The Ten Greatest Essays, Ever
Donna Tartt, “Sleepy Town: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine”
(from Harper’s magazine, 1992)
Raised by a Victorian grandfather who believed that children should be seen and not heard, the young author spent many of her childhood days adrift on the doses of codeine he administered as part of a health regime. Lucky kid! She saw Huck Finn in her radiator and was visited at night by a brontosaurus that feasted on the tree outside her bedroom window. This essay is an exquisitely written account of how strange it is to grow up, and how vast the gap between two generations can be.
Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre”
(from Against Joie de Vivre, 1989)
I was going to list an essay on taking walks by the great literary curmudgeon, Max Beerbohm, who turned the gripe into high art. But in the end I decided on Lopate’s perfectly dyspeptic argument about the wrong-headedness of unalloyed joy. This essay is as biting and funny and melancholic as it gets. Plus, in one passage he describes languidly waiting in bed to have sex with a woman as moment when he possessed, “all the consciousness of a dust mote.” If clauses won Oscars . . .
Nicholson Baker, “Reading Aloud”
(from The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber, 1996)
Mr. Baker once found himself moved to tears while reading aloud from one of his books. This public display of emotion was precipitated by, of all unlikely things, the term “bakery tissue.” In his loopy way, the writer explains the reasons behind this seemingly extreme and inappropriate emotional response, and by doing so he crafts an eloquent essay about language and its ambiguities.
George Orwell, “Such, Such Were The Joys”
(from The Collected Essays, 1952)
This is my favorite essay. Period. Orwell starts with an account of his boyhood bed-wetting while on scholarship at an exclusive English boarding school whose pecking order is the stuff of nightmares. The punishment he receives from the headmaster and headmistress, and his refusal to properly regret it, is grimly hilarious. Much more than a chronicle of one boy’s education, what Orwell ends up writing is a lacerating portrait of the British class system. The opposite of a polemic, this politically charged essay makes its points through its Dickensian characters, whose desperate, maddening bids for superiority mirror British society at large.
Tom Junod, “My Father’s Fashion Tips”
(from GQ magazine, 1996)
I don’t know about you, but I can never get enough grooming advice from dapper old guys who know the value of a tan and a turtleneck. Junod’s father provides just this kind of counsel. The author helpfully divides his father’s lifelong acumen into its consituent tips. What amazes is the inventive, sensual language that describes the unguents and lotions of male grooming, the cut and fabric of men’s clothes, and the secret rituals that make one guy smell better than the next. One of the most beautifully observed father/son essays I’ve read.
David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”
(from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, 1996)
This is my favorite essay. I know I said that about Orwell’s essay, but it’s the essay-lister’s prerogative to change his mind on an ongoing basis. Wallace’s account of a week he spent abroad a Carnival cruise is, bar none, the funniest thing I’ve ever read, filled with acrobatic locutions and winningly paranoid insights. What’s most moving to me is how the author doesn’t embark on the cruise in order to play the roll of contrarian, yet no mater how hard he tries to bond in some small way with the seemingly happy passengers, his incredulousness relegates him to the role of (brilliant) observer.
Joy Williams, “The Case Against Babies”
(from Ill Nature, 2001)
Nothing gets the blood pumping like a good old diatribe. A rant or scree or what have you. Williams is out to blast holes in the notion that giving birth offers the ultimate fulfillment for women, and that parenthood is destiny. She’s always been an incisive and unsentimental writer. Here, her prose is fuel by passionate indignation and jarring, memorable phrases. Childlessness becomes, in this essay, every bit as blessed a state as parenthood.
Cheryl Strayed, “Heroin/e”
(from The Best American Essays, 2000)
Strayed takes the unfairly maligned “addiction narrative” and turns it into an uncommonly stirring essay about the nature of desire. In her hands, desire isn’t simply a driving force behind addiction, but a driving force behind human connection in all its varieties–in this case, the death of her morphine-dependant mother and the divorce that resulted from the writer’s own addiction to heroine. Strayed gives the impression of tapping raw emotion while at the same time exerting tremendous authorial control. Her carefully honed sentences are as sharp as knives.
Scott Russell Saunders, “Dust”
(from Orion, 2001)
Composed of associations, Sander’s multi-part essay on mortality touches upon astronomy, astrophysics, religion, housekeeping, the dust bowl, and cremation. The writer’s method is as particulate and drifty as his subject, and the cumulative effect is far greater than the sum of its parts. Saunders is a rare species of writer: a spiritual man with the heart of a pragmatist.
Joan Didion, “In Bed”
(from The White Album, 1979)
This essay on migraine headaches is a skillful hybrid of the personal and the scientific. Didion exactingly anatomizes each stage of her own migraine, from its initial aura, to the chemical and perceptual shifts when it subsides. “That no one dies of a migraine, to someone in the middle of an attack, is an ambiguous blessing,” she concludes. These bleak chords, typically Didionesque, characterize the essay’s tone. A doctor from whom she seeks medical treatment tells her that people disposed to migraine are usually perfectionists, then glances doubtfully at her casual clothes and hair. What he seemed to miss, she confides to the reader, is that her brand of perfectionism involves spending the whole day “writing, rewriting, and not writing a single sentence.
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It is easy to assume that My Avant-Garde Education: A Memoir (W.W. Norton & Company) is Bernard Cooperâ€™s autobiography through art. He is after all a critic, artist and educator. While not untrue, it is not the whole story.Â
The book is a collection of essays and, as with the first chapter in Hilton Alsâ€™ celebrated book White Girls, Cooperâ€™s first essay is an all-encompassing long-form meditation that stretches across time, introducing themes of import to the rest of the book. So rich are these first essays that a reader is wise to loop back within them before moving on. Where Alsâ€™ opening salvo created a rich fog of emotions, and histories, Cooperâ€™s opening essay could almost be misunderstood as a flatfootedâ€”if not pleasantâ€”walk through sunny California starting in the homogeneity of the 1950s, to the seismic shifts of the â€˜80s. The first 179 pages is the tale of a nonconformist postwar life as lived out by a somewhat sensitive boy-cum-man who first tries out New York to study at SVA and then heads back home to attend CalArts in its founding years, and after that to a world he could not imagine waiting for him outside of school. In these pages, we meet parents stuck in American gender roles doing what they can to survive, founding figures in the contemporary art world andâ€”maybe most pleasurablyâ€”a cadre of art school classmates who challenge, educate and love Cooper. Attentive to context, Cooper places these people in architecture: split-level suburban homes, both bubonic and modernist campuses, and in diners, on freeways and ever-changing neighborhoodsâ€”and in these spaces are things, like the painted portrait of his deceased older brother. Cooper gives us a world of discovery, where the sun or the moon seems always to be bolding bright on the world below, if only to better illuminate the actions of people in their place.
Yet, discovery is not without upset. Cooper leads the reader down a plotted trail of collisions: what is old is being challenged as what is new is being discovered. Art, sexuality and the very idea of American life is being uprooted. This reaches a zenith in the book when the 1971 earthquake hits California and upends the structure of everything. Having spent the night at his parentsâ€™ after an awkward yet defining date, he makes his way through his familyâ€™s shaken home to find his mother. Is everything okay? he asks. â€œI donâ€™t know anymore,â€ she says. That night, as the city recovers, Cooper and his school friends pile into a car after hours spent at the Old World diner hatching a plan to move together off-campus. Only he and his classmate Jean, who was driving (and with whom he will soon enter into a romantic relationship) are awake when they must stop the car, encountering a pack of dogs: â€œI couldnâ€™t be sure if what I saw was a single thing or something composed of many restless parts. Itâ€”theyâ€”moved low to the ground, nearing us with such unmistakable purpose that Jean flickered on the high beams, daring the shape to make itself know.â€
Throughout the book, Cooper offers a view into how contemporary art was experienced as it was being created. Art lovers and those looking for an education as the title promises, will be pleased: Being of student of Allan Kaprow, Cooper comes to figure out that â€œart requires all the awareness one has at oneâ€™s disposal.â€ Making sense of a story stemming from the â€˜69 Venice Biennale, Cooper writes that â€œconceptual art was inevitable in an overcrowded world, and that those of us campaigning for artâ€™s dematerialization were inevitable too.â€ In a conversation with a classmate, he is asked accusingly, â€œDo you read Artforum or something?â€ Often, there is an aching in these moments that bring together art and life, reminding the reader that there is no difference. Every time someone speaks ill of seemingly outdated modes of artâ€”such as painting, the portrait of his brother is evoked, a reminder that progress cannot just be a refusal of the past, that what comes before has meaning and weight and is part of the present story.
Beyond content, form is in dialogue between art and life, as well.
Three quarters in, the first essay ends. So enthralled, a reader could be forgiven if all they wanted was more of the same. But this is not a book about just art, or just pleasure. It is a memoir. In Cooperâ€™s life, a disruption beyond criticism or an earthquake shakes the foundation on which he and others live. He becomes aware of HIV/AIDS first as a bystander living in West Hollywood, and then as an intimate in a long-term relationship with a man living with HIV. One could say that nothing prepares the reader for the arrival of the virus in this story. But Cooper is an artist, conveying meaning through form and words. He does prepare us: the dogs, the collision between old and new, and the way he folds the AIDS crisis in at the tail end of the first essay, thus signaling the completion and the beginning of a new era.Â Giving us a framework to consider the preceding pages, Cooper writes, â€œletâ€™s call the time Iâ€™m talking about â€˜the Great Beforeâ€™. Before we knew a virus lay in wait.â€
The book concludes with urgent and contemplative essays that find Cooper negotiating domesticity with his partner in the face of death, and then attempting to make sense out of life and art after his partner dies. Before he wraps up the opening essay, Cooper describes a piece of artwork he has made that impacts oneâ€™s ability to speak: â€œSmall one-ounce weights could be stacked on a post that hung below oneâ€™s chin, making speech progressively more difficulty with each added weight, until the only language possible was the garbled effort to shape a word, to complete a sentence, to say what couldnâ€™t be said.â€ A book, like a work of art, does not have to be about anything. It can just be. But one canâ€™t help but feel that with My Avant-Garde Education, Cooper is putting language to experience. Here we have the riddle of the book; can an education ever happen â€œbeforeâ€?
Is it small minded to think the crux of the book hangs on AIDS and its meaning? Is it this reader getting too stuck on the idea that HIV/AIDS is a medical, social and postmodern condition? Maybe it is, yet so powerful is the introduction of the virus in Cooperâ€™s life and his story that it is hard to let go of the idea. Maybe that is the point: to move forward, be it in the world of contemporary art or within the AIDS crisis (both of which are ongoing), we have to make sense of that which came before.
My Avant-Garde Education: A Memoir
by Bernard Cooper
W.W. Norton & Company
Hardcover, 9780393240719, 256Â pp.