During my earlier schooling years, the word “essay” used to fill me with dread. Reading them was daunting enough, with their scholarly language and complex reasoning. But writing essays? Just the thought struck fear into the depths of my heart. Where to start, and what to say? How could I possibly scrape out the knowledge that resided in the corners of my brain and mould it into a somewhat coherent 1500-3000 word argument? And with a deadline steadily approaching, no less?
However, to my shock and surprise, I developed an odd admiration for the format over the years. Just as I once did, a lot of people probably tend to associate the essay with feelings of horror or boredom (or both). But the essay is a great medium for getting your point across - whether it’s through personal reflections or academic criticism or explorations of thoughts, feelings and experiences. The cool thing about the essay is that it doesn’t always have to be a serious, structured piece of writing on an academic topic. It can be - these types of essays are characterised as the “formal essay” - but there’s also a whole category of “informal essays” that include humour, or self-revelation, or commentaries about life. The possibilities are endless - as writer Aldous Huxley put it, you can say “almost everything about almost anything”.
The word “essay” comes from the old French “essai”, which is how philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) categorised his pieces of writing. Essai meant a trial or attempt. So Montaigne’s works were, literally, him trying to put all his thoughts and experiences into words. And he was pretty excellent at translating the human disposition into literary form. Although the guy lived in the 16th century, he manages to relate to us today. In “Of Experience” he wittingly observes, “On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.” (Some iterations of this quote cheekily translate bottom as “arse”). Montaigne rightly notes that even those in the greatest positions of power - kings, queens, presidents, billionaires - are all simply people at the end of the day.
Since Montaigne’s time, many other writers have used the essay format as their own attempt to convey thoughts in written form. Here at Christchurch City Libraries we’ve got plenty of excellent essay-related material for you to check out.
Take a look at some of our excellent essay collections, ranging from hilarious to thought-provoking:
- Happy-Go-Lucky: David Sedaris
- Trick Mirror: Jia Tolentino
- wow, no thank you: Samantha Irby
- The Anthropocene Reviewed: John Green
- Recollections of My Non-Existence: Rebecca Solnit
- Tranquillity and Ruin: Danyl McClaughlan
- Intimations: Zadie Smith
- My Body: Emily Ratajkowski
- They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us: Hanif Abdurraqib
Or try our handy essay reading guide.
Or if you’re looking to write essays, check out these resources:
- The Basics of Essay Writing
- Write That Essay
- Writing Kids: Academic Essay Writing for Beginners (streaming video)
- References, citations and bibliographies
Whether reading or writing essays, just give it a try! After all, it’s in the meaning of the word.
Tūhuratanga | Discovery, Level 3, Tūranga