My essay choices change with the class; summer workshop students always read Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” the perfect essay to dissect when learning how to write effectively about great loss without self-indulgence. Undergrads always read John Jeremiah Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who my grad students read, too. But we start with Montaigne and Sei Shonagon.
The forebears make an indelible impression on new essayists: last week, I saw a student poring over the giveaway books outside the English department. She held a battered Montaigne collection, and looked up from it to ask me, “what’s the one where he writes about his bowels?” Shonagon and her “Hateful Things” has inspired a teaching assistant to routinely text me on his more trying days asking if I will, as Shonagon put it, “summon the exorcist.”
But no matter the demographic, every one of my essay students reads Joan Didion’s…
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