Art Of The Personal Essay

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In an ingenious essay, “On Changing One’s Mind About a Movie,” he writes: “The ultimate question may not be, What is the correct critical judgment to make of a particular film?

but, What are our different needs and understandings at various stages in life?

” With a wealth of examples of movies that felt different for him when he was younger, he serves up an oblique sliver of autobiography, taking the measure of his middle-aging self through the movies that formed him.

The personal essays that open the book are like snapshots, a memoir by glimpses, each from a different angle: his parents’ ill-fated camera shop in their mostly black and Hispanic — and poor — Brooklyn neighborhood; his loving but competitive relationship with his older brother, Leonard, the well-known radio host; an embarrassing episode as a youthful Hebrew tutor, sliding down “the slippery slope of disbelief,” behaving badly, losing his small store of Jewish faith; and best of all “The Lake of Suffering,” a wrenching account of a grave illness that kept his baby daughter in the hospital for many months after her birth.

Furthermore, as he does not believe in using excerpts, Lopate had to pass on some excellent examples, such as Virginia Woolf’s (1963), simply because of their length.

Lopate further acknowledges the dearth of women writers in the collection, attributing this to the fact that few wrote in this...

To get such a mélange published, most writers would have grasped at some theme to give the appearance of a “real” book.

Lopate’s introduction takes the opposite tack, making a case for this “motley collection” as a frank miscellany.

Honest, heartfelt, and confessional in tone, the personal essay points up the universality of human experience.

According to Michel de Montaigne, the patron saint of the personal essay, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Yet at the same time, the personal essay serves as a constant reminder of the sheer solitude involved in the very act of writing. Section 1, “Forerunners,” is dedicated to five early writers whose work is akin to the personal essay: the classical Seneca and Plutarch (Montaigne’s favorites), Japanese Sei Shonagon and Kenko, and Chinese Ou-yang Hsiu.


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