An Essay about Reading Essays
by Martha Highers
It was a springtime. I was driving somewhere with my son, who was 9—or perhaps he was 10—and who had recently become a reader. After plodding through first, second, and third grades thinking of reading as a chore and books as heavy, solid objects to task his muscles, C.S. Lewis had turned the fragile page of a book into the door of a magic wardrobe for him, and he was off and flying through other worlds. The library was the place he wanted to go; books were treasures.
“I know I’m going to like a book when I find the knife,” he said.
“Knife?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“The knife is the thing that lets me open the book up,” he said.
Ah, I thought. He means the key. Or that is how I might have termed it. But I grasped his metaphor, and I thought I know exactly what he means. Whether one calls it the knife, the key, or the trail of shining stones that leads one through the moonlit forest of a narrative, I knew that he was talking about that moment that a work of writing seizes your attention, raises your expectations, and causes you to go on looking for the next thing in it that will do the same. I smiled, seeing a lifetime of discussions about books and writing unfold between me and my son. It was a springtime.
This knife, this key may be many different things, of course, and is no doubt different things within a given work for different people. For me it may be a choice of words, a phrase, a surprising detail, a mood, a tone, a glimpse of a vibrant character or fascinating place, a scrap of conversation, or simply a narrative voice I want to keep listening to. Whatever it is, I can always identify the moment in a work when this happens for me, and it is fun to look back after the first reading and see if the same point is as magical on a second reading. If I apply this to several works submitted to Under the Sun, three in the present edition, and one in the 2013 edition, I can identify that moment in each one, and no matter how many times I revisit them that moment –for me—does not change.
In “The Woman Next Door,” Laurie Ann Doyle guarantees that I will read to the end of her essay with a sentence in the second paragraph. The narrator says of the woman next door, glimpsed one morning through a window sixteen years before: “She was plucking out chin hairs.” It is the intimacy of this detail that seizes me; it both disturbs me slightly, connecting me to ancient and recent small shames about my own body, and awakens my empathy. I have pulled out chin hairs, and it is not something I would love for a stranger to see me doing, though I would do it without thinking in front of those I love and trust. Suddenly a flurry of questions rises up inside me: Is that how this woman feels? What else does this small act reveal about her? And what does this watching reveal about the narrator, the voyeur? And suddenly I am a voyeur, too, unless I am willing to stop reading and abandon the story. But I am not willing to do that because nothing Doyle has said up to this point has shown her to be untrustworthy, or unkind.
Another example: it takes Lee Patton exactly one sentence to capture my attention in “Howling Grounds and Scorched Earth.” He writes, “The old man in the booth told us the mountain was closed.” What? I think, and, then how can a mountain be closed?—and my imagination is awakened. Are we talking about a magical mountain, something along the lines of a mountain out of Lord of the Rings? Patton doesn’t let me wonder long though. By the end of the first paragraph I am in no doubt where I am, what’s going on, or who my narrator is. He’s funny, too. And while works don’t always live up to my expectation of their intriguing first sentences, this one did, carrying me through amused and interested until the end. I have to say, though, that I am glad that I first read this work without pictures, because when I visited Patton’s website the photo attached to the first paragraph gave away the intriguing first sentence, thereby also taking away a small part of both my work and my pleasure. But as a reader I forgive him. There are so many other sprightly and exciting things in the essay that I am rewarded and entertained to the end of its twenty-five pages.
But a first sentence does not have to be surprising or astonishing to capture me either. In last year’s Under the Sun, “Kimihito’s Marigold Summer” captured me with its first sentence, too, but not because of any secret hidden within it. “That summer,” Elaine Finnegan writes, “my hair was long. It was straight, shiny and black, and my bangs hung into my eyes.” I can’t even answer for myself all the reasons I love this essay, but one of them is its tone and mood, which it sets for me with these first sentences, perhaps especially with the phrase, “That summer.” I love this essay’s sense of mystery, that it raises for me as many questions as it answers. In fact, this essay teaches me that I don’t even need to have answers to the questions it raises in order to mean. On first reading these two sentences, I wondered if they were a description of Kimihito. On reading further into the essay, I realized they were a description of the narrator, but after finishing it, and after rereading it, I know that the narrator and Kimihito are linked and that the ambiguity of the beginning is somewhat purposeful.
Ambiguity, yes—and yet I am never lost.
All of these comments about unlocking or opening a work’s meaning beg a question: how long does one have to read into a work before one finds its “knife” or a “key,” before one abandons a work as too obscure, too dull, or too meaningless? There are no rules, of course, and a lot depends on the reader and the expectations she brings to a work. I would read most things by Lorrie Moore for a long time before I would abandon them, yet I have abandoned one of her works simply because I lost the thread or the trail or the tool that helped me continue to open it. Perhaps it was Moore, perhaps it was I who dropped it—who can say? But to answer the question at hand, in general in reading an essay, I will give a writer two or three pages to begin to excite me, draw me in, and create something astonishing, new, and meaningful before I put the work aside and refuse to go further. For a novel I will read further, especially if it is recommended by someone I trust. Eventually though, I trust my own judgment and my own taste buds.
Speaking of Moore, I was reminded of her with the first sentence of Shuly Cawood’s wonderful essay in this year’s Under the Sun, “Brave.” Cawood risks using the second person in the essay, just as Moore does in her collection of short stories, Self Help. My being reminded of Moore by this technique is an example of the baggage each reader brings to a work, baggage which may predispose a reader in favor of a work or against it, regardless of its own merits. Because of this baggage of mine I began reading Cawood with suspicion, but at no point was I able to abandon the work. Cawood’s voice is not Moore’s, with its biting humor and cleverness, but it is in its own way as strong. When I reread the work, the entire first page draws me in—the lovely language, “air that’s never stale, a sky that shifts colors with the loosening of the day,” the emotional stakes, and the sense of foreboding. Then Cawood transports me directly into the lives and psyches of the characters with the moment that the new husband tells the wife, after she reaches out to him for a reassurance of love, that he feels he is being smothered. The chill I felt on reading this passage went directly back to similar moments in my own marriage. After that Cawood’s essay never let me go and never stopped fulfilling the expectations it raised. It has a knife buried in it for sure—I often felt its twang against long quieted nerves—but it never stops being beautiful and it never stops being brave. I love the allusiveness of its ending.
Finally, this is one reader’s response to some essays, but it is not a complete or exclusive list. All of the works in Under the Sun have spoken to some reader or readers—have provided some knife or key for opening them— or they wouldn’t be here. As a writer myself I sometimes feel that I send my works out in the manner of a Voyager space probe, hoping against hope that somehow, somewhere out there at some point in time, they will reach someone. It takes hope as well as a kind of courage to do that, I believe, but to all the writers I have spoken of here (and to many others) I am the small voice calling back from Pluto, “I have heard you.”