A review of

The Lost Origins of the Essay

by John D’Agata

Central question: How can we read the history of the essay as a history of art?
(Partial) list of main characters: John D’Agata, Ziusudra of Sumer, Theophrastus of Eressos, Lucius Seneca, T’ao Ch’ien, Thomas Browne, Thomas de Quincey, Aloysius Bertrand, Velimir Khlebnikov, Paul Celan, Ana Hatherly, Octavio Paz, Marguerite Yourcenar, Julio Cortázar, Michel Butor, Peter Handke, Marguerite Duras, Samuel Beckett; Obligatory plot summary: A tour of ancient and not-so-ancient texts in an attempt to convince the reader that the essay is not, perhaps, what she previously thought; Representative sentence: “But it’s unlikely that the book’s point is the accuracy of its data…I think the point of the book is its song.”

“What word is there to describe this kind of logic that sings?”

—Plutarch

Every history is a story, a marshaling of evidence to support a particular reading of the past. Of the Silk Road or Nordic myth. Of Alexandria or pirates or the atom bomb. John D’Agata’s history is of the essay, that redheaded stepchild of literature which, he laments, is often mistaken for “a genre that is merely a dispensary of data—not a true expression of one’s dreams, ideas, or fears.” There is a problem, he argues, with thinking that the nonfiction tradition originates in records of fact, as in how many bushels of wheat a man once owed his neighbor. It denies the genre a tradition as art. “I think this misperception is prevalent today because we haven’t yet laid claim to an alternative tradition.… I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce.”

This search soars across centuries, continents, and literary forms, from an ancient text by Ziusudra of Sumer to The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon to the prose poems of Baudelaire to a “performative essay” on Bob Marley by Kamau Braithwaite to a stunning meditation on love, lust, and the lyric by Lisa Robertson. Along the way, D’Agata carves out a story about the art of nonfiction that is plausible, and possibly even true.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

—Meehan Crist

Meehan Crist is Reviews Editor for the Believer.

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