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The Art of the Personal Essay : An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present

by Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate’s Art of the Personal Essay is a lovable pain in the ass. It’s lovable because it’s filled with delightful and surprising choices, such as E.B. White’s “The Ring of Time” and Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows” (the latter could be subtitled, “Everything you always wanted to know about Japanese toilets, but were afraid to ask”). Addison, Steele, Johnson, Woolf, Orwell (“Such, Such Were the Joys”– a great pick for those of us weary of the elephant), Natalia Ginzburg, James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Annie Dillard, Richard Rodriguez…

So, my beef has to do with organization and metadata. Of course, you’re thinking, she’s a librarian. No, dammit, I’m a reader, and it irks me no end to start an essay that doesn’t make it clear when and where it was first published! Don’t make me look that up! And where did you misplace the index, Mr. Lopate? Yes: no index. Apparently Lopate thinks two tables of contents–one by era and one by his own idiosyncratic topics–are reasonable substitutes for an index. Bad editor! No donut!

That said, Lopate’s intro is worth the price of admission, the bibliography at the end gets a nod of approval, and really, as collections go, this is quite a steal: over seventy essays, nearly all very high quality (the MFK Fisher was not a good example, but I had never read Hoagland on spanking, so that was a fair trade). Plus the paperback edition lies nicely flat while I’m reading–perfect for exercising, soup-drinking, earlobe-pulling, or other activities that mean one hand is free (including taking good notes).

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