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Sunday, 17 January 2010


Mike, great essay. I might add that the New Yorker occasionally has some fantastic photography scattered among the cartoons ;)

Well, my hat's off to you, Mike. I never have, and never plan to, read at a rate of a book-a-week. Not even close.

My main tastes have run towards history during the past few years. My current favorite author has become Jill Jonnes. She has a keen talent for presenting historical records in such a lively style that you forget you're reading history. Her "Empires of Light" (early urban electrification, esp. NY) was wonderfully illuminating, "Eiffel's Tower" is terrific, and I very much look forward to "Conquering Gotham".

I've also become hooked on amazon's Kindle...but that's another story

Well, your reading tastes differ greatly from mine. I'm primarily a fiction reader and fantastic fiction at that. (At least a couple hundred books per year.) If it's not fiction, then it's history, travel and similar stuff.

But I have to recommend something I read a long time ago: Paul Fussel's Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays. You can argue with his positions, but he does make you think. (His Class is basically a 200-page long essay on class system in the United States. Also interesting.)

Here's a sample essay from the book, The">http://faculty.smu.edu/bwheeler/chivalry/fussell.html">The Fate Of Chivalry And The Assault Upon Mother on Wayback Machine.

(Mike, the first link is to Amazon.)

Mike, we actually have something in common: Thoreau is my favorite writer too. After Thoreau I would have to place Updike next. Speaking of John Updike, he published a book of essays and criticism that you might enjoy reading titled "Hugging The Shore."

Interesting way to create an illusion of modesty. Say that you read a book a week but make it seem like you are disappointed in yourself for such a low number.

The first essayist that impacted me was Aldo Leopold. Round River and A Sand County Almanac both still speak across time. His prose still stuns me. His ability to encapsulate an entire new ethic in a few sentences is amazing, and rightfully places him alongside Thoreau.

(The sand county is Sauk, WI)

Thank you for this piece. As someone who flatters himself as literate, I was surprised to find that it included several authors of whom I had never heard - Szarkowski, Hertzberg, and Collins. In the context of internet photographic sites, where it's not uncommon to find that many native English-speaking photographers haven't yet noticed that the singular of "lenses" isn't "lense", it's a rare pleasure.

And not for the first time either; I recently bought Jeff Dyer's excellent "The Ongoing Moment" after reading something about it here, as I recall. If only it could be published with decent sized reproductions of ALL the photographs he discusses.

I'd like to put in a quick plug, aimed at anyone who loves literature and ideas and who isn't yet aware of them, for my two favourite periodicals, The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Both are far more than simply literary reviews; they contain some of the most thought provoking and intelligent journalism and comment to be found anywhere.

I don't usually do "favourites" but I would like to commend the work of V.S. Naipaul. He's hardly obscure, having recently won the Nobel, but even at the end of his career his prose style (one might equally say his lack of anything that could be called "a style") is... well this is a photography site, so I'll grit my teeth and use the word "stellar"...

in southern UK

"Interesting way to create an illusion of modesty. Say that you read a book a week but make it seem like you are disappointed in yourself for such a low number."

I know I read a lot compared to the general population, but I'm comparing myself to real readers, many of whom consider three books a week a bare minimum, some of whom exceed a book a day. Larry McMurtry quit his teaching position at Yale because it was taking too much time away from his reading. People like that. Some of my bookish friends have not seen a television show for decades. One reader I heard of goes on "reading vacations"--she takes time off work, cancels all her obligations, turns off her phone, and does nothing but read, all day long--at home. Compared to them, my accomplishment is indeed modest and my modesty about it perfectly appropriate, I assure you.


"I would like to commend the work of V.S. Naipaul."

I was just looking at my copy of "The Writer and the World" this morning and thinking I should get to that one....


I would add Erma Bombeck.


"Francis Bacon [...] credited with inventing, or at least laying the philosophical groundwork for, the scientific method."

May I ask who credited Bacon with that?
You may want to check Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham. Known in the West as Alhazen, Alhacen, or Alhazeni. It seems that Bacon, and others like Leonardo Da Vinci, were well aware of his works, including on the camera obscura (see the excellent book 'A New History of Photography' by Michel Frizot, page 18 (ISBN 3-8290-1328-0). He laid in writing the scientific method 200 years before Bacon.

Mike, you hit it on the head with George Orwell, my favorite is Homage to Catalonia. Try out Gustav Eckstein's The Body Has A Head if you want a trip down existential biology. How about any Kurt Vonnegut for a modern Shakespeare?
Best wishes,
Rick in CO

Wendell Berry, IMHO our greatest living essayist.

"...one of English's finest stylists, as perspicuous as T. H. Huxley at his best and as perspicacious as John Ruskin at his. Like Huxley, Berry cares about how life persists; like Ruskin, about how economics and politics impinge upon life. Naturally, then, his constant subject is the fostering of life, especially human life..." — Ray Olson, Booklist


Withing the mumblings of my brain [dare I say, think, although apparently it is not recommended by the current national healthcare system: normal behavior may occur after a reading treatment], one of them was about which contemporary english book I might reccomend.

Curiosly enough, I got two different "offers" for mefriend:

Jonathan Safran Coer´s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which is very reccomendable for photographers as well, and Zadie Smith´s White Teeth.

Other stuff that crossed memind was about why we do tend to be much more flexible and open minded with stuff or areas we are proficient on, or at least, consider ourselves amateurs. But that will come later on, I guess.

John Updike is an obvious choice, but with good reason!

When I was on the road, I read 3 books a week. Now, I'm back to more like 1.5 a week. I'm currently working my way through James Patterson, after finishing most of Nevada Barr, Robert Crais and Nelson DeMille. While I do read photo books from time to time, I haven't touched philosophy since college, and hated most of it then. I just re-read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", so maybe I'll re-read some Orwell.

Mike, I don't think that fifty books a year is too shabby, though I usually read four to six books a week. I have visited homes where there are only a handful of books in the whole house; usually an old children's Encyclopaedia, a cookery book, a gardening book and a mail order or Argos shop catalogue.

Houses like that remind me of the story of the man who was asked if he wanted a book for Christmas. He replied, "No thanks, I've already got one"

I'm surprised that you don't have sufficient attentiveness for fiction. With me it's the other way round, though after years of just (mostly science) fiction and reference works I've started to read more non fiction.

A couple of the latest ones I've read are Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, and Mark Urban's Rifles, which is about the English 95th Rifle Regiment in the early 19th century. I highly recommend both, and would put a link in to them if I had the faintest idea how.

I wonder if it is a common aspect of growing older that leads to men of a certain age (*cough*) no longer reading fiction. I am one such man (and maybe I am guilty of extrapolating far too much from my own experience but I will plow on anyway), and I put it down to having experienced enough real life narrative and drama such that made-up stories no longer appeal. I don't mean that pejoratively (it is late here in the UK and I am having trouble making this post as nuanced as I would like) as I miss reading fiction and miss the depth of feeling it used to give me; however, nowadays I feel much the same way about fiction as I have always felt about the theatre. Interestingly, it was an author, John Updike, who articulated my feelings about the theatre far more cogently than I ever could:

"I’ve never much enjoyed going to plays myself; they always seem one act too long, and I often can’t hear .... The unreality of painted people standing on a platform saying things they’ve said to each other for months is more than I can overlook."

Of course, he isn't dismissing all theatre, just as I wouldn't dismiss all fiction, but I do think it gets harder to take the unreality as one gets on a bit.

The Peter Pauper Press edition of Francis Bacon's essays is indeed very nice. I also love the Limited Editions Club version, which was designed and typeset by Bruce Rogers, by common consent the finest book designer of the 20th century. And the far more widely available Heritage Press edition is a direct reproduction, complete with identical typography. Rogers set the book in an intentionally rough recreation of Janson type, yielding typography very much like that prevailing during Bacon's lifetime. For me it adds greatly to the enjoyment of Bacon's shrewd observations.

Montaigne's essays are brilliant; you can't escape the awareness of a first-class wit speaking to you across the centuries. The older translation by Screech (no, really, that's his name) is almost as serviceable as Frame's. The Limited Editions Club version from 1946 uses the somewhat turgid Ives translation, but it's simply beautiful: four modestly sized volumes in a single slotted slipcase. It was designed and printed by the brilliant and playful William Addison Dwiggins, with unobtrusive typesetting and delightful period ornaments.

Sorry, I can't help it. I'm a book dork.

If you like Bernard Darwin, you'd probably like Henry Longhurst. He was Golf Correspondent for the London Sunday Times for nearly 30 years until his death in 1978. He wrote with beautiful, exquisite prose, and in reality most of his Golf writing was actually about Life, with Golf being but a metaphor.

Collins would be tickled to find herself between Hertzberg and de Montaigne... And I think I heard Hertzberg say on Fresh Air that he interviewed John Coltrane for his high school newspaper...

Who can deny Orwell? Homage to Catalonia is terrific, but just as terrific as the actual writing is Orwell's journey from "Catalonia" through "Animal farm" to "1984," as reflected in his essays and criticism.

I certainly disagree about Hertzberg -- I think he's the Rush Limbaugh of the left. On another photo forum, somebody a couple of days ago characterized Limbaugh and Pat Robertson, for their comments about Haiti, as "evil wankers." I totally agree. I think people like Hertzberg and Paul Krugman are the "evil wankers" of the left, adding nothing useful to any political or cultural conversation. I almost, but not quite, quit reading the New Yorker because of Hertzberg.

I very much like the essays and short fiction by Garrison Keillor, most of which are published in the New Yorker. They are one of the reasons I keep reading the magazine. I started reading it because of the essays by John McPhee.


One of my favourite modern essayists is SF-based Rebecca Solnit. A good introduction to her work is the book of collected essays: Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Her lean, elegant style makes her one of the best essayists I've read.

I would add John Mcphee, also found in the New Yorker.

My favourite collection of Essays is "From a College Window" by Arthur Christopher Benson and published in 1906, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York and, London. It harks back to an earlier age and is easy to read, thought provoking and thoroughly delightful. I was lucky to be able to pick up a copy in a 2nd hand bookshop many years ago. It is available as a free download here: http://openlibrary.org/b/OL13535390M/From_a_college_window


I recommend Joseph Epstein; he is the great contemporary master of the familiar essay. See With My Trousers Rolled, Once More Around the Block, etc. And how about Charles Lamb?

Any fan of E B White must (I insist) read the Letters of E. B. White.

"Any fan of E B White must (I insist) read the Letters of E. B. White."

I've read 'em.


I'll nominate two writers about cooking - M.F.K. Fisher and Anthony Bourdain - who in very different ways invest food writing with sensuousness, humor, and pungency. And Michael Pollan, who writes with great intelligence and considerable humor about food (not cooking).

It is hard to ignore Gore Vidal whose prowess as essayist eclipses all his other literary talents. He is unique in being an American writing from the perspective of a classical education in the twentieth century. Not many of those.

Luc, as a proof that Alhazeni invented scientific method, Wikipedia cites works that don't really mention the scientific method at all, only experiments. (It's a free PDF and a free text, you can read them.)

This is not to disprove that Bacon was familiar with Alhazeni. It is quite possible that he might have been. Quite a lot came from Arabs, and Bacon visited Spain while it still had strong Arab influence. At the same time, it cannot be proven.

Francis Bacon was the first man to formulate the scientific method in the Western thought. It came from him to the Royal Society and Newton, and the rest is, as they say, history.

By the way, there's something wrong in the Wikipedia article about Bacon -- he was talking about deductive reasoning, predicting individual behaviour from a general set of rules. He was not talking about inductive reasoning, where you predict a general set of rules from an individual instance of behaviour, as Wikipedia says. (He was not Sherlock Holmes.)

I can see where the author got confused: when Bacon talks about using multiple instances to form the general set of rules, it does look like induction. :)

Mike - great post. Orwell is a particular love of mine and someone I subject my students to when given the opportunity.

I would recommend Camus - its the fiftieth anniversary of his death and the French are busy re-evaluating his legacy. William Hazlitt too is worth your time and when I allow my ego to run away with me I try Slavoj Zizek. The effect on completion is a dazed confusion - an armchair concussion!

Enjoyed your list and given your taste you might want to add Wallace Stevens to your reading list. His Beyond the Hundredth Meridian is a great read, and Where the Bluebird Sings is a wonderful collection of essays. He also wrote a number of very fine novels. He is often referred to as the dean of Western (not cowboy) writing. He was a leader in the environmental movement as it got started in the west. He taught at Stanford for many years and his students read like a who's who--Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry and Larry McMurtry.
BTW I start out each morning with the NYTimes and your blog. thanks, Brandon Scott

Well this topic is too juicy not to chime in on. I like your list Mike, and will refrain from voicing minor quibbles. I would make a few additions.

The contemporary master of the "personal essay" is Philip Lopate. His writing is both entertaining and profound in places. Probably would recommend Against Joie de Vivre as most representative of his work. He also edited a fantastic collection of essays surveying the field called The Art of the Personal Essay.

I'd next recommend William Hazlitt (1778-1830) as worthy of consideration. His "On Going a Journey" is hilarious.

My own reading method and frequency has also undergone a radical change as I creep to the end of my 40s. I find it difficult to happen upon anything more than entertaining in my fiction perusals. So I have devoted myself to reading more non-fiction (essays in particular). Additionally I have set particular projects before me. This year will be devoted to Emerson, reading a few biographies and a good chunk of his collected works.

Happy reading to all.

I used to be an avid reader - well, one book a week was well within my habit. For some unfathomable (to me) reason, I've pretty much stopped reading any fiction and only now read the odd essay, which of course has severely lowered that old average.

I'm just about to finish Klemperer's book on the evolution of the German language in Nazi Germany, and I've seldom felt like recommending a book that much. It's a real treasure, and not only for philologists (which I am not) but for anyone who thinks words have some value. The parallels with what happened to language in political and public discourse even in our democratic systems can be at times unnerving. A gem, which I only mention because I fell it may interest anyone who enjoyed Orwell's wonderful collection (which I did.)

(I hope I did the link right to make it a TOP-link :))

Hooray for McPhee and Solnit; and Emerson ranks up there with Thoreau. This being a photography website, I'm surprised nobody mentioned the Adamses - Ansel for Examples and Robert for Beauty in Photography. Although they don't count as essays, the Chautauquas in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance are pretty groovy.

Another magazine with some good writing is the Economist.

I've actually read almost all of McPhee, and even for a brief time considered collecting him, which lead to a series of exchanges of letters with him in the '80s. But I'm not sure I'd call him an essayist. Unless you stretch the definition to something you might call "the book-length essay," in which case you'd have some further stretching to do when it came to "Annals of the Former World," surely his masterpiece, which amounts to a three-book essay....


I generally avoid pointless venting of political spleen; such discussions generally devolve into fact-free shouting. But it's clearly unfair to characterize Paul Krugman as an "evil wanker of the left". First, he happens to be, well, a Nobel Laureate. He's a genuine expert on the subjects he writes about. This puts him in a very different category from folks like Limbaugh. Secondly, he has been consistently correct about our economic melt-down, warning about the housing bubble and the threat of "creative financial engineering" long before it became conventional wisdom or excruciating reality. I think most people would agree this added "something useful" to public discussion.

Mike, if you lived in my town, you would probably be my best friend. In reading your introduction, I saw myself. It's good to know you sir.

A second for Wendell Berry- for fiction, poetry, AND essays. His writing is so incredibly rich.

Brandon Scott,

You confused Wallace Stevens the poet/art collector/insurance executive with Wallace Stegner the essayist/novelist/teacher.

Thank you Mike for a great reading list.

Szarkowski's introduction to "William Eggleston's Guide" is a revelation. It can be read at http://www.egglestontrust.com/ (along with many other appreciations of Eggleston by various writers).

I second erlik's opinion of Fussell as a wonderful writer.

I would also add to the list of essayists not to be missed: Virginia Woolf (The Moment and other Essays), Susan Sontag (though not "On Photography"), Umberto Eco and David Sedaris.

Come to think of it, though, a substantial portion of the essays I've enjoyed in recent years originated on TOP or the Sunday Morning Photographer.

I'm jealous. I couldn't read 2-3 books a week no matter how hard I tried. I'm too slow. One book a week might be within my grasp, but only if I didn't try to do anything else. Anyway...

Lewis Thomas and Loren Eiseley. Good reads, both. And (fairly) recently I very much enjoyed Mary Austin's, "The Land of Little Rain." Of course, I know the area.

Re: Fiction.
Several contributors have commented on the trend toward reading non-fiction in later years. Isn't it odd that we define all other categories as "non-fiction"? It reminds me of Borges' story about classification of animals in which he refers (as best I recall) to an exclusive category comprising "all animals belonging to the Emperor".

I've drifted in the same direction, and I'm not sure why. I'll be 62 in about a month. I try to read fiction regularly but I've become very selective and critical. These days I'm prepared to abandon books some way in if I feel they don't really repay the effort. Time is limited. I just had a bash at Roberto Solano who is receiving universal praise at the moment. Abandoned "The Savage Detectives" due to boredom and the complete implausibility of the characterisation.

On Naipaul. Everything he has written is worth reading, to susbstantially understate the case. His accounts of the rise of Islamism in the converted countries, "Among the Believers" and "Beyond Belief", were astonishingly prescient.

To demonstrate that you don't have to be a very charming person to write great literature, Paul Theroux's account of his friendship with Naipaul, and that relationship's demise, "Sir Vidia's Shadow" (brilliant title!) is sad, funny and un-putdownable. The recent authorised biography of Naipaul is toe-curlingly scandalous - quite astonishing that Naipaul gave complete freedom to his biographer and failed to request any cuts. An almost unprecedented example of Graham Greene's adage about the writer needing a "splinter of ice in the heart".

Great to see how much response Mike's piece has evoked. I get tired of reading about... well, you all know the stuff. Sometimes!

Photographers could do worse than to dip into some Wright Morris from time to time.
His photography is magical as are his novels and essays. They are hard work but worth the effort. The Home Place is especially fine.
Another Nebraskan who could turn a phrase was John Neihardt.
Most old hippies are on to Black Elk Speaks. But The River and I opens with "the vast plains of my native country are as a mystic scroll unrolled, scrawled with a cabalistic writ of infinite things".
I grew up in the Dakotas where much of that book is set. The old guy really pinned it.

Have you checked out www.goodreads.com? I don't want to sound like a commercial, but I've found more great things to read, learned more about what I read, and got more out of this site than any other online community I've tried.

Jonathan Safran Foer (note spelling) lives Incredibly Close by, about a block away. I've been putting off reading the book on account of living close enough to the WTC to hear 9/11 and have debris blowing in the street but I think I'll put it into the current reading stack.

As for George Orwell, I need to read that copy of Down and Out in Paris and London.

"I need to read that copy of Down and Out in Paris and London."

Yes you do. One of my favorite books. I've read parts of it at least three times in my life, most recently about a year and a half ago.


haha, your vicissitudes are unpredictable.

Hi Hugh,
Sorry about the spelling, but I read it quite some time ago.
As a neighbour, is he Extremely Loud?
Or has Everything Illuminated?

Which is a hilarious book to read if you happen to be living as an expat in Moscow [Everything is Illuminated, I mean].

Do blogs count as reading - really good blogs like John Bailey's Bailiwick (http://www.ascmag.com/blog/)?

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