The latest collection from a professor who attempts to renew and extend the legacy of the personal essay.
Among Madden’s credits are his co-editorship of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (2015), in which the contributors honored their debt to the essayist who established the form in the 16th century. In one of the shorter essays here, the author makes offhand mention of that project, describing how he was thwarted in his attempts to visit Montaigne’s tower and library because the site was closed on the day he made his pilgrimage. His plea that he “was a disciple of Montaigne” fell on deaf ears, and he was forced to remain outside, wandering the grounds, which he later decided had been all to the good, at least for the purpose of the resulting essay: “There’s something appropriate about being stymied in an essayistic quest, because essays were never about completing things; they distrust the very notion of tidy endings. Much better, it seems to me now, that I missed the dusty tower and instead strolled the grounds with the gardener, who, like the Great Man he and I serve, contains within him the entire human condition.” And so it goes with these essays, which even the essayist suggests are arbitrary in their organization and inconsequential in their purpose yet contain many elements of the human condition. Madden writes a lot about writing and thinking, challenging readers to discover just what any of these pieces is really about. In “Freewill,” which invokes the wisdom of the rock band Rush, the author suggests to readers that “there is no whole to be comprehended, no essential destination,” and later asks, “Where was I going with all this? I’m not sure.” Throughout, the writing is playful and marked by humility, with Madden often inviting readers—and other writers—into the narrative.
A capable collection of writing that continually reviews itself.