Review by Karen Langley
The coming of the Internet and the development of blogging at the turn of the 21st century led to a resurgence of the personal essay, which was the perfect fit for all of those seeking to express themselves online. The heyday of blogs may have passed – and, indeed, there has been plenty of debate about whether blog posts are indeed proper essays – but many still enjoy the format (either as reader or writer). Author Philip Lopate is best known as a master of the essay, though he’s written across many genres, including fiction, non-fiction, film and literary criticism, and poetry. So when he was approached to keep a blog for The American Scholar, writing a series of brief entries over the course of a year, he was perhaps a little sniffy about the prospect at first…
The plan was something of an experiment, intended to test out how the personal essay would respond to a deadline, a word count and indeed all the competition online from the many other ‘content’ providers. Lopate responds with a loose, chatty series of pieces which range from reflections on his health, meditations on his past, and memories of favourite childhood foods all the way to deeper explorations of personal loss, the complexities of marriage and parenthood, and contemplation of specific writers and musicians who’ve moved him over the years. The results, collected here under the title A Year and a Day, are entertaining and often enlightening.
My favourite time of year is September. Despite the groans of everyone, including myself, regarding the end of summer, the truth is that by Labor Day I am more than happy to get back to work and a regular routine. If summer carries with it the promise of transformation, of exploring other potential selves one might hope to stir awake through travel and leisure, it can also place one in frightening contact with one’s shallowness and emptiness. My embrace of September is therefore founded on the relief that I can return to my essentially limited but dependable self-repertoire.
The blog ran from 2016 into 2017 so inevitably has to deal with a very uncomfortable period of American history. Lopate’s horror at the election of Donald Trump is palpable, but fortunately the dreaded ex-president only creeps into the narrative in a couple of places. Instead, Lopate is happy to range far and wide, with some of his subject matter being perhaps a little unexpected. A piece entitled British Women Novelists, for example, in which he expresses his appreciation for authors like Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, is rather lovely, and he makes some interesting comparisons.
Similarly, Lopate’s thoughts on author James Baldwin are very pithy, and his point that Baldwin was much more interesting when he was being an author as opposed to a prophet or spokesman is well made. His self-deprecating tone is appealing, and so his reflections on his own life, health and mortality are very easy to relate to; at times he’s all too human in his recognition of the flaws in all of us.
One privilege of growing older is that you do not have to adjust to the new, or even wax excited about it. I remain a man of the twentieth century. Reluctantly dragged into the new millennium, I stay loyal to the previous one, hewing to the patterns I established then. For instance, I still read the print versions of newspapers and magazines, and dress respectably when I take an airplane. I avoid thinking about Facebook, Twitter, or texting or any such innovations – not that I deplore them, I have no high-minded objections to the new technology, I simply refuse to engage mentally with it…I refuse to be topical. I am thus spared much wasted effort trying to write ingenious think pieces about the latest splash or gizmo.
Of course, Lopate does have the advantage of having lived a fascinating life, and a particular stand-out essay contains memories of his life as a young jazz fan. As a 15-year-old with fake ID, he visited clubs to experience the music of the likes of Coltrane, Monk and Mingus, to name just a few, and his evocative recollections of that time are marvellous.
The success of any personal essay depends on how the reader connects with the author, and I did find that I gelled with him almost all of the time. There was the occasional point where an older-fashioned view expressed on women jarred slightly, but in the main Lopate is an entertaining and often trenchant commentator whose thoughts are always interesting.
A Year and a Day may have begun as a blog, but it certainly works well as a book and is proof, if indeed it was needed, that the essay format can encompass just about anything. And these are essays – it’s significant that the great essayist Montaigne is a regular touchstone throughout the book, with Lopate referring to him regularly and returning to him at the end of his book with the piece, “Experience Necessary”. This piece is one of the standouts of the book, riffing as it does on Montaigne’s final essay “Of Experience” and providing Lopate’s responses to that work. It’s a powerful and memorable piece which makes a fitting way for Lopate to round up his year of online essaying. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of personal explorations, and if this book is typical of his style, the rest of his work definitely warrants more investigation.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and loves a good essay (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)
Phillip Lopate, A year and a Day (New York Review of Books, 2023). 978-1681377780. 205pp., paperback.
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