REVIEW | How We Speak To One Another
In front of you lies a choice: to read or not to read How We Speak To One Another. To not read this book would be to continue your life in a straight line, doing things as you have always done. To read it, however, would be to diverge wildly from your path, to do the unexpected, to jump blindly into something mysterious and emerge from it, scathed, and carrying a longer reading list than you began with.
How We Speak To One Another is a collection of 47 essays taken from the web journal Essay Daily and turned into a beautiful, physical, hold-in-your-hand-and-smell-the-pages object. The book is edited by 1) Ander Monson author of Letter From A Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries (Graywolf Press) and Essay Daily’s Editor and 2) Craig Reinbold, Managing Editor of Essay Daily from 2013-2016 and whose writing appears in numerous journals including Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, New England Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast and Brevity. These two, along with Coffee House Press have put this collection of essays into my hand (and possibly yours too!) You can click here to find it or you can go to Essay Daily and skim around for a taste.
Before I ramble on about the text inside the book, I’d like to take a moment and admire the cover, designed by Kyle G. Hunter. It’s got 47 avatars, each in a different position of flag semaphore. Each author has their own avatar, their own place in the flag semaphore alphabet and just about everyone who saw me carrying it demanded a second look. It’s not obvious what the figures are at first and it takes a moment for your brain to process the patterns, to notice that there is something coherent in the flags (is it saying something?) and that the book is delivering on promises before you even open it.
How We Speak To One Another doesn’t feel like a best-of collection, but rather a smattering of what the website offers. Monson, in his introductory essay, calls the collection a “starter kit” (7). Most of the essays are meditations of one author on another author’s work. Some read like familiar critical work, like “On Tom Junod’s ‘Falling Man’” by Steven Church. Others feel a little more personal like Danielle Cadena Deulen’s “On the Virtues of Drowning.” In veering from one to another the book, as a whole, finds its energy. The heart of these essays lies in the revelation of a preoccupation of the author through their examination of another’s text.
“I admit I’ve been obsessed with death since 2011 when my brother and mother died within six months of each other,” begins Alison Hawthorne Deming. “Enter Julian Barnes with a wry grin on his seasoned face, holding a copy of his two-hundred-and-fifty-page essay on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of” (133).
“I am guilty of what many people would consider excessive rereading… There is an essay I have returned to so frequently that some time ago, even its presence on paper ceased to satisfy me. How to carry it with me, then? An odd solution – I took a picture of one of its passages,” says V.V. Ganeshananthan (33). And yes, in case you are wondering, the picture is included in the book.
There are two graphic essays by Kristen Radtke and Danica Novgorodoff and a script written for two characters named Q and A by Ken Chen. Unexpected? Yes. Pleasantly so? Again yes. The uniqueness of these forms in How We Speak To One Another challenges preconceived notions about our modes of communication. I mean, this is a book of essays that one can find on the Internet (not all of them, though – some are book exclusive!) Here, then, are some questions for you: What changes when literature jumps off the screen and lands in your hand? What happens when you’ve read ten essays in a row and you come to Meehan Crist’s “10 Thoughts on Elision” in list form or the “E-Mail from Bonnie J. Rough” about how she doesn’t have the time to write an essay for the blog but quotes literary scholarship on Montaigne to justify turning down a solicitation of work? What if I wrote this book review with emojis? How do you absorb an original work through a textual/visual/dramatic response to it? How do we speak to one another?
Consider the state of the essay itself, as explained by Robert Atwan in the “The Assault on Prose”: “One enduring effect of [New Criticism] was its relegation of the essay to a minor or even subliterary genre, a relegation that led to the genre’s rapid disappearance from serious literary study” (39). This assessment feels honest. How often do we seek out essays for our “reading pleasure?” What visceral reactions [read: nightmares] do we have when we hear the dreaded “E-word” as Atwan calls it. Do you have flashbacks to unread school assignments? Two to three pages of 12-point bullshit? 20 pages of incomprehensible text with no space between the lines?
Please don’t let the word “essay” scare you away from this book. Here’s how Deulen describes them: “They begin in impulse and end where you don’t expect” (170). These are essays in their most glorious form. There are 47 surprise endings. There are 47 vulnerable narrators and 47 (roughly) outside readings suggested by the obsessions of the authors in this book. How We Speak To One Another shares a core belief with Atwan, that the essay is “experiencing a revival” (39) and you are invited.
These essays are not instructing you on how to read a particular work, but rather they are saying here’s how I read it, here’s how it changed me. Thomas Mira Y Lopez’s piece opens: “I first read Donald Hall’s ‘Out the Window’ in the New Yorker a year ago at 5:30 am” (163). There is nothing authoritarian about the essay (or any of the others) but simply a reaching out, a sharing of experience. As Mira Y Lopez describes the subway on the morning he reads Hall’s essay, I feel guided, not forced, not instructed. I want to find a copy of “Out the Window” and compare my own reaction to Mira Y Lopez’s and I am not worried that I’ll be wrong.
So let me tell you how I read this book: not in one or two or even three sittings. There were at least five or maybe ten. Hell, when I re-read it, I’ll need 47. I will put it on the coffee table, the back of the toilet, the beside stand, the backseat of my car. There is too much to digest without putting it down for a while, returning to the world in which you and I live and noticing how deeply I breath, how persistent failure is, how constant death and birth are, noticing how my age will always define me and how much I look forward to baseball season every spring. After you read this book, I hope you’ll disagree with at least one thing I’ve said.
How We Speak To One Another will wait for you, patiently, to return. It will not judge you for re-reading, it will not tell anyone if you skip to the end, it will not care if it takes you a year to get through it.
In her essay On Losing Yourself, Danica Novgorodoff asks “What about a lost in which you lose yourself within yourself?” (102). How We Speak To One Another is here to help you out of this lostness or to be lost with you if you aren’t ready to be found yet. It is offering you a hand. You are welcome to take it or not, but in my professional opinion on being lost and alone, I advise that you do.