The essay is the literary form most well-suited to express a specific idea or theme within a specific frame of reference. Where a book might expound a series of ideas, the essay constrains itself to concepts germane to the theme at hand. The term was coined by Michel de Montaigne to describe his 1580 collection of reflections on himself and human nature. The word essay also means 'to attempt'. It is therefore often a preliminary approach at a concept which may later be expanded into a book, if sufficient depth and interest is found on the theme. The best essayists like Bacon, Macaulay and Emerson have the ability to make the reader appreciate the personal, objective and abstract themes addressed. As Aldous Huxley noted, "The most richly satisfying essays are those which make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist".
In present times, the most common place to find a good essay is in the pages of a magazine or a newspaper. The blogosphere has also afforded aspiring writers space to express themselves in the form of what can be considered essays. In one sense, this is the Age of the Essay. Here are my nominations for the best essays I have come across this year - both in print and online.
1. Paul Graham's "Web 2.0": THe creator of the Yahoo Store may not have invented Web 2.0, but he does a masterful job of listing it's attributes: AJAX, Democracy and Don't Maltreat Users.
...Web 2.0 means using the web the way it's meant to be used. The "trends" we're seeing now are simply the inherent nature of the web emerging from under the broken models that got imposed on it during the Bubble
2. Virginia Postrel's "Consumer Vertigo"(Reason): Addressing the paradox and proliferation of choice, the essay illustrates how choice provides a large tent for the wide variety of human preferences, and how maturity lies in navigating choice, not avoiding it.
Since different people care intensely about different things, only a society where choice is abundant everywhere can truly accommodate the variety of human beings. Abundant choice doesn’t force us to look for the absolute best of everything. It allows us to find the extremes in those things we really care about, whether that means great coffee, jeans cut wide across the hips, or a spouse who shares your zeal for mountaineering, Zen meditation, and science fiction.
3. Wired's "10 Years That Changed the World": In his new book "The Next Global Stage", Kenichi Ohmae says the world changed in 1985. Thomas Friedman expresses similar thoughts in "The World Is Flat". Wired Magazine took a look at the years since 1985, when Netscape went public, a time they term "A Decade of Genius And Madness". A host of interviews with the icons of the new Pantheon. Kevin Kelly notes,
Why aren't we more amazed by this fullness? Kings of old would have gone to war to win such abilities. Only small children would have dreamed such a magic window could be real. I have reviewed the expectations of waking adults and wise experts, and I can affirm that this comprehensive wealth of material, available on demand and free of charge, was not in anyone's scenario. Ten years ago, anyone silly enough to trumpet the above list as a vision of the near future would have been confronted by the evidence: There wasn't enough money in all the investment firms in the entire world to fund such a cornucopia. The success of the Web at this scale was impossible.
But if we have learned anything in the past decade, it is the plausibility of the impossible.
4. Salman Rushdie's "The Right Time for An Islamic Reformation"(Washington Post): The author with the mostest lays down the gauntlet to the traditionalists and literalists with a call for reform of laws and concepts out of sync with the time, before they are swept away.
The traditionalists' refusal of history plays right into the hands of the literalist Islamofascists, allowing them to imprison Islam in their iron certainties and unchanging absolutes. If, however, the Koran were seen as a historical document, then it would be legitimate to reinterpret it to suit the new conditions of successive new ages. Laws made in the seventh century could finally give way to the needs of the 21st. The Islamic Reformation has to begin here, with an acceptance of the concept that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to altered realities.
5. Kurt Vonnegut's "A Man Without A Country": Breaking my own rule about essays, I must select the entire collection of essays by Mr Vonnegut only because it is so difficult to select an individual piece from a writer still in form and very much in touch with the 'Evening Land'. The black humor is strong, as is the acerbic view of society. He even admits his long-windedness.
"No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.
If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph,'THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
6. Naomi Klein's "The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism"(The Nation/Alternet): In a year when Time Magazine's Best Photos issue features more disaster vignettes than anything else, when we saw the horrors of land, air and sea, it is a tough proposition to overlook the truism that every man's challenge is another's opportunity. Naomi Klein brings this home in her essay by detailing the beneficiaries of reconstruction - not just the sufferers of disaster, but the corporations, governments and regimes that move in to claim the new 'terra nullus'.
Few ideologues can resist the allure of a blank slate--that was colonialism's seductive promise: "discovering" wide-open new lands where utopia seemed possible. But colonialism is dead, or so we are told; there are no new places to discover, no terra nullius (there never was), no more blank pages on which, as Mao once said, "the newest and most beautiful words can be written." There is, however, plenty of destruction--countries smashed to rubble, whether by so-called Acts of God or by Acts of Bush (on orders from God). And where there is destruction there is reconstruction, a chance to grab hold of "the terrible barrenness," as a UN official recently described the devastation in Aceh, and fill it with the most perfect, beautiful plans.
7. Aidan Wasley's "
Star Wars: Episodes I-VI The greatest postmodern art film ever"(Slate): The culmination of an epic as old as I am young has brought out the deconstructionists and revisionists. Critics revel in interpreting life through art, often merging the simulacra with the original. In this essay, Aidan demonstrates how Star Wars is "really just one big elephantine postmodern art film." He explores how the film(s) unravel the fundamental mechanics of storytelling.
Every text depends on the balance between inspiration and authorial control, and Lucas makes that tension the principal subject of his film. Lucas, like every author, is Luke to his own Palpatine—both the surrenderer to chance (as in Harrison Ford's memorably ad-libbed "I know" in response to the scripted "I love you" from Leia), and the rigorous, arranging schemer (as epitomized in the films' elaborate special effects).
8. Christine Rosen's "The Image Culture"(The New Atlantis): Being a word artist, one is is in constant fear of the seductive power of the image. In the fragmented post-modern world we live in, images control our perception of events and society more than we realize. Christine explores 'our contemporary confrontation with an image-based culture'. In an essay that spans centuries and tectonic paradigm shifts, she exposes the danger at the heart of image - the loss of memory.
...So it is with those who resist an image-based culture. As its boosters suggest, it is here to stay, and likely to grow more powerful as time goes on, making all of us virtual flâneurs strolling down boulevards filled with digital images and moving pictures. We will, of course, be enormously entertained by these images, and many of them will tell us stories in new and exciting ways. At the same time, however, we will have lost something profound: the ability to marshal words to describe the ambiguities of life and the sources of our ideas; the possibility of conveying to others, with the subtlety, precision, and poetry of the written word, why particular events or people affect us as they do; and the capacity, through language, to distill the deeper meaning of common experience. We will become a society of a million pictures without much memory, a society that looks forward every second to an immediate replication of what it has just done, but one that does not sustain the difficult labor of transmitting culture from one generation to the next.
9. James McManus' Please Stand By While the Age of Miracles Is Briefly Suspended"(Esquire): Blending the personal with the public, the social with the ethical, James chronicles the debates around stem cell research and cloning, while expressing his personal griefs.
Whatever epoch we live in, we all have to face getting caught at the worst possible point on the curve of medical progress: My cowgirl's campfire is visible on the horizon, yet I am accorded the honor of being the very last hombre to succumb to Syndrome X. "Remember when people had heart attacks?" some lucky duck in 2050 may guffaw, clutching her chest in mock agony. "I mean, can you imagine?" This fortunate woman would be exactly as human as any victim of plague or polio, and a lot more human, in my view, than the cretin with the club. However long it may seem to us now, her life span will still seem to her the way Nabokov and Beckett imagined it in the middle of the twentieth century: as a brief crack of light between two infinities of darkness.
10. Paschal Nee's “The changing role of business in society: why the emperor has no clothes.”(Ashbridge, PDF): The runner-up in the 2005 Ashridge Best European MBA Essay Award, this essay examines the contradictions between businesses' claims to social responsibility and the reality of their behavior in society. Rather than a litany of failures, the author delves into the causes of social irresponsibility and possible futures.
The shareholder view of the corporation (i.e. that the corporation exists solely to generate a return for its shareholders) could be driving socially irresponsible actions by that corporation’s employees. While a stakeholder view of the corporation, where managers take the interests of multiple stakeholders into account, has become popular, the dominant legal framework is still that management have a fiduciary duty to generate shareholder return. Within this context, employees will increasingly be pressured to disregard whatever personal values they might hold in favour of actions that are generate shareholder return regardless of the social esponsibility of those actions."
These selections barely touch the surface of the finest writing this year. One has refrained from choosing any of the excellent pieces from blogcritics, but you are welcome to name your favorites. Reading is a community-driven habit, and we must fight against the 'culture of the image'.
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