Alongside letters, the essay is perhaps my favourite literary format. That said, the term essay is so flexible and difficult to pin down, I would make the case that letters are simply a special type of essay, usually with a smaller target audience.
Brian Dillon’s Essayism is a book of essays about essays: a book of meta-essays, if you will. I enjoyed it very much indeed, although I suspect he and I generally prefer very different styles of essay. I love it when an essayist expresses their thoughts on a subject in the simplest possible terms, preferably with a bit of a literary flourish. Simple, but not necessarily plain. If ideas are worth sharing, why not express them in the clearest way you can? In some of the examples Dillon cites, I suspected the essayist was trying to do anything but.
But Dillon makes many observation in Essayism that I agreed with wholeheartedly. In some cases he expresses ideas I’d already arrived at on my own, but in a way sufficiently different to how I would have put them that I ended up re-examining my own thoughts in more depth. Which is one of the best things an essay can do, if you ask me.
Dillon is particularly good on the fragmentary and provisional nature of essays: their aim is not to be the final word on a subject, but to allow the essayist to think out loud about the topic in hand—perhaps even enabling them to work out what they think.
I found myself thinking a lot about Essayism long after I finished it. I shall certainly return to it in future. I shall also be checking out some of the essayists mentioned inside. I cannot think of higher recommendations.
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