Ed. John Gross. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991. (7)
Why read it? This book contains many of the classical essays, well known essays that have become part of the literary canon. Essentially, there are two types of essays. The first, based on the model of Montaigne’s essays, is organized around the writer’s thoughts, moving from one thought to another as the mind moves. The second type of essay is found in Bacon’s and Addison’s essays, writing that is planned with a beginning, middle and end. As for topics: they can be about anything on which the writer chooses to write.
Enjoy the sample quotes from essays written over the years.
Buddha. “The drooping eyelids of the great creatures [statues of the Buddha] are heavy with patience and suffering, and the subtle irony which offends us in their raised eyebrows…conveys to us that it is odd that we let our desires subject us to so much torment in the world.” Sir William Empson. 1936. ………. Life. “We are one of many appearances of the thing called life; we are not its perfect image, for it has no image except Life, and life is multitudinous and emergent in the stream of time.” Loren Eiseley. 1957. ………. Language. “I think of the thick layers of abstract jargon we carry on top of our heads, of the incessant urge to rename everything in roundabout phrases (‘personal armor system’ = the new army helmet), of the piling up of modifiers before the noun (‘easy-to-store safety’ of the folding ironing board), of the evil passion for agglutinating half-baked ideas into single terms (‘surprizathon’ = advertising goods by lottery)….” Jacques Barzun. 1984.
“FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] stands out principally by his astonishing appetite for life and by his apparently complete freedom from fear for the future.” Sir Isaiah Berlin. 1949. ………. FDR…sensed the tendencies of his time and their projections into the future to a most uncommon degree.” Sir Isaiah Berlin. 1949. ………. “Churchill’s nature possessed a dimension of depth—and a corresponding sense of tragic possibilities—which Roosevelt’s light-hearted genius instinctively passed by.” Sir Isaiah Berlin. 1949. ………. “FDR played the game of politics with virtuosity, and both his successes and his failures ere carried off in splendid style; his performance seemed to flow with effortless skill; Churchill is acquainted with darkness as well as light…gives evidence of agonized brooding and slow recovery.” Isaiah Berlin. 1949.
“Mistakes are at the base of human thought….” Lewis Thomas. 1979. ………. “If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get any thing useful done.” Lewis Thomas. 1979. ………. “What is needed, for progress to be made, is the move based on the error.” Lewis Thomas. 1979. ………. “The lower animals do not have this splendid freedom to make mistakes…are limited, most of them, to absolute infallibility.” Lewis Thomas. 1979.
Fear. Thomas Hobbes: “Man does not move towards positive ends, but away from fear.” H.R. Trevor-Roper. 1945. ………. Genius. “The function of genius is not to give new answers, but to pose new questions….” HR Trevor-Roper. 1945. ……… “Failure is a kind of death.” Robert Warshow. 1948.
Heaven. “It was that verse about becoming again as a little child that caused the first sharp waning of my Christian sympathies; if the kingdom of Heaven could be entered only by those fulfilling such a condition, I knew I should be unhappy there…was not the prospect of being deprived of money, keys, wallet, letters, books, long-playing records, drinks, the opposite sex, and other solaces of adulthood that upset me…but having to put up indefinitely with the company of other children, their noise, their nastiness, their boasting, their back-answers, their cruelty, their silliness.” Philip Larkin. 1959.