08 October, 2008

On the Personal Essay

Essay writing was nothing new before Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon (who also had a cool name), gave it a go in the 16th century. Thereafter, and for the following three centuries, it became quite the done thing to read and write essays of varying degrees of informality.

In the course of reading about cities, architecture and spaces, I have come across a lot of interesting essays from the 19th and 20th centuries.
There is something about the essay form, which seems to encourage free and creative thought. Maybe I’m just reading good essays.

The personal essay seems an apposite form for the internet, which requires brevity and concision.
(Blogging is itself an essay-istic endeavour; confession without a confessor, dialogue with oneself. Perhaps because the internet is a sort of half-way house between a virtual environment and a real practice, self-expression here does not quite have the feeling of action, which makes it feel safe.)

Happily, too, it seems that the informal essay is making something of a comeback, under the guise of Creative Non-fiction (of which more later): it even has its own journal! While searching for an essay by Montaigne, I found Quotidiana.org a veritable treasury of classic essays, presented with evident love by Patrick Madden.