With the dawn of a new year and a provisional lull in the pressures of work and life, many of us will make another attempt at getting through that seemingly inexhaustible reading list. I for one have realised that, as an ordinary man labouring under the limitations of time and exiguous mental equipment, I could not hope to reach my own meagre aspirations to the classics or wish lists at various digital library subscriptions, much less successfully pursuing someone else’s list of must-reads. …

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Jane Austen’s desk, Chawton Cottage

A writer needs a desk and a library near at hand, for the novel, verse, or even the humble essay must be nurtured from countless scraps and coaxed out of the shells of pithy volumes. The desk should be placed alongside a good window from which to view the world; the clatter of the city below; the squeals of children at play; birds chirping above in the morning sun. In short-life should be all around her, for fiction, or any imaginative work, is attached to life, and the looking glass likeness of lives that pass through the writer’s eye. The desk and window were the essential accoutrements of yore, along with the stacks of books on the top shelf and others pushed under the bed. This rather protean notion of the writer’s space was fashioned to circumstance — Jane Austin did most of her work in the family sitting-room, carefully concealing her occupation from all but her family. Montaigne’s study was walled all about with books, with his desk as their nucleus. Robert Louis Stevenson’s study was a windy perch overlooking the South Sea. The elysian coffee house — the haunt of many a contemporary writer from T. S. Eliot and F Scott Fitzgerald to Kafka during the lean war years — with its heady mixture of vanillas, peppermints, pies, and pan-fries behind the steady drone of life is safe heaven for the wandering writer seeking refuge from the bitter cold, or heavy downpour, or all the impediments of his familiar surroundings. J.K. Rowling wrote much of the early Harry Potter book in Edinburgh’s Elephant House cafe. Chris Abani wandered from Starbucks to Denney’s, writing through the night. Space is a luxury, and the writer, ever sensitive to the rhythm of her time, adapts her space accordingly and consumes all impediments in her path. Impediments there will be, for the world is notoriously indifferent to the plight of the writer. …

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“The principle which controls [the essay] is simply that it should give pleasure.” writes Virginia Woolf in The Modern Essay “Everything in an essay must be subdued to that end. It should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last.” A simple didactic, and one embodied in the works of every great essayist from Montaigne to Milne. So, what about the essay form in the digital age? What exactly constitutes the modern essay? The cathartic blog post, the expository article, philosophical ramblings on culture or technology which proliferate the web? …



Looking for the mot juste — or more juice, same difference. I blog at myron.maitri.pub.

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