Try This! | Los Angeles Public Library

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And Now for Something Completely Different: Essayer, Try This!

Sheryn Morris, Librarian, Central Library,
Graphic of Michel de Montaigne

Panic and despair are the reactions of many students when asked to write an essay. It does not matter that so many of us are constantly communicating through social media, which is immediate and short in length. By contrast, the essay demands and requires time and thought.

The modern essay is from Michel de Montaigne (1553-1592), who coined the term essai, from the French verb, essayer, to try or attempt. Non-fiction writing about ideas and thoughts goes back to the ancients. For centuries people have expressed their ideas and opinions about a variety of subjects: from the benefits of eating raisins to serious political and scientific ideas.

Throughout their education, students will be writing essays, and the best way to improve is to write, write, write. For the rest of us, we may find it necessary to create a form of essay when writing to a public official, a bank, a neighbor, or a company complaining about a product. All of us need to write more so that we can better express our thoughts clearly to someone else.

When writing an essay, you need to apply at least two types of critical thinking. First, you will be thinking about your subject. When you have finished the essay, you need to look at your own work with a critical eye, which you may have to do several times.

The University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill Writing Center has an excellent section on their website for Tips and Tools. There are documents on a variety of topics to help students write and write well. They even have a document about “Procrastination” and how to overcome it. I highly recommend this site.

Included in the following list of collections of essays, are the works of three women: Joan Didion, M. F. K. Fisher, and Ursula K. Le Guin, who are the three modern graces or goddesses of essays. True originals, their essays are concise, evocative, surprising, and have unique writing styles.

When reading a collection of essays, it is not necessary to read them sequentially as listed in the book. Look at the table of contents and/or index, and select something that interests you, and proceed from there. And for what it’s worth, what you have just read is an essay, one that I hope is informative and convincing.

Essays for Essays' Sake

Hitchens, Christopher,

Here is a good sampling of essays by Christopher Hitchens, who could be very opinionated and biting, but never dull.

This huge book has three tables of contents:  authors (chronologically listed from the ancients to the moderns); thematic, e.g., death, food, solitude; form, e.g., analytic meditation, humor. 

Montaigne, Michel de, 1533-1592.

Montaigne is a character who ponders almost everything and will leave you thinking on many subjects. He thought, questioned, and changed his mind in the process. His ruminations  provide us with a wonderful template for our own observations and thoughts.

Codrescu, Andrei, 1946-

For many years Andrei Codrescu was a regular commentator on NPR. This collection reflects his wry, sardonic and yet optimistic view of life. Beware of the seductive charm in the brief titles because you will not necessarily know where Codrescu is taking you.

Smith, Zadie,

Best known for her novels, Zadie Smith’s essays cover modern culture, politics, and personal thoughts.


Leys, Simon, 1935-2014.

Pierre Ryckmans (pen name Simon Leys), was a true Renaissance man, who read and wrote about wide-ranging subjects. His points of view are fresh, startling and make you think. You may not agree with his ideas, but as with good essayists, he justifies his analysis.

Russell, Bertrand, 1872-1970.

Bertrand Russell, philosopher and social critic, is provocative and sometimes maddening in his opinions.

Fowler, H. Ramsey (Henry Ramsey).

This book has everything needed to help you write an essay, starting with the basics. It is geared toward the college student but is helpful to everyone. There are chapters on parts of speech, grammar and punctuation. The table of contents and index are excellent.

Fisher, M. F. K. (Mary Frances Kennedy), 1908-1992.

W. H. Auden said, “I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose.” M. F. K. Fisher wrote about food, as a subject and as a symbol of life, and was a unique stylist.

Le Guin, Ursula K., 1929-

Best known for science fiction and fantasy novels, Ursula Le Guin was a master essay writer. Direct, acerbic, witty and funny are attributes of her writing.

Moore, Lorrie,

Novelist, short story writer, essayist and cultural analyst, Lorrie Moore’s collection of essays mostly cover literary analysis, but other essays are about current events and politics. She is never mean-spirited, but not shy in expressing her negative critical analysis.

Didion, Joan.

The Scheherazade of the essay, as she lures you in with that first sentence, and then takes you places never imagined. She melds analysis and emotional reactions, which takes time and talent to do well.

Smith, Jack, 1916-1996.

For over 30 years Jack Smith was a daily columnist for the Los Angeles Times. There were many readers who often skipped the headline news to first read Smith’s column. Many of the essays were anecdotally based, which is not an easy task.

Jacobson, Howard.

A selection of Howard Jacobson’s witty and insightful columns in the British newspaper, The Independent. Check out his other collection the dog’s last walk.

Here are some other essayists to consider: paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould; social critic and novelist, Susan Sontag; poet, novelist, and film critic, James Agee; journalist and contributor to The New Yorker, A. J. Liebling; best known as the author of the children’s classic Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans; journalist, food writer and wit, Calvin Trillin.