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Essays & Letters

Essays are potentially the greatest literary form. Three things are necessary to make an excellent essay: an idea, economy of language, and an engaging style. You don't have long to get the reader on your side in an essay, so you'd better try from the beginning. Some of the best writers have spent most of their careers writing essays, and they continue to make some of the best reading and some of the best texts for teaching writing.

The poorly executed essay, on the other hand, can make for some of the most arduous reading imaginable. Ralph Waldo Emerson may have been one of the first truly American intellectuals, and he certainly helped found one of the new nation's greatest literary movements (Transcendentalism), but his essays are mere soups of words, jumbled thoughts expressing only the idea that clarity of thought or expression is impossible. If you think this is an exaggeration, consider a statement by the diminutive New Englander: "Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds."

A capable writer like Twain, however, understood the power of the short work. As his essays exemplified, you don't start or end vaguely; to capture the reader's imagination and affect his thoughts, you begin in familiar territory, lead him through unfamiliar places, and conclude by showing how what was unfamiliar is now recognizable.

To do this repeatedly without merely treading the same few steps over and over takes a brilliant writer. One of the ablest modern practitioners of the essay is Annie Dillard, many of whose books are simply collections of shorter works. Her poetic vision lights little fires on the page, which when read become full blazes. Yet her effect isn't destructive; Dillard unites the elegance of language with the primitive terror of nature and the holy in ways that make us see the beauty of both in new ways.

Letters are often just personal essays. One of the exchanges one makes for greatness is the right to postmortem privacy, and we read the letters of people like Heloise and Abelard, Thomas Jefferson, and Winston Churchill to discover the secret of their greatness. What we usually find is the one universal feature of great writers—a vigorous and well-organized mind.

This is the secret of good writing, after all: the ability to think plainly and translate those thoughts to the page. Essays and letters (when done well) illuminate this skill largely because of their brevity (unless you're Kafka writing to your parents). There's no time to get lost when the path is short, and even less when that path is lit by eloquence and wit. If you write and you want to get better, read some good essays and imitate what you find.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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C. S. Lewis - Signature Classics Boxed Set
by C. S. Lewis
Box from HarperOne
for 9th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Essays of Michael Montaigne
by Michel de Montaigne
3rd edition from Penguin Classics
for 11th-Adult
in Renaissance & Reformation Literature (Location: CLT-REN)
Heretics
by G. K. Chesterton
from Dover Publications
Philosophy/Religion for 10th-Adult
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from Cambridge University
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Letters and Papers from Prison
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Biography for Adult
in Practical Christian Living (Location: C03-02E)
Letters of Abelard and Heloise
by Peter Abelard, Heloise
Revised from Penguin Putnam
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Letters of C.S. Lewis
by C. S. Lewis
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Letters to Children
by C. S. Lewis
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Autobiographical Letters for 3rd-9th grade
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in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Letters to Seabiscuit
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in Animal Stories (Location: A06-03A)
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Reissue from HarperOne
for 9th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Orthodoxy
by G. K. Chesterton
from Ignatius Press
Philosophy/Religion for 10th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Personal Heresy
by C. S. Lewis
Reissue from HarperOne
for 11th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
by Annie Dillard
from HarperCollins
Meditation/Philosophy for 10th-Adult
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Poor Richard's Almanack
by Benjamin Franklin
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Practicing His Presence
by Brother Lawrence, Frank Laubach
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Present Concerns
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Reprint from HarperOne
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in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Reflections on the Psalms
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Reprint from HarperOne
for 9th-Adult
in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There
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in 20th & 21st Century Literature (Location: CLT-20C)
Self-Reliance & Other Essays
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in 19th Century Literature (Location: CLT-19C)
Self-Reliance and Other Essays
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from Dover Publications
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Solzhenitsyn Reader
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for 11th-Adult
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Philosophy/Social Commentary for 10th-Adult
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William Law
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in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
Wit and Wisdom from Poor Richard's Almanack
Dover Thrift Editions
by Benjamin Franklin
from Dover Publications
for 10th-Adult
in 18th Century Literature (Location: CLT-18C)
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