Democracy Dies in Darkness

Books | Review

A look at the life-saving power of essays

September 11, 2018 at 9:21 AM

(New York Review Books)

In his nifty little book, “Essayism,” Brian Dillon, a professor at London’s Royal College of Art, can’t resist being the teacher, which makes his readers the students. But who wouldn’t want to learn from a writer who knows and loves his subject? So, children, stop squirming and pay attention, because anyone who reads Lester Bangs’s manic essays about rock music as an antidote to disabling depression has something to tell us. Bangs is one of the many writers Dillon discusses in this examination of a form of writing that can embrace any subject, style, century or personal disposition yet easily escapes the constraints of each. The essay is a trying, slippery fellow.

It’s this slipperiness that keeps us reading through a series of erudite chapters with headings such as “On Vulnerability,” “On Talking to Yourself” and “On Melancholy.” In these brief chapters about specific subjects and authors, Dillon conveys how expansive yet interior essays can be. There are also five chapters “On Consolation,” which describe Dillon’s life struggles and prove one of his main arguments: that the personal essay is the prime expressive mode for the modern self. Dillon is not shy about telling us how essays saved his life.

Nor is he shy about discussing his favorite literary style: modernist experimental and its exponents. Thus William Gass’s “On Being Blue” is cited along with works by Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. But other writers have their day, too: Elizabeth Hardwick, whose sly punctuation sends Dillon into raptures; Susan Sontag; the 17th-century masters Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne; and, of course, Bangs, who earns praise for his “sentimental swagger.”

“Essayism” author Brian Dillon. (Chris Dixon)

The overly long chapters on Cyril Connolly, a Brit whose book “The Unquiet Grave” was a hit in the l940s, and the early German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel show Dillon in full professor mode. These examples might interest his students in London, but American readers may lose interest and wonder why Henry David Thoreau, Mary Karr, James Baldwin and Edward Hoagland have been overlooked. But this is a quibble, for even in chapters that task us, something useful — even startling — appears. I won’t be looking up Schlegel any time soon, but I now know that “text” comes from the Latin “textum,” which means web. Slippery and sticky.

“Essayism” takes a form of prose writing that predates the Renaissance and makes it exciting through chapters short enough to read on your Metro trip home. Dillon’s U.S. publisher, New York Review Books, has jazzed up the cover and added a subtitle: “On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction.” But “Essayism’s” true subject is life and how words can make it worth living, and reading about.

Brian Dillon will be discussing his book at Politics and Prose on Sept. 30 at 3 p.m.

Sibbie O’Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, has recently completed a memoir on how the Beatles have influenced her life.

ESSAYISM

On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction

By Brian Dillon. 176 pp. $15.95.

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