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You might be wondering, “I didn’t think there was a book essay!” Aren’t essays short pieces, like the ones you wrote in school, or the ones they collect in the Best American Trials series? Are they not the documentary equivalent of the short story? The answer is yes and, of course, no. We generally think of essays as short articles that we read in magazines or online that are put together in collections. But essay as a genre is broader than that, and essay as a book is, indeed, something that exists and is a pleasure to read.
What is a book length essay?
It’s easy to say that an essay the length of a book is simply one that lasts a long time, enough to meet the usual length requirements of a stand-alone book. What is more complicated is distinguishing the book-length essay from other forms of non-fiction. The question becomes how this form is different, for example, from memoirs, biographies, reviews, history, political science or sociology.
The essay may incorporate some or all of these genres and more, but in itself it is fundamentally different. Essays, regardless of their length, explore ideas, facts and experiences, with an emphasis on to explore. They’re not final: they’re not research journalism or college studies with explanatory footnotes. Instead, they attempt to examine issues, answer questions, or analyze experiences. emphasis on attempt!
Essayists write to find out what they think. An essay is then a recording of a thought process. Part of the fun of reading them comes from following the writer’s thought as it unfolds: we get to see the twists and turns of the writer’s mind as they solve a problem. . Essays are looser than other genres and weirder. They can go from idea to idea and incorporate literally anything. On first reading, they sometimes seem to be disorganized (although often there is an organizational system lurking underneath). They can contradict each other or show that the writer is changing his mind.
Essay is a strangely anti-genre genre. He doesn’t want to settle down and fit in anywhere; he refuses categories and rules. I consider the essays to be non-fiction, but there is even room for elements of fiction.
Book-length essays are the kind of books that make bookstore owners wonder where to put them, unless they have a section called “Literary Nonfiction” or the like. Of course, these books could go in the essay section, if there is one, but they could also fit into memories, current events, cultural studies, art, music, philosophy, etc. . They fit everywhere and nowhere. They are a delightfully expansive hybrid form.
Six examples of the book length test
Below are a few examples of my favorite book length essays. Check them out and discover some great books and writers.
Time is the thing the body moves through by T Fleischmann
This book is personal, intellectual, stimulating and strange. It is partly the art of Félix González-Torres, in particular a work entitled “Untitled” (Placebo – Landscape – for Roni) with its inexhaustible supply of candy in gold wrappers for viewers / attendees to take freely. It’s also about being queer and trans, friendship, love, sex and radical politics. Fleischmann interweaves stories from different eras to create a sense of movement and change; there is a fluidity in the narrative that winds while maintaining a sense of urgency.
The face: a time code by Ruth Ozeki
This book is part of a series of Restless Books where the authors write on their own faces. Ozeki decided to approach this task by spending three hours looking at his face in the mirror and writing about the experience. The three hours were, in the end, boring, but the resulting book is wonderful. Ozeki keeps track of the three hours minute by minute, following his thoughts as they wander through this time. Descriptions of her feelings about her face are the starting point for personal stories and thoughts.
On immunity by Eula Biss
I wish I could get everyone to read this book now! On immunity combines memory, science, medicine, criticism, parenthood and cultural criticism to explore what immunity means. Eula Biss examines people’s fear of vaccines as well as the origin and implications of this fear. She considers what our attitudes towards immunity can tell us about how we understand ourselves and our place in the community. It’s a short book that has far-reaching implications, and, if more people read and meditate on it, potentially revolutionary.
This little art by Kate Briggs
This little art is edited by Fitzcarraldo Editions, which has a non-fiction book series it simply calls it “Essays”. Those who want to read more book length essays will find this series a great resource. This volume examines the art of translation. Kate Briggs translates Roland Barthes, and she writes beautifully about her love for her job. She writes on translation theories and the ways in which translation work is gendered. The book contemplates language and writing itself. It’s captivating, thought-provoking and beautifully written.
In other words by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated by Ann Goldstein
In other words explores and celebrates Jhumpa Lahiri’s love for the Italian language. This is his first book written in Italian after moving to Italy to immerse himself in the language and culture. The book examines what it’s like to learn a new language with all the frustrations and joys that come with it. Lahiri writes autobiographically, but the book develops into a meditation on language, writing, and what it’s like to think in entirely new ways.
Continuity: the end of a journal by Sarah Manguso
Continuity covers many topics including diaries, memory, parenting, and writing practice. Manguso has kept a long and detailed diary for many years, a text this book goes around in circles but never quotes. Instead, she reflects on what the journal meant to her, why she kept it, and why she stopped. She writes about the feelings of early motherhood and how her relationship to writing and memory has changed. Manguso writes short, meditative sections that are both autobiographical and philosophical.
Looking for more essays to read? Check out this list of 100 must-read essay collections. If you like genre memoirs (which have a lot in common with the book length essay), check out these recommendations.