Insights (Essays) July 2011

The Essay

I doubt if anyone could define the essay," one writer of essays remarked, "but I see no reason why anybody should be afraid to write one if he has anything worth essaying." Yet some definition, however incomplete, is in order here.

What is an essay? Basically, it is a short piece of prose, seldom longer than five or six thousand words. (Yet some essays fill whole books, and others, such as Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, are written in verse.) An essay should be on a topic of interest to the writer. It is "true" in the sense that it is not fiction; it is about something the writer has really seen, or felt, or thought about. It is usually an attempt that is, not an exhaustive treatment of the topic. Unless it is strictly technical, its style depends upon the personality of the writer and upon the topic under discussion. Its purpose may be to stimulate the reader's thought, to amuse, to instruct, to explain, to describe, or to convince.

In studying essays, you will be asked to pay attention to some of the ways the authors have given structure and style to their writing. You will learn how to apply some of these devices to your own writing. Take the matter of organization, for example. You will see how your ideas-can be arranged by chronology. You will see how the effective organization of some essays depends upon a spatial or geographical arrangement.

You will also see how the authors' personalities and their attitudes toward their subjects are reflected in the styles of their essays. Montaigne, as a humanist, is informal and highly personal. Others are serious and objective in their approach. Sometimes the language is plain; sometimes it is richly colored and imaginative. You will see how some writers, such as Montaigne, use anecdotes or fictional characters to help them make their points in an interesting way.

Perhaps you have not been aware that you have been reading essays for years. An essay is not a strange form that exists only in textbooks. In a sense, it is any attempt at written communication. Whenever you read a letter, a sports column, a movie review, an editorial, you are reading an essay. For the most part, the essays you read every day are familiar: they are informal and reflect the personalities of their writers. A good essay is like good conversation. One of the rewards of reading essays is meeting people-the essayists-through the ideas that interest them.


"So, reader," wrote Montaigne in 1580 in the preface to his first volume of Essays, "I am myself the substance of my book, and there is no reason why you should waste your leisure on so frivolous and unrewarding a subject."

Until the age of thirty-eight, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne had been an active man of the world-busy at the court of King Henry 11 of France, and in the parliament of his native city, Bordeaux. Then, as he tells us, "weary of court employment and public honors," he retired to his estate near Bordeaux. There, in a small book-lined room high up in a tower, he spent most of his remaining years writing his essays and reading.

Montaigne was the real inventor of the essay and even of the word "essay" itself. To him, this word-from the French essai, a trial or attempt-meant a short and very personal treatment of any topic. He did not attempt to treat the topic completely, and he wrote about anything from friendship to cannibals-whatever interested him.

What interested him most was himself. No writer before Montaigne's time had ever published such intimate details about his own mind, feelings, and habits. In his conversational style, he tells us, for example, that he was small; that he slept too much; that he was bad at sports; and that he "could never speak to dogs, birds, or horses." His motto was que sais je?- what do I know? The modern French writer, Andre Gide, said of Montaigne: "What did he bring the world then that was so new? Self-knowledge-and all other knowledge seemed to him uncertain; but the human being he discovers, and'uncovers, is so genuine, so true, that in him every reader of the Essays recognizes himself."

Publisher's note: Read more from our source:



Anton Hart wrote:

Posted 2011/07/21 at 02:54 PM EDT

The Longwoods essay -- a weekly feature of the Longwoods eLetter -- has become a much enjoyed product. The tradition was started by Bob Evans from UBC who is arguably Canada's most creative, provoking, entertaining and sometimes feared healthcare writer. Steven Lewis was not far behind. Not to be outdone and often personal we have learned to anticipate his barbed opinions written from his perch in left field. Then the always passionate and sometimes quirky reflections of Neil Seeman joined the fray. What a rich resource. Others now submit from time to time and we appreciate it. If, John, you have something to say and it reflects the above definition of an essay, send me a note. ( We are the first to admit that once we found this definition, we liked it, borrowed it and made it our own. Not all submissions will be accepted of course; but we will accept the great ones.(3:16) . . the publisher.

[post note] The authors of this essay on essays provide criteria for long essays -- reflecting the pre social media age. We like to keep ours to about 1000 words. Capice?


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