What is an essay?

The essay, according to one its virtuosos, is the only literary form that is a verb. “A man does not really write an essay,” he says. “He does really essay to write an essay.” The essay proper is not a model of writing, for there is no model essay (though there are many famous ones). It describes an action. A leap. In the original French, it means to “test” or “try.”

The essay is formless, or at least accepting of a bewildering variety of forms. It may at times contain a thesis, theme, parable, etc., though it isn’t precisely any of these nor does it require any of them. Even the writer mayn’t know what an essay will become. When my wife asks what it is I am writing, and I say I haven’t found out yet, she knows it is an essay.

I compare essaying to the English custom of rambling. Rambling is like going out for a stroll, except the paths for a stroll are typically laid out beforehand through parks, historic districts, residential communities, and the like. A rambler, on the other hand, bounds fences, cuts through fields, scales up hills, and turns down alleyways, going places people aren’t expected to go. His pleasures are much the same as the stroller’s—a chance to get some air, work his legs, note the climate, etc.—and he usually starts out as a stroller who, after a while, catches the notion to explore the islands of blackness floating in his mind between the pedestrian arteries. To essay is to fill the landscape.

A New Year’s Day custom of mine is to purchase the latest compilation of The Best American Essays, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In these essays, I frequently meet opposition to my views, and that is partly the point of reading them. While the essay has a reputation as a subjective, intimate form, I think of it otherwise. Its versatility allows the writer to subscribe to an idea or experience the language, structure, and imagery that suit it best. It isn’t that the essay has no structure, but that it can have any structure. In this way, I might not be engaging the opposition at their epistemic best, but I am presented their views in the manner in which they are held or professed. This is essential for dabbling in an opposing idea because it illumines how someone believes, not only what they believe. And according to how one believes, certain beliefs will be favored over others.

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