In chapter four of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (Everyman’s Library)
, we read the wonderful tale of Tom trading for tickets outside church on a Sunday morning. Before the chapter is over we discover those tickets were good for a prize, and what made the scene prickly fun was that a guest celebrity was on hand. Tickets were given for those who had memorized Bible verses, and when the memorizer had collected enough tickets he or she was given — in public — a new Bible. To the unsuspected surprise of the teacher before the celebrity guest, only Tom had enough tickets that day to claim the prize.
The guest asked Tom to show what he had memorized and before long it got uncomfortable because Tom had nothing to say. Eventually he was asked just to name the first two apostles, to which Tom finally had something to say so he blurted out “David and Goliath!”
Wonderful scene for good old Twain. But it is the next words that are about as choice as one can find: “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”
Lines like that are the reader’s prize, and if you happen to keep your favorite lines in a commonplace book, which has been the custom of some (not I), you can pull out treasures — old and new — when you are writing or preaching or, if your memory is particularly agile, in conversation. Someday I hope to find a good reason to use that Twain line.
Who does this the best?
By the way, what do you do when you come across a great line? Do you store them somewhere? Anyone have tips?
Essayists. Why? Essays permit and encourage the good line, even if it leads the author down a slightly different path once the line gets its time.
The best at this is Joseph Epstein, who remembers the best lines from the world’s greatest writers. Pulling lines from the greatest writers animates essayists. Everything reminds essayists of something else or someone else. To be sure, there’s an element of snobbery or where-can-I-get-an-even-better-line among the best essayists. Many essayists come to mind but I’ll mention only a few, though I’m not saying they are snobs: E.B. White, James Thurber, Phillip Larkin, Nancy Mairs, Joan Gerber, and Samuel Johnson.
The form goes back, I suppose, to folks like Plutarch, who seems never to have retired, or even earlier to Cicero, who wrote — with one eye over his shoulder — some of his stuff in his villa in Tusculum, but many of us would say the modern familiar essay got its new life from Montaigne, who wrote in retirement in France. Each of them had prodigious memories, or access to a commonplace book of some sort where they stored their favorite lines. Which reminds me of something Montaigne once said: “Truth and reason are common to everyone, and no more belong to the man who first spoke them than to the man who says them later.” Which is exactly why folks keep commonplace books, so they can “say them later.”
These folks write on common topics and dive in and one thing leads to another. It’s all a game of “which reminds me” but which somehow hangs together into a pleasurable, intellectual jaunt. Essayists don’t write logical treatises. They don’t footnote because, of course, it would both clutter the page and remind readers already what they (are supposed to) know (and asking reveals ignorance, so one doesn’t ask). Footnoting an essay is like a baseball player pulling out a personal notebook after a hit and jotting down his accomplishment.
Our friends the essayists take a walk with an idea and see where it takes them in the vast stores of their memories. They are, we have to remind ourselves, going somewhere but where they are going isn’t mapped out from the beginning. Once again, I am reminded of something Montaigne said of what the essayist is seeking to do: “I put forward,” Montaigne confesses in his essay on prayer, “formless and unresolved notions … not to establish the truth but to seek it.” Essays are for seekers.
Alan Jacobs is a master of the essay form even if his are not always in the “familiar” style, and he’s about the only evangelical Christian essaying here and there that I know of. His newest book, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant
, just out from Eerdmans, binds into a tidy little book, graced with an impressionist painting cover, essays of his recently published in other places. Only two of the pieces have not been published before; most were new to me.
It’s a splendid book, strolling in and out of the familiar and the review essay, taking on such topics as the classical subject of friendship and Rowling’s novels and Brian McLaren, and I hope you can read it. Jacobs has mastered the “which reminds me” game. His essay on Tolkien is about “invention” and he wanders from Auden to Sir Philip Sidney to Spenser to Erasmus to C.S. Lewis to Eliot to Michael Chabon … and manages to be reminded of a line from each.