Reading Essays: An Invitation

Reading Essays: An Invitation

Reading Essays: An Invitation

Reading Essays: An Invitation


Approaches abound to help us beneficially, enjoyably read fiction, poetry, and drama. Here, for the first time, is a book that aims to do the same for the essay. G. Douglas Atkins performs sustained readings of more than twenty-five major essays, explaining how we can appreciate and understand what this currently resurgent literary form reveals about the "art of living."

Atkins's readings cover a wide spectrum of writers in the English language--and his readings are themselves essays, gracefully written, engaged, and engaging. Atkins starts with the earliest British practitioners of the form, including Francis Bacon, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson. Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are included, as are works by Americans James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and E. B. White. Atkins also provides readings of a number of contemporary essayists, among them Annie Dillard, Scott Russell Sanders, and Cynthia Ozick.

Many of the readings are of essays that Atkins has used successfully in the classroom, with undergraduate and graduate students, for many years. In his introduction Atkins offers practical advice on the specific demands essays make and the unique opportunities they offer, especially for college courses. The book ends with a note on the writing of essays, furthering the author's contention that reading should not be separated from writing.

Reading Essays continues in the tradition of such definitive texts as Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction. Throughout, Atkins reveals the joy, delight, grace, freedom, and wisdom of "the glorious essay."


For more than fifty years, poetry, fiction, and drama have been read closely. and although the age of literary exegesis seems to have passed, the resulting industry established strong factories that have not and probably will not collapse but have, instead, morphed into new cubicles of analysis. the heyday of so-called critical readings was also, as it happens, the lowest point in the essay’s four-hundred-year history. Joseph Wood Krutch declared “No Essays, Please” in 1951 just as the exegetical industry was approaching its most productive period with its most impressive and lasting contributions to our understanding of the major genres, the works comprising them, and the incumbent questions of how to read. the essay seemed not to need close attention, analysis, or helpful commentary.

In the past twenty years, roughly, the essay has shown its resiliency and asserted its birthright and in the process has made clear how premature were the cries of its imminent demise. in fact the essay is now in the midst of something of a renaissance, writers and readers alike turning to it for the opportunities and rewards often and lamentably unavailable in poetry, fiction, and drama. Arguably, the form has never been so popular—so important, indeed, that ours has been termed “the age of the essay.” Hyperbole aside, college and university curricula and the textbooks that support them, as well as academic journals, have begun to accept, or declare, the essay—or at least “nonfiction”—as the “fourth genre.” (I dislike both “nonfiction”— for its invidiousness—and “creative nonfiction”—for, among other faults, its inelegance.)

Nothing has yet emerged to parallel such determinative texts as the nowlegendary Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction, nor have teachers and commentators yet been swift to offer “readings” of individual essays, thus to assist students and faculty alike in the burgeoning courses in the essay. in the following pages, I am unabashedly old-fashioned, although . . .

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