Friday, January 7, 2011

Essay Prize

Are you familiar with the Essay Prize, a yearly prize for "the work that best exemplifies the art of essaying—inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and change...the activity of a text, rather than its status as a dispensary of information"? The current nominees are up if you're interested, and you should probably expect a flurry of blogging about these texts over the next few months here on Essay Daily.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Alain de Botton's "A Week at the Airport"

I picked this book up a few weeks ago since the project seemed to parallel certain aspects of a book I'm working on: de Botton is paid to spend a week in the London airport as a writer-in-residence with full access to the facilities (he goes into secured areas, sees how luggage is moved/organized by a system of conveyors, witnesses 80,000 meals being prepared in a day, etc) and a writing desk in the middle of the main terminal. Through his explorations --broken into approaches, departures, airside, and arrivals--de Botton makes a strong case for considering the unconsidered, looking for art and beauty in a place where most of us want to spend as little time as possible. He argues that the airport is just as much of a destination as, well, our actual destinations.

Although the book, in many ways, accomplishes everything I like to see happen in writing about place, A Week at the Airport didn't go nearly deep enough into its subject matter. The book is a slim 107 pages, and there are A LOT of pictures, putting it closer to a long essay than anything. This is fine (I'm not trying to advocate for books being longer for the sake of feeling more like a book, or for getting my money's worth or anything along those lines), but it seems that a lot of the writing here comes up just short of what would really make it interesting. For example, there's a reference to the ways faith and God are necessary to the act of flight that is explained in about half a page and should have gone on for far longer, and could have easily been the heart of the book if de Botton had wanted to go there. It's like if Let us Now Praise Famous Men was a fifty-page essay (including Evans' photos) describing the farmer's field and house. There would be value in Agee's description and characterization of place, but we would miss out on the moments where the writer's voice overwhelms any actual "plot" and goes into the obsessive/frustrated/manic territory that keeps me returning to the book.

A Week at the Airport is a good model of structure for the place essay (he does do a good job of making the book move forward even when 80% of it is physical description), but it's also a cautionary tale for what happens when we stay too close to the surface.