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What Makes a Great Essay?

“The things that are most lasting and edifying are the things that lodge in the brain most deeply, which means they are emotional, enjoyable, and fun.”

Ah, the timeless power and joy of a great essay: Joan Didion on self-respect; David Foster Wallace on the nature of fun; Susan Sontag on courage and resistance; George Orwell on why writers write. But where, exactly, does that intangible magic of the essay reside?

Besides beautiful writing by such literary titans as Malcolm Gladwell (“Creation Myth”), Francine Prose (“Other Women”), Alan Lightman (“The Accidental Universe”), and Miah Arnold (“You Owe Me”), The Best American Essays 2012 (public library; UK) also offers a necessary meditation on the art and nature of the essay itself. Robert Atwan writes in the foreword:

Essayists like to examine — or, to use an essayist’s favorite term, consider — topics from various perspectives. To consider is not necessarily to conclude; the essayist delights in a suspension of judgment and even an inconsistency that usually annoys the ‘so what’s your point?’ reader. The essayist, by and large, agrees with Robert Frost that thinking and voting are two different acts.

In the vein of recent debates about how personal the writerly persona should be, Atwan echoes Vonnegut’s famous advice and advocates for fully inhabiting one’s own personality in writing:

From the start, [students] would need to understand that — as we know from all the great essayists — ruminating on a topic doesn’t mean that the writing will be impersonal. The essayist’s reflections will be indistinguishable from a particular personality or temperament.


Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things, but at the core of the genre is an unmistakable receptivity to the ever-shifting process of our minds and moods. If there is any essential characteristic we can attribute to the essay, it may be this: that the truest examples of the form enact that ever-shifting process, and in that enactment we can find the basis for the essay’s qualification to be regarded seriously as imaginative literature and the essayist’s claim to be taken seriously as a creative writer.

In the introduction, David Brooks adds a historical context, suggesting that the internet has ushered in a new Golden Age of the essay:

The essay hit a bad patch for a little while. Yet today I think it’s coming back. The age of academic jargon is passing. The Internet has paradoxically been a boon to essayists. Yes, there is Twitter and blogging and hysteria on the Internet and all the things Jonathan Franzen says he doesn’t like. But the Internet makes far-flung essays so accessible [and] has aroused the energies of hundreds of thousands of intelligent amateurs.

Brooks ends with the perfect definition — part poetic, part practical — of what makes a great essay:

The self-improving ethos was something that was taken for granted in the mid-twentieth century, and now we’re fortified by the knowledge that the things that are most lasting and edifying are the things that lodge in the brain most deeply, which means they are emotional, enjoyable, and fun.

Dive into The Best American Essays 2012 for some empirical examples, then complement them with F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, and Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques for modern prose.


Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction

How the father of science fiction presaged airplanes, submersible warfare, space travel, and fuel cells.

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real,” trailblazing science fiction author Jules Verne (February 8, 1828–March 24, 1905) wrote in his masterpiece Around the World in Eighty Days. And, indeed, many of the seemingly fanciful concepts Verne imagined were made real in the decades that followed. He conceived of an underwater vehicle “all powered by electricity!” at a time when only prototypes of submarines existed and electricity was known but not of wide use; he presaged the use of such a high-powered submersible in warfare and scientific research; with the help of an illustrator-friend, he envisioned a propeller-driven aircraft when hot-air balloons were the height of aviation; he depicted weightlessness when zero gravity was still a scientific guess and put humans on the moon a century before mankind’s giant step. But far more than a gifted fiction writer, Verne was also an amateur astronomer and amateur scientist. Obsessive research and fact-checking were core to his writing, and his immense curiosity about science and technology frequently drove him to seek out famous scientists and inventors passing through town.

Jules Verne: Prophet of Science Fiction is a fascinating Discovery documentary, chronicling Verne’s seminal contributions to science fiction and his strikingly accurate predictions of the technologies that came to life a century after his death, as well as how he used his fiction as escapism from his troubled family and why he ended up destroying his own legacy.

Verne creates Nemo’s high-tech Nautilus at a time when even a can-opener is considered an exciting new concept.

Complement with the beautifully illustrated 1964 biography Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented the Future.


The Genius of Dogs and How It Expands Our Understanding of Human Intelligence

“Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.”

The Genius of Dogs and How It Expands Our Understanding of Human Intelligence

For much of modern history, dogs have inspired a wealth of art and literature, profound philosophical meditations, scientific curiosity, deeply personal letters, photographic admiration, and even some cutting-edge data visualization. But what is it that makes dogs so special in and of themselves, and so dear to us?

Despite the mind-numbing title, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library) by Brian Hare, evolutionary anthropologist and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and Vanessa Woods offers a fascinating tour of radical research on canine cognition, from how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence to what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. In fact, one of the most compelling parts of the book has less to do with dogs and more with genius itself.

In examining the definition of genius, Hare echoes British novelist Amelia E. Barr, who wisely noted in 1901 that “genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.” Hare points out that standardized tests provide a very narrow — and thus poor — definition of genius:

As you probably remember, tests such as IQ tests, GREs, and SATs focus on basic skills like reading, writing, and analytical abilities. The tests are favored because on average, they predict scholastic success. But they do not measure the full capabilities of each person. They do not explain Ted Turner, Ralph Lauren, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, who all dropped out of college and became billionaires.

Instead, Hare offers a conception of genius that borrows from Howard Gardner’s seminal 1983 theory of multiple intelligences:

A cognitive approach is about celebrating different kinds of intelligence. Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.

For a perfect example, Hare points to reconstructionist Temple Grandin:

Temple Grandin, at Colorado State University, is autistic yet is also the author of several books, including Animals Make Us Human, and has done more for animal welfare than almost anyone. Although Grandin struggles to read people’s emotions and social cues, her extraordinary understanding of animals has allowed her to reduce the stress of millions of farm animals.

The cognitive revolution changed the way we think about intelligence. It began in the decade that all social revolutions seemed to have happened, the sixties. Rapid advances in computer technology allowed scientists to think differently about the brain and how it solves problems. Instead of the brain being either more or less full of intelligence, like a glass of wine, the brain is more like a computer, where different parts work together. USB ports,keyboards, and modems bring in new information from the environment; a processor helps digest and alter the information into a usable format, while a hard drive stores important information for later use. Neuroscientists realized that, like a computer, many parts of the brain are specialized for solving different types of problems.

An example of this comes from the study of memory, which we already know is fascinating in its fallibility:

One of the best-studied cognitive abilities is memory. In fact, we usually think of geniuses as people who have an extraordinary memory for facts and figures, since such people often score off the charts on IQ tests. But just as there are different types of intelligence, there are different types of memory. There is memory for events, faces, navigation, things that occurred recently or long ago — the list goes on. If you have a good memory in one of these areas, it does not necessarily mean your other types of memory are equally good.

Ultimately, the notion of multiple intelligences is what informs the research on dog cognition:

There are many definitions of intelligence competing for attention in popular culture. But the definition that has guided my research and that applies throughout the book is a very simple one. The genius of dogs — of all animals, for that matter, including humans — has two criteria:

  1. A mental skill that is strong compared with others, either within your own species or in closely related species.
  2. The ability to spontaneously make inferences.

(This second criterion comes strikingly close to famous definitions of creativity.)

The Genius of Dogs goes on to explore the specific types of intelligence at which dogs excel, including their empathic acumen of taking another’s visual perspective and learning from another’s actions, their ability to interpret and act upon human communicative gestures, and the unique ways in which they go about asking for help. Pair it with John Homans’s indispensable What’s a Dog For?, artist Maira Kalman’s illustrated love letter to our canine companions, and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on how a dog actually “sees” the world through smell.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons


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