Facing the Unread: Three Ways to Develop an Essay-Reading Practice

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Anyone who is interested in writing essays or teaching them, needs to develop and sustain a practice of reading them. So what can we do, if we don’t yet have strategies for making essays a part of our lives when the rest of life demands our attention?

If you’re anyone whose rhythm of life is attuned to a school year, particularly if you are a teacher or student, then you may be familiar with what I call having a “case of the Augusts.” This means that in early August, you begin to visualize the impending September to June in terms of the many things you will accomplish in reading and writing. It’s a wonderful feeling that passes for planning, because in early August, we can imagine our time in the year ahead as marvelously malleable; time will accept the happiest of our projects, not just the noisiest ones.  And then, you know, you have to actually pack the lunches, and plan the classes, and what the hey-nonny-nonny are all these meetings for anyway, even the ones you plan and put on other people’s calendars? After that, your reading and writing space gets dedicated to anything with a serious deadline and consequences. Everything else–the stack of books by the side of the bed, the many “saved” links to articles you promise yourself to read, the abandoned sections of the newspaper you stash in an untidy pile on a dedicated chair until the sweet relief of recycling day–all these, the unread, remind you that August is over and winter is coming.

Thankfully, there are a few things one can do that will increase the number of essays you will not just stash, “like,” or “save” for some fictitious “someday,” but actually read, and read in such a way as to become a resource for you, and potentially for others.

  1. Go to a local bookstore or library in person. Stroll through the aisles until you get to the creative nonfiction section. Find a collection of essays by a single writer, and buy it or borrow it.  Put it in a bag or backpack you carry every day.  Swap out the book for that phone in your hand, and read it for fifteen minutes a day until you’re done. By all means, read for longer, and read more people, but one collection in a year is a good start, and having read multiple pieces by one writer, you’ll get a stronger sense of this person’s essaying mind and practices.  Nominate just one or two pieces from the anthology to recommend as starting places to other readers.
  2. Subscribe to a journal or magazine that features “long form” pieces, perhaps something political or literary, and read one essay a month in hard copy. Talk to one person about what you have read, broadcast a quotation somewhere, or just write that passage down and live with it as a sticky note on the refrigerator.
  3. If you’re a teacher, once per week this year ask a student or two to bring to class an essay they find in their own reading.  Work with this for 15 minutes. Here’s one way you could do it (but you’ll have your own ideas better suited to your students): They should come in having read the whole thing, and with one passage highlighted that really struck them.  They can read this to the class out loud, and say why they thought it was interesting, or weird. Every few weeks, ask the class to recall the essays you all have heard about in the past few weeks. During these recap sessions, have everyone write for 15 minutes about what makes essays memorable, or exciting, or tricky.  Hear some of this out loud. Post the recommendations somewhere where students can see their names shared with everyone else and invite annotations and comments–nothing anonymous! Kids also can do this for parents; have them give you something they found to read; you might commit to putting a quotation from the essay in their lunchbox that struck you, or chat about it at dinner. Partners, friends, and colleagues can do this for one another.  Ask for recommendations and then be accountable to other people for what they’ve given you.

That’s a beginning, anyway. If you try any of these approaches or have others of your own, I’d love to hear about them.  Get in touch at nicole@nicolebwallack.com. Happy August!