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Savoring the Essay

The essay thinks, and while it thinks it seethes, it bristles, it adventures. 

~Brian Dillon

The test of a great essayist—from Montaigne to Mark Twain, from Emerson to Virginia Woolf—is the ability to entertain a steady procession of ideas, some of them inflammatory, some entertaining, some downright contradictory, before deciding which will play a central role.

As Emerson notes, “The best part…of every mind is not that which (the writer) knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unpossessed before him. His firm recorded knowledge soon loses all interest for him, but this dancing chorus of thoughts and hopes is the quarry of his future, is his possibility.”

The term ‘essay’ refers to a trial, a search for understanding.  The form is open-minded, often daring, and unconventional.  It dallies, reconsiders, and ruminates, and in the course of a few pages, moves from paradox to unity.

In 2011, entrepreneur Tom Kremer founded Notting Hill Editions (NHE) to revive the essay as a popular, and commercially viable, form.  It was valuable, he said, because it reflected the way writers naturally think, and was, therefore, key to the creative process.

Born in Transylvania in 1930, Kremer was interned with his family at Bergen Belsen. After liberation, he joined Israel’s fight for independence and worked on a kibbutz. Hungry for ideas, he read science, philosophy, and literature at Witwaterswand University in South Africa, Edinburgh University, and the Sorbonne. Eventually, he made his home in London, where he became known as a game inventor and the popularizer of  Rubik’s Cube.

With the profits from his business, Kremer started NHE and then established the Hazlitt Prize for the best essay written in the English language.  The award is named  for William Hazlitt, the 19th century master of the miscellaneous essay.   In its inaugural year (2013),  first place went to the Canadian philosopher Michael Ignatieff for his work on Raphael Lemkin, the Russian-born Jewish lawyer who coined the word genocide during the Second World WarAlso honored were Andrew O’Hagan (Light Entertainment) and Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams). 

NHE is a beautiful anomaly.  The company publishes about six titles annually, each rendered with great care. The volumes are limited editions, uniform in design, and brief enough to be read in one or two sittings. Recent offerings include poet Joe Brainard’s classic essay, I Remember, on the nature of home and identity;  critic John Berger’s three illustrated meditations (On Time, Smoke, and Cataracts); architect Rem Koolhass’s Junkspace with Running Room, about the future of architecture and big cities; and Emily Rapp Black’s  Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg, a personal account of the daily challenges faced by amputees.  (Rapp Black and Berger are pictured below.)  

Reviewers recently praised two other collections, edited by Duncan Minshall, on walking as an aid to self-discovery.  Sauntering features sixty writers, classic and contemporary, who tour Europe by foot.  (Henriette D’Angeville ascends Mont Blanc; Nellie Bly roams the trenches of war-torn Poland; Werner Herzog walks across Germany on a personal pilgrimage.)  Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking contains literary perambulations from Petrarch, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, and Mark Twain to Will Self and Rebecca Solnit, showing that as we move our bodies, we exercise the mind and expand the soul.

In the essay, the personal also meets the political, illustrating how an individual struggles to adjust to the tenor of the times. NHE honors this tradition with Drawn from Life: The Selected Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne began writing as a way to cope with the horrors of civil and religious wars, and to mourn the loss of his best friend, the philosopher Étienne de La Boétie. He produced 107 entries on the topics of education, love, the body, death, politics, and the colonization of the New World, allowing his pen to wander from one topic to another:

I cannot keep my subject still.  It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.  I take it in this condition, just as it is at the moment I give my attention to it.  I do not portray being: I portray passing….  I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention.  This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and, when it so befalls, contradictory ideas: whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects.

Montaigne wrote in search of that elusive and ever re-forming thing we call the Self, the part of us that is essentially, archetypally, human.  He was interested in the never-ending quest to know oneself and find one’s place in the world at large. That’s why his essays feel so modern.

NHE has also published such celebrated stylists as Oscar Wilde, J.B. Priestly, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, Osip Mandelstam, George Perec, and Philip Lopate.  Yet there are some wonderful surprises on their list as well.  In Happy Half-Hours A.A. Milne considers the rewards of doing nothing; in How Shostakovich Changed My Mind,  BBC critic Stephen Johnson explores the healing power of music; and in Confessions of a Heretic, social critic Roger Scruton explores the demise of friendship in the age of social media. There’s enough variety here to support an ongoing book club or cultural salon.

After Tom Kremer died in 2017, his daughter, Kim, took over as NHE’s managing director, partnering with nyrb: New York Review Books to bring these titles to an American audience.  She remains committed to her father’s vision—creating a library of essays that will preserve our cultural legacy and satisfy inquiring minds.

Kim Kremer

What new themes can we look forward to in the coming year?

On Cats: An Anthology, introduced by Margaret Atwood, will be released by NHE this fall, followed by three books that explore the boundaries between psychology and medicine.

The Wrong Turning: Encounters with Ghosts, introduced and edited by Stephen Johnson, is an unusual curated anthology of ghost stories focusing on their psychological meaning. Johnson argues that such tales speak to us of our own inner demons and can be useful in understanding mental illness.

In Midlife: Humanity’s Secret Weapon by psychiatrist Andrew Jamieson considers the evolutionary importance of the midlife crisis.   In Brainspotting: Adventures in Neurology by A.J. Lees describes the lost art of listening, seeing, and trusting instinct when evaluating patients.

In an age where content is often truncated and oversimplified, Kremer and NHE’s publisher, Rosalind Porter (formerly deputy editor of Granta) offer something highly unusual—depth, wonder, and complexity in manageable bites.

While the essay has long been a mainstay in university education, NHE has shown that it has a broader role to play—as the best means of reaching for the truth of an idea.  Tom Kremer was right:  The essay is worth saving because it helps us hone our sense of meaning and confront the challenges of daily life.

Barthes, Hannah Arendt to Rebecca West) is both an invaluable reference tool–and a wonderful place to browse.  You can find it here. 

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Valerie Andrews
Valerie Andrewshttps://reinventinghome.org/
VALERIE is the Chief Storyteller for Reinventing Home, an online magazine exploring how home shapes our culture, creativity, and character. Isabel Allende calls this publication Brain Pickings for the Home—a thinking person’s guide to the well-lived life. Our contributors explore home as a personal sanctuary and interactive hive, and how home contributes to our health, happiness, and productivity. Valerie calls her own features “a mindful approach to home with a Jungian twist” and considers everything from the secret lives of our possessions to how the dust underneath your bed is related to the creation of the cosmos. Reinventing Home is nonprofit journalism at its best—a virtual living room for an enlightened conversation about the way we feel about our nests and the bigger issues that are shaping home today, from technology to climate change. Read more at www.reinventinghome.org

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