I never set out to write a memoir. Nor did I set out to become old. Apparently I have managed to do both, first the second, and then the first. Hence, Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, whose title was wittily suggested by one of my friends last year. I can’t remember which one, however.
I wrote a book of essays. If a writer utters the words “book of essays” to even the most sympathetic agents, editors, or publishers, he will find them moving to the door, if not the window, of the office. Essays, to put it politely, do not sell. What does? No one can predict, of course, but essays do not.
Still, this is the form I love most. After decades of writing academic, footnote-laden prose, with occasional forays since 1988 into journalism, I had an epiphany in 2005. That was the year when I gave an English course—repeated several times thereafter—called “Five Poems.” The idea was simple. We read five canonical English and American poems of middle length, and looked at each one carefully, hard and long. Additionally, we read the scholarship and criticism that attended each one. My realization should not have come as a surprise, but I was struck by how much the shelf life of literary scholarship resembles that of a banana. In this, of course, scholarship resembles most human activity. And then I thought: If all creative endeavor is ephemeral, why not try writing something that might appeal to a wider, less academic but still educated audience, and that might earn modest sums of money?
I began contributing essays to literary quarterlies (The Yale Review, The American Scholar) on general subjects like swimming, ballroom dancing, even the charms of walking. If the essay was good enough for Montaigne, who invented it, for Charles Lamb, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, and Jonathan Franzen, it was good enough for me. It would allow me to write about myself but about more than myself. My essays are about me; they are also about other things that are not “me.” Combining the personal and the impersonal opens the world to a writer, and opens the writer to his readers.
I accumulated a first book for FSG, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness. Several years later I approached my editor, Jonathan Galassi, and said I thought I had a sequel for him. “Seven more pleasures?” he politely inquired. “Seven sins, seven pains?” I showed him what I had: an essay on life in Dallas, originally written for a literary magazine that was planning an issue on travel to exotic places (I figured more of its readers had gone to Kuala Lumpur and Machu Picchu than to Texas); an essay called “Senior Reading,” about how reading habits and tastes change as one ages; another on visiting Japan, the only time I was incapable of speaking, reading, or understanding a single word in a foreign place.
My ingenious editor recommended joining the various parts of the book together, bringing them into a more organic whole. I never intended to put my book only into the wrinkled hands and before the dimming eyes of my contemporaries. I thought of it—then as well as now—as a series of investigations, explorations of one writer’s thoughts and experiences, something that others might enjoy and learn from. The chapters are interesting because they are informative and well written: Isn’t that enough for any reader? They treat separate parts of a life, and they also meditate on matters that turn out to have been the cornerstones of that life, my life: talk and language, to start with, and then quiet and silence, to end with. And in between? Places; books; art; encounters with classmates at my fiftieth high school reunion; travels through New York’s five boroughs: all the little things that when taken together make up the bulk of any person’s life.
The book presents no traumas, tragedies, conflicts, or triumphs. My essays constitute the backward-looking diary of a man whose life has been spent largely in the groves of academe, a secular man who believes that there is no afterlife, that this life is not a dress rehearsal but all that we have. For that reason, we had better make the most, the best of it.
I grew up with language. Everyone does. I started with listening and talking. Again: we all do. Then reading: most people at least develop the necessary skill although not everyone absorbs pleasure along with knowledge in this essential activity, and fewer still become addicted. And then, writing. For me it was an easy, inevitable path. I insisted on putting “Talk” at the start of my new collection. (It ends with “Quiet.”) My authorial choices reflect the direction of everyone’s life, from a first squall to the final silence.
They also allowed me to move around among the motifs (thank you, Jonathan Galassi) that have defined my life: language, above all, and its opposite; feeling at home or not at all; wondering where one best belongs.
And this brings me to Montaigne, one of my desert island writers. It has been said of him—and might be said with equal truthfulness of Emerson—that you can take many of his essays and change their titles around, and you will not be lost. And that you will be hard-pressed to find a “thesis statement,” or often any “thesis” at all, certainly no single idea that a student could easily compress into a “message,” or a form the student might carefully outline. The essays—“attempts”—resist all such manhandling. They wander, discursively but not ploddingly or predictably. They work things out, and they usually end up in a place far different from where they began. They are both similar to and different from life. Any life has a trajectory, from birth to death. But its internal shape can be seen mostly in retrospect, if at all. A great essay must end with a sense of appropriate closure, but a reader will not have predicted it.
Consider one of my favorites, Montaigne’s “On the Art of Conversation.” The writer warms to his subject deliciously, calling conversation “the most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds.” It’s hard to argue with that. Talking teaches; it opens the mind. Mere agreement is tiresome; one needs modest combat. And every opinion, even when disagreed with, can bring forth the pleasure of discussion. A sentient person will gain nothing from spending his time only with birds of the same feather. “I like love that bites and scratches till the blood comes,” the wise author says, upping the ante and offering a surprising analogy. Not that bloodshed is really what he seeks. Our man is far too amiable a sparring partner: “All opinions are alike to me; and I am almost indifferent as to who wins. I will argue peaceably all day long, so long as the discussion is conducted according to the rules.”
But even rules and procedures will not suffice to give satisfaction. Montaigne is the master of common sense, of worldly moderation, and, as man and writer, a splendid appreciator of our common humanity, its follies as much as its glories. He relishes talk and reading not just because he is seeking the truth but equally because he values style and tone, those almost immeasurable qualities: “Every day I entertain myself by browsing among books without a thought for their learning; and examining their authors’ style, not their subject.”
He makes the point that I have tried to teach my students, and anyone else who will listen: good writing is that which makes a reader interested in a subject in which he probably has never been interested. By their styles ye shall know them.
But what has happened, in this essay, to its nominal subject? It goes from talking to reading. Both are agencies of knowledge. Montaigne ends his essay on the art of conversation with a consideration of Tacitus. He has moved far beyond his point of embarkation. And yet he keeps circling back to it, almost unconsciously. A good guide, he makes us scurry to keep up with him yet he never fails to look back to bring us along just when we worry we have lost the path. You think that conversation is merely a polemical quest for truth and justice? That the only subjects are the important ones, like what Socrates urges upon his interlocutors in Plato’s dialogues? Not so fast. Right before he heads deeply into his consideration of the Roman historian, Montaigne gives us a momentary rest stop, a reminder of where we have been:
May we not include under the heading of social conversation the brief and pointed repartees exchanged between friends under the influence of mirth and intimacy, when they briskly and pleasantly chaff and poke fun of one another?
And he plunges, in his final pages, into a consideration of Tacitus’s value. This is the kind of writing that would drive a teacher of freshman English wild. This would never get a passing grade. It is the writing of an essayist, not a polemicist. It is unpredictable and wandering. It is a great adventure. T. S. Eliot said, in a more ponderous tone, that it’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters. All readers of Montaigne get the point: on the page, or on life’s path, writers, readers, all human beings keep on the move.
Montaigne’s is the voice of the ideal friend: cordial, tolerant, easily amused, congenial, and never narcissistic, hectoring, or condescending. He is the model companion who can become, in one moment, a Dutch uncle and, in another, a sympathetic booster.
This is also the voice of the ideal essayist. By looking at and telling his reader about himself, he’s also asking that reader to examine his or her own life and ideas. By being himself he allows his readers to become better versions of their own selves.
As another writer (Ira Gershwin, for his brother George’s music in “I Got Rhythm”) asked, “Who could ask for anything more?”
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. From 1984 until 2016, he was also the editor in chief of Southwest Review. He has written many books and essays about English and American poetry. For more than a quarter century he has been a regular contributor to the Leisure & Arts pages of The Wall Street Journal.