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Only the Great Ones, Please...

 

 

 

One Hundred Great Essays (Fourth Edition)
Robert Diyanni, ed. 
(Penguin Academics, 2010)
In the two years I've been teaching essay writing to high school students, my personal volumes of essays have sprouted a garden of post-it strips and my copier has worked overtime.  I usually avoid books with "great" in the title (except for Great Expectations, that is), but for some reason, I picked up One Hundred Great Essays, edited by Robert Diyanni.  Reading in the preface that there are two other volumes with equally "great" names (Fifty Great Essays and Twenty-Five Great Essays), I was not encouraged.  However, one look at the table of contents convinced me that this book truly offered a one-stop shopping experience for essay readers and writers.   While the book's introduction is long-winded and by no means an example of great writing (especially the page that rambles on about what good writing is and starts each of six paragraphs with the phrase "Good writing is..."), the essays selected for this volume made me forgive its first 29 pages:  two drafts of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Plato, Anna Quindlen, Susan Sontag, EB White, Sigmund Freud, Ralph Ellison, Henry David Thoreau ... 92 more. If nothing else, this books exemplifies what a robust and flexible form the essay truly is.  As with short stories and poems, the compactness of the essay's size demands a precision in language.  But while we will permit short stories and poems to use literary devices which often obscure rather than clarify their themes, essays demand clarity.  The brilliance of great essays comes when clarity and art marry.  In addition to this collection's artful selections, it's nice to see brief bio's of the essays' authors included with each selection.  When analyzing the content of essays, students frequently fail to take the context of the piece into account.  Unfortunately, scholarly-sounding summaries are included after each bio and before the start of each essay.  These summaries are great for students who don't want to read the essay but want to sound like they did when called on in class; I will be whiting-out these summaries for my students.  It's critical that students learn how to think about essays for themselves and not be spoon-fed the English Department "line" on each essay.  And finally, the typical "questions for thought" are tacked on at the end of each essay.  Even as a student,  I resented these questions because they scream, "Think this way, not that!"  Today, I'll be using Annie Dillard's "Living Like Weasels" essay from this collection to teach my students how to use language vividly to hook their readers.  Even though a Google search will turn up countless student papers on this essay with these lines quoted, I'll include them here for your reading convenience. 


"A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?  He sleeps in his underground den his tail draped over his nose.  Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving.  Outside, he stalks rabbits, mice, muskrats, and birds, killing more bodies than he can eat warm, and often dragging the carcasses home.  Obedient to instinct, he bites hie prey at the neck, either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull, and he does not let go."
 

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