The Blagger's Guide To...The Return Of The Essay

'The perfect size and shape for brilliant ideas'

*Launched on Thursday by Tom Cramer and Lucasta Miller, a former deputy literary editor of The Independent, Notting Hill Editions is a new publishing imprint that plans to do nothing less than bring about the return of the essay.

With the first UK publication of Roland Barthes's Mourning Diary, about his day-to-day life after the death of his mother, along with George Perec's essay series Thoughts of Sorts (introduced by Margaret Drabble) and six other titles, the imprint plans to "cover an ever- changing spectrum of topics" in essay form.

*So what is an essay? Dr Johnson's dictionary described it as "a short, undigested piece", although this is a narrow definition. Originally, the word comes from the French "essayer", meaning "to try". An assay, in chemistry, is the analysis of an ore or drug to draw conclusions about its components. Essentially, then, an "essay" is a trying out of ideas.

*"Essays are the perfect size and shape for those brilliant self-contained ideas that don't fit into longer books," Margaret Drabble tells the Blagger. "They are like extended newspaper columns but without the need for topicality. They can be timeless and as eccentric and personal as they like. Georges Perec's essays are wonderfully eccentric and peculiar, as are his novels. He is fascinated by objects and lists and the strange little places and spaces that nobody else notices. He was a great gamesplayer – he did jigsaws, invented crosswords for a newspaper, played word games. His essays are a treasure house of very French oddities."

*The form had its heyday in the late 19th century, when the periodical press offered space for the likes of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Carlyle's Signs of the Times, or Arnold's Culture and Anarchy. In 1992, the late John Gross wrote about the demise of the essay in the late 20th century. "The demands of journalism have pushed writers who might once have set up as essayists further and further in the direction of reportage, travel-writing, instant comment," he wrote. "There is less and less time and scope for the essay." However, Lucasta Miller denies that the essay is in the doldrums, pointing out the popularity of work by John Lanchester, Adam Phillips, Alain de Botton, Geoff Dyer, Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi.

*The essay is perhaps the only literary genre to be directly attributable to one person: Lord Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, who published his Essais in 1580. Essentially his personal thoughts on his life and times, he initially thought of his "essays" as chapters of a book.

*The earliest essay in Notting Hill Editions' online essay library (for which it is calling for suggestions for additions) is On Old Age by Cicero, written in about 45BC. The most recent is Geoff Dyer's What You Can Do With a Hat, which was published in 2005.

*Readers of the Blagger's Guide can enjoy a special discount on books from Notting Hill Editions, paying only £10 per copy by following this link: www.nottinghilleditions.com/independent. You can also read Jonathan Keates's essay on his passion for beautiful old travel guides, The Portable Paradise, on our website, here: http://ind.pn/joe1jo.

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