The Essayist

Aggregated long-form essays from the world's best writers and publications.

Donald Barthelme's Syllabus

by Kevin Moffett

There was a time when I fought against an impatience with reading, concealing, with partisanship, the fissures in my education. I confused difficulty with duplicity, and that which didn’t come easily, I often scorned. Then, in my last year of college in Gainesville, Florida, I was given secondhand a list of eighty-one books, the recommendations of Donald Barthelme to his students. Barthelme’s only guidance, passed on by Padgett Powell, one of Barthelme’s former students at the University of Houston and my teacher at the time,was to attack the books “in no particular order, just read them,” which is exactly what I, in my confident illiteracy, resolved to do.

But first I had to find the books, a search that began at Gainesville’s Friends of the Library warehouse book sale. Early morning, the warehouse parking lot was filled with about fifty men, women, and children waiting for the doors to open. At the front of the line were the all-nighters, hard-core sci-fi fans, amateur Civil War historians, and chasers of obscurities, rumored to have been there since before midnight. Some had brought with them hibachis and coolers and battery-powered radios, giving the parking lot the feel of a Gator football pre-game with less angry hope.

(Source: essayist)

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Donald Barthelme’s Reading List

A reading list of 81 Books, chosen by the father of post-modern fiction

  • Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two-Birds
  • Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
  • Isaac Babel, Collected Short Stories
  • Borges, Labyrinths
  • Borges, Other Inquisitions
  • Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Thomas Bernhard, Correction
  • Rudy Wurlitzer, Nog
  • Isaac B Singer, Gimpel the Fool
  • Bernard Malamud, The Assistant
  • Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel

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When John Waters Met Little Richard

I bring up the book – The Life and Times of Little Richard, perhaps the best and most shocking celebrity tell-all book ever written. Penned by Charles White with Little Richard’s full co-operation and published in 1984, it is copyrighted in the names of the author, the star and his longtime, now-deceased manager, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. It’s a real lulu. Detailing his early life, in which he travelled with a minstrel show, sold snake oil in Doctor Hudson’s Medicine Show and performed in drag as Princess Lavonne, it touchingly includes early childhood anecdotes, such as the time Richard gave an old lady neighbour a bowel movement in a box for her birthday. (What a coincidence! Divine was on the receiving end of this exact same gift in Pink Flamingos.) Halfway through the book, you realise that you are in a stratosphere of lunacy. The bizarre lifestyle you’d fantasised for Little Richard is small potatoes compared with the truth. His onetime drug addictions and alcoholism, his hilarious threesome with Buddy Holly and his longtime stripper friend Lee Angel (with a “50-inch bust”), and his obsessions with voyeurism (“Richard the Watcher”) and masturbation (“six or seven times a day”) are all topped off with truly staggering photographs of his many fashion statements. Just when you start thinking Nobel Prize, you get to the final chapter, a compilation of Richard’s religious testimony that seems to sour the entire volume and turn off the very audience for whom the book was written. He seems to want it both ways.

(Source: essayist)

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Je M’Accuse

Fiona Maazel on Internet Confessionals

The Internet is a compendium of broken and distorted souls: the blogs, journals, webcams, personal ads. Out there, self-exposure is no longer a niche activity, but a preoccupation that’s slowly colonizing the Internet, site by site. Let’s start with a text I recently saw online: 942422998 I tricked a good friend into betraying me so that I would have someone to hate other than myself. The post is one of 176,961 anonymous confessions currently on view at www.grouphug.us. Launched in October of 2003, the website attracted more than thirteen million hits in its first three months. As of the writing of this piece, nearly 8,000 posts await approval from at least three readers—any three—who happen to feel like moderating. It’s a public affair, though there are rules. As a moderator, you must understand the purpose of the site, which is, ostensibly, to provide relief, camaraderie, and perspective to the confessants, and hours of reading pleasure to the rest of us (cf. 907626756 i can’t stop reading through these confessions and hoping one of them will be someone confessing they love me). You must flag obnoxious formatting. You must weed out the pomp, gratuitous vulgarity, hate speech, and contact info. You must know the difference—and here is the trick—between a legitimate confession and horseshit.

(Source: essayist)

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How Sassy (Should Have) Changed My Life

by Caralene Bauer

If you subscribed to or even occasionally read Sassy, the teen-girl magazine that existed from 1989 to 1996, then that makes you, approximately, a pro-choice registered Democrat who came of age listening to alternative rock. You grew up on R.E.M., the Smiths, the Cure, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, Hole, Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, My So-Called Life, and John Hughes. Your romantic ideals were forged by repeated viewings of Dead Poets Society, Say Anything, and Morrissey riding around on a tractor in the middle of winter for the “Suedehead” video. You published a zine or bought zines, issued seven-inch singles or bought seven-inch singles. You were probably a high-achieving malcontent, a wearer of black in high school who became a thrift-store-haunting feminist theorist in college. If you were going to get married at all, you were going to marry an enlightened, sensitive man who washed dishes, and you’d do it for enlightened, egalitarian love—not money! Or else you were going to, or did, come out proudly as a lesbian, or you took up with members of both sexes and didn’t feel guilty. You were under the impression that the girls who came after you would never have to shave their legs.

(Source: essayist)

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On Utopia

by Paul La Farge,


More than a few years ago now, when I was living in San Francisco, I happened to walk by the office of a dot-com, a competitor in the online-pet-supply business, that had gone bust. It was midnight when I passed its brilliantly lit atrium, void of humans and furniture, except for a single desk where a night watchman sat looking dejectedly at the street. A huge white banner hung over his head, with red letters five feet high, spelling out THIS IS PETOPIA. I don’t mean to be flip or to equate the company’s marketing strategy with any genuine utopian impulse, but it did occur to me that the idea of utopia is strangely persistent. It crops up in all kinds of places; this was one of them. Even people who haven’t read Sir Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia, or any of the other books in the utopian tradition—which is to say, most people—recognize utopia as a desirable parcel of real estate. You can sell things on the strength of it, or so it must have seemed to the founders of Petopia, all the way back in San Francisco in the 1990s, when many people were entertaining utopian hopes for the Internet, that literally placeless, or u-topian, region. Most of those hopes ended as Petopia did: furniture sold at auction; office space going cheap. But the question lingers: Apart from its questionable value as a  marketing strategy, what is utopia good for?

(Source: essayist)

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Feet in Smoke

by John Jeremiah Sullivan,

On the morning of April 21, 1995, my elder brother, Worth (short for Elsworth), put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and was—in the strict sense of having been “shocked to death”—electrocuted. He and his band, the Moviegoers, had stopped for a day to rehearse on their way from Chicago to a concert in Tennessee, where I was in school at the time. Just a couple of days earlier, he had called to ask if there were any songs I wanted to hear at the show. I requested something new, a song that he’d written and played for me the last time I’d seen him, on Christmas Day. Our holidays always end the same way, with my brother and me up late, drinking, trying out our new “tunes” on each other. There is something almost biologically satisfying about harmonizing with a sibling. We’ve gotten to where we communicate through music, using guitars the way fathers and sons use baseball: as a kind of emotional code. Worth is seven years older than I am, an age difference that can make brothers strangers, and I’m fairly sure the first time he ever felt we had anything to talk about was the day he caught me in his basement bedroom at our old house in Indiana, trying to teach myself how to play “Radio Free Europe” on a black Telecaster he’d forbidden me to touch.

(Source: essayist)

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When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue

by Édouard Levé,



When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual how to die. I don’t really listen to what people tell me. I forget things I don’t like. I look down dead-end streets. The end of a trip leaves me with a sad aftertaste the same as the end of a novel. I am not afraid of what comes at the end of life. I am slow to realize when someone mistreats me, it is always so surprising: evil is somehow unreal. When I sit with bare legs on vinyl, my skin doesn’t slide, it squeaks. I archive. I joke about death. I do not love myself. I do not hate myself. My rap sheet is clean. To take pictures at random goes against my nature, but since I like doing things that go against my nature, I have had to make up alibis to take pictures at random, for example, to spend three months in the United States traveling only to cities that share a name with a city in another country: Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Jericho, Stockholm, Rio, Delhi, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Mexico, Syracuse, Lima, Versailles, Calcutta, Bagdad.

(Source: essayist)

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A Festive Message from Paul La Farge

To celebrate the nexus of three religious holidays – Channukah (חנוכה), Christmas and Kwanzaa – we’ve decided to throw open the gates and cede creative control to one Paul La Farge, author of several novels including the brilliant and modem-meltingly modern Luminous Airplanes (buy it please) and many excellent essays. (I recommend Destroy all Monsters, on the murky world of Dungeons and Dragons, and On Utopia which speaks for itself.) Over to Paul…

I’ve been working on a web-based project, and so one thing that’s on my mind quite a lot is hypertext fiction: this great new phenomenon which was supposed to change literature forever, but which didn’t, or hasn’t, yet. In his essay “The End of Books,” written for the NYTBR in 1992, novelist Robert Coover announced the dawn of the hypertext era; seven years later, in a keynote address, he decided that the Golden Age of literary hypertext was already over. What happened? How could the ship have sailed so quickly? Reading the two essays side by side seems like a good way to think about the short, anguished history of the form, and maybe it’s a good way to think about the future of hypertext fiction—if it has one.

Another place any would-be hypertextual essayist might look for inspiration is in the work of Susan Howe. Her essays are written for the page, not the screen, but they have an open, associative form which moves between literary and historical sources (if there’s any distinction to be made between the two). The movement is the argument: the essay encloses a space within which you, the reader, are almost forced to wander. I found the text of “Incloser,” included in her magnificent 1993 book The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, online via Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center.

Finally, because the holidays are coming up, it seems appropriate to remind you of H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal 1925 essay on “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” It begins, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear”—and already I am thinking of my family. Maybe it will help you to understand yours.

Happy holidays,

Paul

Meltdown

Wells Tower travels Greenland with his Father


In the Inuit village of Tasiilaq, on Greenland’s east coast, in a bar whose name, as far as I can tell, is Bar, people are enjoying themselves as though the world will end tomorrow.

There are maybe 30 folks in here, few of them women, nearly all of them catastrophically drunk. Two men who look fresh from a seal hunt are locked in a dance that is part boxer’s clinch, part jailhouse waltz. One of them falls. I can feel his skull hit the floor through the soles of my boots.

I’m on vacation with my father, Ed Tower, an ebullient man of 65 with a belly that strains his parka nearly to the point of rupture. We are not handsome men, but, as a result of their near-lethal intake of Tuborg beers, the few local females (none under 50 or so) have taken a shine to us. My father is flanked by two. One looks like Ernest Borgnine; the other, Don Knotts.

A grinning elderly woman approaches me unsteadily. I hold out my hand and she falls over, bashing her face on my shin. I help her up. She thanks me, lists hard to starboard, and capsizes again.

Ernest Borgnine whispers something in Dad’s ear, and his eyes go wide.

“Wells,” he yells over the band, “there’s a woman in here who ate her own babies.”

(Source: essayist)

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The American Male Age Ten

by Susan Orlean,

If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks. We would ’ wear shorts, big sneakers, and long, baggy T shirts depicting famous athletes every single day, even in the winter. We would sleep in our clothes. We would both be good at Nintendo Street Fighter II, but Colin would be better than me. We would have some homework, but it would not be too hard and we would always have just finished it. We would eat pizza and candy for all of our meals. We wouldn’t have sex, but we would have crushes on each other and, magically, babies would appear in our home. We would win the lottery and then buy land in Wyoming, where we would have one of every kind of cute animal. All the while, Colin would be working in law enforcement  probably the FBI. Our favorite movie star, Morgan Freeman, would visit us occasionally. We would listen to the same Eurythmics song (“Here Comes the Rain Again”) over and over again and watch two hours of television every Friday night. We would both be good at football, have best friends, and know how to drive; we would cure AIDS and the garbage problem and everything that hurts animals. We would hang out a lot with Colin’s dad. For fun, we would load a slingshot with dog food and shoot it at my butt. We would have a very good life…

(Source: essayist)

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Shipping Out – On The (Nearly Lethal) Comforts Of A Luxury Cruise

A blast from the past by David Foster Wallace, 


I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hor flesh. I have been addressed as “Man” in three different nations. I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced. I have (very briefly) joined a conga line.
I have seen a lot of really big white ships. I have seen schools of little fish with fins that glow. I have seen and smelled all 145 cats inside the Ernest Hemingway residence in Key West, Florida. I now know the difference between straight bingo and Prize-O. I have seen fluorescent luggage and fluorescent sunglasses and fluorescent pince-nez and over twenty different makes of rubber thong. I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lame projectile-vomit inside a glass elevator. I have pointed rhythmically . at the ceiling to the two-four beat of the same disco music I hated pointing at the ceiling to in 1977.

(Source: essayist)

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A Baby Wolf With Neon Bones - Nick Tosches interviews Patti Smith for Penthouse, April '76


Penthouse: Were you a horny teenager, Patti?

Smith: Yeah, I was horny, but I was innocent ‘cause I was a real-late bloomer and not particularly attractive. In fact, homely. See, nobody told me that girls got horny. It was tragic ‘cause I had all these feelings inside me. I was like one of the boys in school who flap their legs frantically under the desk. I always had this weird feeling between my legs and I had no idea what it was…

(Source: essayist)

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Six to Eight Black Men

by David Sedaris (via TETW)


In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station…

The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as “six to eight black men.” I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always “six to eight,” which seems strange, seeing as they’ve had hundreds of years to get a decent count.

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”

"A switch?"

"Yes," he said. "That’s it. They’d kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they’d put him in a sack and take him back to Spain."

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Sister Act

DEEP INSIDE THE SECRET LIFE OF SORORITY GIRLS AT OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY with Evan Wright

Heather says she feels “truly blessed” to have been accepted by her sorority. She was intimidated by the size of OSU, and being a sorority sister makes the university feel like a small college.

At the same time, Heather criticizes the cruelty of the rush process, in which some sorority girls rate the appearance of potential pledges down to the straightness of their teeth and the number of zits on their faces. (Other girls have spoken of secret sorority guidebooks that subtract points for frizzy hair and cheese thighs.)

Heather alleges that at least one sorority at OSU practices a form of hazing known as the “fat table.” She describes it: “You have to strip down to your underwear and bra. You sit on a table, and all your sorority sisters circle the fat and ugly parts of your body with magic markers.”

Heather says her own sorority is cruelty-free. Even if it weren’t, she has little to worry about since her teeth are straight, her body is slim and her skin is as pure as a cold glass of milk.

“Some sororities you have to dress definitely a certain way,” she elaborates. “You have to have your nails done, your hair perfect. You have to dress up all the time in very nice clothes from Express, the Limited, Gap. Anything with heels for shoes. And for going out, all the girls must have tight, hot-bod sex pants.”

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