Topics: Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges, Essay Pages: 2 (570 words) Published: December 10, 2013
Essay anthologies are one of the perennials of American publishing, old and new titles shoaling into bookstores by the tens of thousands every year … the catch being that most are put forward not as essay anthologies, but as “composition readers,” created to encourage undergraduates to take an interest in the shapeliness of their own prose. Their covers and editorial apparatuses gesture wildly at being up-to-date, but the contents—descriptive, narrative, and argumentative essays, as represented by George Orwell, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Richard Rodriguez, and E. B. White—have the sleepy timelessness of a bayou. John D’Agata’s anthology The Next American Essay cannonballed into these long-quiet waters in 2003. Alongside essays by Didion and Dillard were much less familiar pieces by David Foster Wallace, Anne Carson, and Harry Mathews. Instead of a typology of essays, there were unclassifiable anomalies like David Shields’s “Life Story,” composed entirely of bumper sticker slogans, and Jenny Boully’s “The Body,” a series of footnotes to a text that had been erased from the upper half of the page. As an essay anthology, The Next American Essay made compelling, revelatory reading; more surprisingly, it could also (as I had several occasions to observe) do something almost no composition reader ever does: inspire interesting writing. The Next American Essay already seems to belong in that small company of anthologies that become landmarks or points of departure, like Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree or Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred. In neat postmodern fashion, it has now been followed by its precursor. The Lost Origins of the Essay excavates the literary history of several continents to demonstrate that the “next” essay, in all its idiosyncratic divagations, has always already been among us. The first text, “The List of Ziusudra,” dates from 2700 BC. The historical landscape of the essay that D’Agata takes us through is at once...
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