Not long ago, I went to New Hampshire to watch some dogsled races, and during a break in the action I wandered into a hobby shop on the main drag of the town. It was a dusty old store, dim and crowded, the shelves loaded with the usual array of hobby gear — Popsicle sticks, model railroad switches, beads and buttons and toxic glue. I have no use for Popsicle sticks once the Popsicles are eaten, and no wish to build miniature railroads or embellish the surfaces of the objects in my home, so it seemed there was nothing in the store for me. But as I was about to leave, a large box behind the cash register caught my eye. It was, according to the label, the amazing Skilcraft Visible Cow, an anatomically accurate model kit featuring “highly detailed parts representing the structures of the skeleton and vital organs.” The picture on the label showed a big cow — a Guernsey, perhaps? or maybe a Milking Shorthorn? — made of some sort of clear glossy plastic. The exterior of the Visible Cow was invisible. The visible part of it was its innards — the major bones, the most popular organs, the spine, the ribs, the tongue. It was a marvelous construction, a complete inversion of the usual order of things: everything you usually expect to see of a cow was see-through, and everything you usually can’t make out was there, plain as day. The insides of the cow were held together by its transparent shell, which gave order and structure to the jumble of guts and skeleton and plumbing. I purchased the Visible Cow, and putting it together (which, according to the label, will allow me to “Study Anatomy As You Build Your Visible Cow Model”) is on my long- term To Do list. In the meantime, I keep the box in my office so I can look at it every day.
Which brings me, more directly than it might seem, to the subject of essays. Anytime I read an essay, write an essay, or, as is the case here, sort through and select the very best of a year’s essays, I find myself wondering what an essay is — what makes up the essential parts and structure of the form. What I like to do (with a nod here to the Skilcraft company) is study the essay’s anatomy as I build it. Is an essay a written inquiry? A meditation? A memoir? Does it concern the outside world or just probe the writer’s interior world? Can it be funny? Does it have answers or does it just raise questions? Does it argue a point or is it a cool, impartial view of the world? Does it have a prescribed tone or is it absolutely individual — a conversation between the writer and reader, as idiosyncratic as any conversation might ever be?
As near as I can figure, an essay can be most of the above — it can be a query, a reminiscence, a persuasive tract, an exploration; it can look inward or outward; it can crack a lot of jokes. What it need not be is objective. An essay can certainly present facts and advocate a position, but that seems quite different from objectivity, whereby a writer just delivers information, adding nothing in the process. Instead, essays take their tone and momentum from the explicit presence of the writer in them and the distinctiveness of each writer’s perspective. That makes essays definitely subjective — not in the skewed, unfair sense of subjectivity, but in the sense that essays are conversations, and they should have all the nuances and attitude that any conversation has. I’m sure that’s why newspapers so rarely generate great essays: even in the essay-allowed zone of a newspaper, the heavy breath of Objective Newspaper Reporting is always blowing down the writer’s neck. And certainly there is no prescribed tone that is “correct” for essays. Sometimes it seems that they have a sameness of manner, a kind of earnest, hand-wringing solemnity. Is this necessary? I don’t think so. Many of the essays that intrigued me this year were funny, or unusually structured, or tonally adventurous — in other words, not typical in sound or shape. What mattered was that they conveyed the writer’s journey, and did it intelligently, gracefully, honestly, and with whatever voice or shape fit best.
So essays can range in content, tone, structure, and approach. It’s a loose construct. I happen to love essays that take a small notion and find the universe inside it. As Emerson advised, “Put the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them, and the cause is half won.” An essay spun out of nothing but ideas feels too wifty to me; one that’s all observation doesn’t seem to have enough soul. What moves me most is an essay in which the writer turns something over and over in his or her head, and in examining it finds a bit of trutth about human nature and life and the experience of inhabiting this planet. For a reader to follow along as a writer examines thhhhhe nature of long-term love through the experience of removing a boil on his back, or comes to understand her sexuality by questioning the history of her mother’s cooking — two of the pieces I’ve chosen to include here — is to read a wonderful essay and to appreciate the elasticity of the form. In many ways, it’s the most intimate of reading experiences, in which the reader is invited to eavesdrop as the writer works through a thought or excavates a memory. The writer can be explicit, in the first person, or just implicit, as the person behind the words, but he or she is absolutely, powerfully present. It’s as if, for those few thousand words, we are invited deep inside someone’s mind.
Which brings me, after some rumination, back to my Visible Cow. I know it’s ultimately impossible and probably unnecessary to define what an essay is, but I think the Visible Cow offers an interesting and tangible analogue. What holds an essay together — the cowhide, so to speak — should be nearly invisible. The best kind of structure should be organic, revealing only the very natural way a smart person’s mind works through a topic, making connections and forming conclusions as they occur. And an essay can contain many thoughts and observations (those organs! those bones!) that might not seem to fit together, but in the end lead to a satisfying whole — a cow.
And if you’ll allow me to torture this poor cow — the Visible one and now all the real, live cows on the planet — for one more moment: just as each cow is individual, each of these essays is, too, though they are identifiably part of the same species. I realized only after the fact that I’d chosen to include a number of essays that deal with the same subject — cooking, for instance. What’s notable is that they deal with their subject so differently that they stand as a perfect example of how singular an essay is, and how they reflect the thinking and emotions of the writer, rather than merely recording a subject.
It’s that singularity that makes essays so marvelous. That they continue to be written and read is enduring proof that, all indications to the contrary, our voices matter to each other; that we do wonder what goes on inside each other’s heads; that we want to know each other, and we want to be known. Nothing is more meaningful — more human, really — than our efforts to tell each other the story of ourselves, of what it’s like to be who we are, to think the things we think, to live the lives we live.
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2005 by Susan Orlean. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Miff...