Essays: the medium for the impatient but intrigued reader

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Which genre is short, sweet and smart, and you didn’t know you needed to read? Elyse Popplewell introduces us to the world of essays.

In the crevices protected by the cranium, there’s a pocket of panic and prejudice reserved for the word essay. If your brain is flashing with neon signs of deadlines, editing, god-forsaken referencing and thesaurus.com open in a handy Safari tab, then just let that haze of academic chaos fade away. You’re okay now. This is a safe era of essays. You’re the reader.

A great essay collection is a scintillating conversation. The author jumps down the rabbit-hole of deep-thinking, digs for depth, and you consume it effortlessly from any place you like. This is why essays are ideal: each essay is a marvellously wholesome package of perspective. You could get to Strathfield from Redfern on a train and read an entire essay and not have that niggling feeling of leaving a story unfinished. The only thing longer than the novel you keep picking up and putting down is your semester to-do list. This is why the pick up/put down advantage of essays is hard to beat.

I hear you – but short stories! They’re bite-sized too! And why would you ever choose an essay over a short story, if you’re in the market for something succinct and entertaining?  The lines defining the essay genre are blurred. They can be thrilling, thought-provoking cultural critiques, structured utter hilarity, or quasi-academic recounts. Because essay is such a dirty word, we often see essays published under the umbrellas of memoirs, chronicles, or meditations.

Alain de Botton’s first book, Essays in Love, for example. My favourite. The very title doesn’t shy from its literary truth, yet you’ll usually find this in the novel section at the library. In a gripping blend of a first-person narrative and intimate theoretical reflection, we follow the tale of love from the moment it is kindling until it is a raging fire of its own demise. Perhaps the essay your uni tutor wants you to read would tell you that Marxism might hold water in some relationships in an unsupported study done at some university twelve years ago. But De Botton, in chapter six, will tell you the story of romantic Marxism you have always known, but didn’t realise you knew. In chapter eight, he will invite you to understand the fusion of love and liberalism. None of the friends I’ve forced to read this collection have ever understood their own experiences of intimacy more, since.

That is the exact reason I’m a champion for essays. They are some of the most stimulating literary works – a union of research, entertainment, and usually, passion. An essay briefly satisfies the itch to learn about the world in whatever spare pockets of time your day has. Next time your commitment issues with novels gets in the way of picking up a good book, flick to an essay collection. I told you essays are perfect for dipping in and out of because of their brilliant brevity. But, if you do decide to take my advice and dive into Essays in Love, just know that you won’t be able to put it down.

Elyse Popplewell is a final-year Journalism student who is passionate about sharing narratives. She likes to read, drink coffee, and then take photos of exactly that for Instagram.