One day last month, while visiting Ben in Glasgow, Cindy and I had a couple of hours to kill while Ben ran errands so we visited the Mitchell Library in the city centre. It's a grand old Carnegie library which has survived renovations, additions and a major freeway interchange being built directly in front of the entrance. It's still standing, it's open to the public and it's air conditioned. Three types of glorious right there.
We made our way to the 4th floor, where the bulk of the non-fiction books are located. It's an impressive collection, spanning multiple rooms. Each room was covered in deep red carpet, with the stacks in the middle of the room, long, low shelves of oversized volumes ringing the perimeter and sturdy wooden tables and comfy chairs in between. Cindy hunkered down at a table with her maps and guidebooks while I perused the stacks.
I love browsing the stacks at a new (to me) library. Every row tells a story. What do the curators and patrons value? How old is the bulk of the collection? What is being added? Where is the philately section and what will I find there? The books don't even need to be in English. I've spent wonderful hours in Faro and Rotterdam and other libraries where the best I can do is look at the pictures. It's still fun.
I returned to our table with two books: one on funky backyard sheds (man builds a shed as an art studio, others ask him to build their shed, now he's a shed designer and author - 3 stars ); and a slim volume called Understanding the Essay.
As I may have mentioned already, I love essays. But until I read the introduction to this book, I didn't feel connected to the term. I usually tell people I like non-fiction, but I should be more specific. I like personal essays. Stories about people I've never met doing interesting things, quite often with events not going to plan. Bill Bryson getting horribly sunburnt in Perth. Hunter Thompson following an election campaign. Pretty much anything David Sedaris does in life.
Anyway, this book about essays is really more a discussion of famous essayists and their work. And the first person covered is David Foster Wallace. Never heard of him. Oh, he's American and of my generation. Interesting. Oh, here's an excerpt of one of his pieces. I'm laughing louder than I should, especially in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. I whipped out my phone and placed a hold one of his essay collections back home for when we return.
We're back home now and I've been hooting, guffawing and snorting my way through A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, a collection of essays from the 1990's. I highly recommend that you give it a read. If nothing else, the time capsule effect of reading an essay about the impact of TV on fiction writing will seem charming and quaint (and tragically accurate) in the world of Instagram and TikTok.
One of the points made about Wallace (or is it Foster Wallace? I'm never sure) is that he writes long and he loves footnotes. Hard yes to both. Some of his magazine articles are longer than most magazines and his footnotes can span multiple pages. Adds to his charm, I think.
They aren't all funny stories. One or two are over my head, if I'm honest. And one confirms that I'll never willingly watch a David Lynch film. But the book is worth reading for the essays on the Illinois State Fair and his one and only Caribbean cruise. Trust me on this.
PS - I took his book to the beach and was reading it on a bench when two women walked by and asked for the time. Then they asked what I was reading and exclaimed, oh, David Foster Wallace! in a way that made it sound like I was the only person who didn't know about him. So this entire essay might be old news for you.
As I see it, that's an opportunity. I'll bet you have a favourite author or essayist who you love but you never recommend because "everyone knows them." I'll bet I don't. I tend to find three or four writers and go miles deep on their work. So let me know - who should I read next?