Monday, December 20, 2010

Observations on Essays, Blogging, and Reading for Life

by Stephen Malpezzi, Professor and Lorin and Marjorie Tiefenthaler Distinguished Chair in Real Estate

Regular readers of Wisconsin Real Estate Viewpoint have read some of my missives about “Reading for Life.” Some of you may have even downloaded the very long list (pdf) I’ve posted at my web page on selected teaching materials.

Given my research and teaching interests, it’s no surprise that most of the readings I’ve pointed to relate to real estate, economics, cities, globalization, etc. Today let me step out of my usual zone.

This morning reading The New York Times (paper version! I’m old school) I ran across a short article playing off Sarah Bakewell’s new book, How To Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

The article, “Conversation Across Centuries With the Father of All Bloggers” (Patricia Cohen, published December 17, 2010) caught my eye because I remember reading some 16th century Montaigne essays many, many years ago. Certainly there were short-form writers before Montaigne – many classical authors from Greek and Roman days, Pauline Epistles and Montaigne’s near-contemporary Francis Bacon come to mind. Nevertheless, Montaigne is considered by some as the father of the essay as we know it today.

Although I’m not sure there is a water-tight definition of the essay. Subjects are all over the map; it’s usually (not always!) a shorter piece; and an essayist often puts forward a personal point of view. Why, it seems I am writing a short essay now! You’re an essayist too – if you’re a current or past student at Wisconsin Real Estate, you surely wrote a number of personal essays explaining why you’d make a great addition to the Badger student body, the Wisconsin School of Business, and perhaps the Graaskamp Center.

As the title of Cohen’s article suggests, one of the points that Bakewell makes in her book is that the essay is the precursor of the blog. Short, personal, and written on a variety of topics. Sounds like the Wisconsin Real Estate Viewpoint to me!

So it’s time to add some of my favorite essayists to Reading for Life.

One of the great things about the internet is that many of the great essayists of the past is that their work is now in the public domain and available for free. I like aphorisms, so I spent a little time browsing George Bernard Shaw’s essay Maxims for Revolutionists. What I like about Shaw’s aphorisms is how he turns the way I usually think upside down. For example, in the Tradition and Innovation paper I briefly discuss the “golden rule” approach to some ethical questions; but Shaw the economist reminds me that there are exceptions: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” Consumer sovereignty!

We just had a very successful Graaskamp on the Road in New York, which brings to mind another favorite, E.B. White’s 1949 essay, This is New York. Part paean, but also very clear-headed and realistic.

White, like many other top essayists, often wrote for The New Yorker. One could spend weeks reading great essays from this single source – James Thurber, Joyce Carol Oates, Calvin Trillin and John McPhee come to mind.

James Graaskamp himself was no mean essayist – Principles of Real Estate Development and A Rational Approach to Feasibility Analysis are among his works that fit the form.

Perhaps thinking about the great essayists will help me be a better blogger. The next time I make it over to the reference section of Memorial Library I’ll have a look at Tracy Chevalier’s 1997 Encyclopedia of the Essay.

But in the meantime I downloaded a free version of Montaigne’s collected essays, to browse through when I need a break from grading. Leave a comment with your favorite essayist!

Photo by Djof via Flickr

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