Atkins's readings cover a wide spectrum of writers in the English language--and his readings are themselves essays, gracefully written, engaged, and engaging. Atkins starts with the earliest British practitioners of the form, including Francis Bacon, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson. Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are included, as are works by Americans James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and E. B. White. Atkins also provides readings of a number of contemporary essayists, among them Annie Dillard, Scott Russell Sanders, and Cynthia Ozick.
Many of the readings are of essays that Atkins has used successfully in the classroom, with undergraduate and graduate students, for many years. In his introduction Atkins offers practical advice on the specific demands essays make and the unique opportunities they offer, especially for college courses. The book ends with a note on the writing of essays, furthering the author's contention that reading should not be separated from writing.
Reading Essays continues in the tradition of such definitive texts as Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction. Throughout, Atkins reveals the joy, delight, grace, freedom, and wisdom of “the glorious essay.”
This year is The New Yorker’s eighty-fifth anniversary. To celebrate, over eighty-five weekdays we will turn a spotlight on a notable article, story, or poem from the magazine’s history. The issue containing that day’s selected piece will be made freely available in our digital archive and will remain open until the next day’s selection is posted.
Cynthia Ozick has been called one of “the most accomplished and graceful literary stylists of our time.” Ozick, who is equally acclaimed for her finely honed essays as she is for her penetrating short stories, has contributed twenty-two pieces to The New Yorker since 1977. Growing up as a Jewish girl in the Bronx, she was especially influenced by the novelists Henry James and E. M. Forster. Over the years she has won praise for her ability to articulate the difficulties of the Holocaust generation in modern America. In a 1997 interview with The Atlantic, Ozick argued that writers should not limit themselves to writing only what they know:
I don’t agree with the sentiment ‘write what you know.’ … I think one should write what one doesn’t know. The world is bigger and wider and more complex than our small subjective selves. One should prod, goad the imagination.
And goad our imagination she has, writing short stories and critical essays for the magazine on subjects as diverse as T. S. Eliot, Dostoyevsky, Anne Frank, and Lionel Trilling. Fourteen years ago, James Wood wrote of Ozick that:
Her essays invent language…and this language—busy, rhapsodic, willful—is congruous with the language of her fiction…. her mature work seems a poetry of ecstasy that happens to have been written by a prose writer.
In the short story “The Shawl,” which was partly inspired by a conversation Ozick had with the novelist Jerzy Kozinski, she renders the horror of the Holocaust in spare, meticulous prose. The story, which won the O. Henry prize after its publication, is about a woman named Rosa in a concentration camp who is trying to keep her baby, Magda, hidden from the guards. The only thing that seems to keep Magda quiet is a shawl that she sucks on. When the shawl is taken away, the infant wanders out into the open:
Rosa entered the dark. It was easy to discover the shawl. Stella was heaped under it, asleep in her thin bones. Rosa tore the shawl free and flew—she could fly, she was only air—into the arena. The sunheat murmured of another life, of butterflies in summer. The light was placid, mellow. On the other side of the steel fence, far away, there were green meadows speckled with dandelions and deep-colored violets; beyond them, even further, innocent tiger lilies, tall, lifting their orange bonnets… Sometimes the electricity inside the fence would seem to hum; even Stella said it was only an imagining, but Rosa heard real sounds in the wire: grainy sad voices. The farther she was from the fence, the more clearly the voices crowded at her… The voices told her to hold up the shawl, high; the voices told her to shake it, to whip with it, to unfurl it like a flag. Rosa lifted, shook, whipped, unfurled. Far off, very far, Magda leaned across her air-fed belly, reaching out with the rods of her arms. She was high up, elevated, riding someone’s shoulder… Above the shoulder a helmet glinted. The light tapped the helmet and sparkled it into a goblet. Below the helmet a black body like a domino and a pair of black boots hurled themselves in the direction of the electrified fence. The electric voices began to chatter wildly. “Maamaa, maaamaaa,” they all hummed together…
All at once Magda was swimming through the air. The whole of Magda travelled through loftiness. She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the steel voices went mad in their growling, urging Rosa to run and run to the spot where Magda had fallen from her flight against the electrified fence; but of course Rosa did not obey them. She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot; so she took Magda’s shawl and filled her own mouth with it, stuffed it in and stuffed it in, until she was swallowing up the wolf’s screech and tasting the cinnamon and almond depth of Magda’s saliva; and Rosa drank Magda’s shawl until it dried.
Any favorite New Yorker articles come to mind? Send us an e-mail.