By Mark Stolle
Reading a great essay is one of the joys of intellectual life. Three of my favorite essayists are the diverse trio of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Donald Hall and George Orwell.
When I was on my Junior Year Abroad in Manchester, England I made it my year-long reading goal to read every word that George Orwell ever wrote (not accomplished but close). And while I love, love, love his novels and journalism, it was his essays that really showed my what a fine and unique mind he had. No cant or jargon or trying to please (his newspaper column was called As I Please), just his plain thoughts, gracefully and simply expressed. Seemingly easy to do, to express what one truly thinks, but it proves to be very rare as there are so few writers who do it, or do it as consistently as Orwell. One of the great reading pleasures is his four volume The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. You can dip into that stream anywhere and always come up with gold.
Knausgaard is similar to Orwell in his straightforward honesty and lack of modern nonsense in his essays. But my real pleasure of reading him is the consistent awe I find myself in when confronted with the size and scope of his ideas and the cleanliness and exactness and yet accessible way he explains something. He could be comparing Heidegger and Aquinas, and normally I would flee from those topics as if angry giraffes were approaching over the next hill, but he gently takes your proverbial hand and explains the essence of his comparison with such elegance I feel I have gained an exemplary insight. His new book of essays In the Land of the Cyclops covers sort of the higher plain of modern culture but in an exciting way that makes you want to read whatever he is writing about. Three fantastic writers Knausgaard has turned me on to are Michel Houllebecq, Dag Solstad and (starting tonight) Joseph Roth (his book The Radetsky March).
Donald Hall is a different kettle of fish, (Knausgaard nor Orwell would ever use such a tired phrase) but no less enjoyable. It's not his intellect or philosophical power I enjoy but just his wonderful affableness. His essays are mainly about himself and his surrounding in New Hampshire, like in Life Work when he writes about moving into the house his Great-Grandparents bought in 1865 and going back to the church his family had historically gone to and how the congregation “assumed us into their rows as if we had just returned from a journey.” He is a writer I would like to have breakfast within a roadside diner at and maybe not talk that much but once in a while just look up from my newspaper and smile.