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Posts Tagged ‘essays’

What Is an Essay, Anyway? and Other News

October 8, 2014 | by

Montaigne-Dumonstier

A portrait of Michel de Montaigne, whom you can blame in part, maybe, for all these “essays.”

  • Essays—essais, essayes—what are they, how are they, where did they come from, why can’t we seem to settle on the meaning of them, is Montaigne to blame for all this, or Francis Bacon or maybe King James, and what’s the meaning of all this “attempting” anyhow … John Jeremiah Sullivan aspires (don’t make me say essays) to find out.
  • Horace Engdahl, who helps to judge the Nobel Prize in Literature, laments the “professionalization” of writing in the West: “I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions … Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries, and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard—but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”
  • Relatedly: “A growing number of biographers and historians are retrofitting their works to make them palatable for younger readers … And these slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions of popular nonfiction titles are fast becoming a vibrant, growing and lucrative niche.”
  • Zadie Smith on a certain famous populous island: “Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue. There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day.”
  • “An intellectual is a person who is mainly interested in ideas. I am an aesthete—a person who is mainly interested in beauty. Nowadays the word aesthete carries with it the musty reek of high Victoriana. Still, there remains no better word to describe the way certain people—people like me—view the world.”

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Pati Hill, 1921–2014

September 24, 2014 | by

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An illustration by B. Whistler Dabney for Pati Hill’s essay “Cats,” from our ninth issue.

The Paris Review was saddened to learn that Pati Hill, a frequent contributor and longtime friend of the magazine, died last Friday at ninety-three. A native of Kentucky, Hill worked during the forties and fifties as a model in France, where she was part of the same community of expats that included George Plimpton and the founders of the Review.

Over the years, beginning with our second issue, Hill published six stories and an essay with the Review; her last contribution, part of a series of sketches, came in Spring 1981. She wrote a pair of well-regarded books—a novel and a memoir—in the fifties, but today she’s probably best known for her art, which made early and innovative use of an IBM photocopier, as an obituary in the Times says.

To celebrate Hill, we’re posting her essay “Cats,” from our Summer 1955 issue, in its entirety, with a pair of illustrations by B. Whistler Dabney. It begins:

I like cats as far as creatures go. I like almost any animal that does not have horns or scales on it for that matter, but I especially like cats. Any sort and denomination: spotted or solid, fat or thin, with and without fleas. I like them and admire them and almost anything they do is a pleasure to me.

The way they can walk around the rim of a bathtub, for instance, without falling in and the way they can get comfortable in any old place. There is nothing better than a cat looking out from behind a pot of geraniums on a windowsill or walking slowly down a country road of a summer evening. There is something at once comforting and disquieting about a cat which makes him attractive.

They are wonderful when they stick their noses cautiously into a hole and then back out again, and when they flatten down their ears the tops of their heads look like giant bumblebees. Also they have marvelous feet. When a cat puts his paw on the head of a half eaten fish it is at once delicate and dainty and fierce and when he retracts his claws again he is most beautifully innocent like firearms in a shop window or a pin-cushion with no pins in it.

Read the rest here.

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I Scream

August 7, 2014 | by

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Photo: Zechariah Judy

As a child in suburban Connecticut, I had always considered the purl of the Good Humor truck to be more closely akin to a cricket’s chirp or the sound of summer rain: a seasonal gift, wreathed in sweet associations … [but] it is a grave error to assume that ice cream consumption requires hot weather. If that were the case, wouldn’t Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have established their first ice cream parlor in Tallahassee instead of Burlington, Vermont, which averages 161 annual days of frost? … Wouldn’t John Goddard, an outdoorsman of my acquaintance, have arranged for a thermos of hot chicken soup instead of a half gallon of French vanilla ice cream with raspberry topping to be airdropped to him on the summit of Mount Rainier? And wouldn’t the Nobel Prize banquet, held every year in Stockholm on the tenth of December, conclude with crepes Suzette instead of glace Nobel? As the lights dim, a procession of uniformed servitors marches down the grand staircase, each bearing on a silver salver a large cake surrounded by spun sugar. Projecting from the cake is a dome of ice cream. Projecting from the dome is an obelisk of ice cream. Projecting from the obelisk is a flame. When the laureates—who have already consumed the likes of homard en gelée à la crème de choux fleur et au caviar Kalix and ballotine de pintade avex sa garniture de pommes de terre de Laponie with no special fanfare—see what is heading their way, they invariably burst into applause.

—Anne Fadiman, born today in 1953, from her essay “Ice Cream”

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Swat with Scruple

June 3, 2014 | by

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Balthasar van der Ast, Flowers and Fruit, c. 1620

From “Why We Hate Insects,” an essay by Robert Lynd, collected in his 1921 book, The Pleasures of Ignorance.

It has been said that the characteristic sound of summer is the hum of insects, as the characteristic sound of spring is the singing of birds. It is all the more curious that the word “insect” conveys to us an implication of ugliness. We think of spiders, of which many people are more afraid than of Germans. We think of bugs and fleas, which seem so indecent in their lives that they are made a jest by the vulgar and the nice people do their best to avoid mentioning them. We think of blackbeetles scurrying into safety as the kitchen light is suddenly turned on—blackbeetles which (so we are told) in the first place are not beetles, and in the second place are not black …

There are also certain crawling creatures which are so notoriously the children of filth and so threatening in their touch that we naturally shrink from them. Burns may make merry over a louse crawling in a lady’s hair, but few of us can regard its kind with equanimity even on the backs of swine. Men of science deny that the louse is actually engendered by dirt, but it undoubtedly thrives on it. Our anger against the flea also arises from the fact that we associate it with dirt. Donne once wrote a poem to a lady who had been bitten by the same flea as himself, arguing that this was a good reason why she should allow him to make love to her. It is, and was bound to be, a dirty poem. Love, even of the wandering and polygynous kind, does not express itself in such images. Only while under the dominion of the youthful heresy of ugliness could a poet pretend that it did. The flea, according to the authorities, is “remarkable for its powers of leaping, and nearly cosmopolitan.” Even so, it has found no place in the heart or fancy of man. There have been men who were indifferent to fleas, but there have been none who loved them, though if my memory does not betray me there was a famous French prisoner some years ago who beguiled the tedium of his cell by making a pet and a performer of a flea. For the world at large, the flea represents merely hateful irritation. Mr W. B. Yeats has introduced it into poetry in this sense in an epigram addressed “to a poet who would have me praise certain bad poets, imitators of his and of mine”: Read More »

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That Was the Month That Was

March 5, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jack Weir, via Wikimedia Commons

Before everyone gets too deep into March—what with its Madness; its Ides; its suspicious “in like a lion, out like a lamb” mentality; its trying Lenten sacrifices; its Prince Kūhiō Day; blah, blah, blah—let’s not forget dear old February, arguably the most hated month, if not the cruelest. At only twenty-eight days, it always gets short shrift, even during leap years; it’s as if we can’t wait to wash our hands of it. Well, we’re here to say: we’re going to miss it. It was a fine month, one for the books, and we have proof—below are some of the excellent long essays the Daily published. Now, onward, to Saint Patrick’s Day, Pi Day, National Potato Chip Day, and Save a Spider Day. Read More »

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Blurring the Lines: An Interview with Michelle Orange

March 19, 2013 | by

Orange300Last month I read a book by David Foster Wallace for the first time. (Dare I admit that? Not having read DFW is practically a sin in most literary circles; it was something that embarrassed me for years.) I finally read the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. When I finished the book, I was greedy for more essay collections in which the author gets me to read about something I didn’t realize I had any interest in.

Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life is exactly what I was looking for. While the author deserves comparisons to DFW and John Jeremiah Sullivan, she has her own distinct voice. Orange’s prose is animated by her innate curiosity and her convincing meditations on culture and her own life. I recently interviewed her via e-mail.

I was struck by the essay about your grandmother, in which you talked about the many ticket stubs she sent you on which she had scrawled short reviews. Movies, it seems, are more than a personal pleasure. It’s almost as if you genetically inherited the desire to watch cinema, to immerse yourself in the stories. Did you become a film critic partially because of your relationship with your grandmother?

There does seem to be something passed down about that kind of movie love, although in this case it skipped a generation—my mom is more of a special-event moviegoer. My father, though, is at least as devoted a movie-lover as my grandmother was, so I had it coming from several directions. What I sensed with my grandmother is that she seemed to need the movies as much as she loved them. Our trips to the Cineplex, where she would take seven-year-old me to see rated-R-for-mature-content movies like Night Shift, were the only time we spent alone together. They were memorable for that alone, but I think they embedded some of that need in me as well. She wasn’t interested in talking about a movie afterward. The pleasure was really in discovering and rediscovering that private response. Which is what made the ticket stubs so special to me—her effort to connect through this thing that we both loved so privately.

In “The Dream Girl Is Over,” you posit, “What if all life, but especially the part of it that involves consuming art and images, is in some sense a reminder?” Do you think that’s why those of us who are drawn to art, in whatever form we consume it, find some sense of recognition and familiarity in the work that we love?

There’s nothing better than encountering a voice that seems to have been living in your head, waiting for a microphone, or an interlocutor. It’s a feeling of being called. When art can make that connection it couldn’t be more personal. Read More »

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