As a genre grounded in productive uncertainty—collage rather than argument, exploration rather than assertion—the essay is constantly posing the conundrum of its own existence: What should an essay do? What should it offer? It finds its etymological roots in the old French essai: to attempt. It blends inquiry and confession into a hybrid weave that deepens each. It draws personal material into public mattering.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed called “The Essayfication of Everything,” Christy Wampole traces these exploratory practices back to Montaigne—godfather of the essay and patron saint of strange conceptual constellations—in examining how the modern essay has updated an older mode of assemblage: “Banal, everyday phenomena—what we eat, things upon which we stumble, things that Pinterest us—rub elbows implicitly with the Big Questions: What are the implications of the human experience? What is the meaning of life?” Solnit’s book forces us to confront that these questions of formal construction—How is the essay assembled? How do its parts rub elbows?—are also questions of emotional motivation: What drives the essayist toward these acts of assemblage? What abiding hungers make us want to link the Big and the banal?