"A true essay, for [Sir William] Cornwallis [c.1601], isn't strong. It isn't able to endure the trials that a reader might inflict on it, the questions a reader might ask of it. How should I live? What should I do? In Plutarch's and Montaigne's work, you'll find insight, moral instruction, even wisdom, but these are the very qualities that, according to Cornwallis, make their work something other than essays. Cornwallis sees the essay as something more like a moral process. Through writing and reading them, you can become better, but this is an undertaking that doesn't end on the page or in your life. It's a constant striving, an essaying.

"I don't much agree with Cornwallis about what an essay is—I find essays that want to make me better tough to read—but I love his assertion about what an essay isn't. It isn't meant to last. It doesn't need to meet the expectations that, say, a poem faces, with its leap toward immortality, its demand to endure the test of time. An essay can be all right for right now. Good enough to pass the time, but time will, as time does, move on. "


"Is it a boon for an essayist to be included among the 'best' of 1987 or 1996 or 2013? Or is that basically putting an expiration date on your essay? When I miss reading the collection for a given year, which I usually discover because the next year's collection comes out, I find myself feeling resentful about the previous year: I don't want to go back and read the old ones. I might as well read tweets from 2009 or eat a rotten peach. What's the point, for example, of reading the best essays from 1996 unless I have to write about them, scholarly-like, as being somehow indicative of 1996. You know, ponder the zeitgeist.

"Here's one reason: in the Best American Essays of 1996, the very first essay that I ever published was included among the 'Notable Essays of 1995, Selected by Robert Atwan.'"

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AuthorJohn Proctor