Monday, April 18, 2011

The Lost Art of the Essay

Book Review: Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland

In the experience of the average American, the word essay brings to mind a formalized piece of writing inflicted on us in the course of high school English classes. Successor to the "book report", and predecessor to the "term paper", the essay has become a formulaic piece of drudgery that has lead more students to avoid writing as a communication method than any other form of public education.

In an effort to make the essay an achievable goal for the average student, the process has been broken down to the cellular level. Students are micro-managed in their essay-writing, to the point of being instructed not only how many paragraphs are permitted in a "good" essay, but also as to how many sentences in a paragraph, and how many words in a sentence. Grading is done by word count; content is irrelevant as long as the proper mechanics are used. It is small wonder that students throw up their hands and buy a ready-made one off the Web.

It was not always thus. The essay has its roots in the Renaissance, and left its mark on writers from Descartes and Rousseau through Huxley to Asimov. It is in this tradition that Edward Hoagland guides us in Sex and the River Styx. In the original meaning of the word, essay is "to try" or "to attempt", and Hoagland attempts to bring us along on his journey to a different perspective on life, love, and death.

In doing so we have to make a jump, not only in our understanding of what an essay really is, but in our reading as well. This is not a novel, quickly paced and easily digested while waiting in the airport. This is a book not to be read so much as mined, to be dug into, its truths extracted like prized nuggets. The digging is not always easy, but it is well worth the effort.

Each of the essays in this baker's dozen is a work unto itself; while related to each other and the whole they are not dependent on one another for understanding. They do not have to read in a particular order - choose a spot to your liking and start digging. Take your time and savor the effort, allow yourself to feel the textures, the woof and warp of the fabric Hoagland has woven.

It may not make you enjoy writing essays, but Sex and the River Styx might give you a new take on reading them.