“We didn’t have much of a sense of a nonfiction canon when I was in school. I often felt like I had walked into an organizational meeting for a new political party. Our conversations in class were about who we were and what we stood for and what we should call ourselves.”
“What is an essay, after all, if we can see it working as a propulsive force in fiction or poetry? Can we call the essay its own genre if it’s so promiscuously versatile? Can we call any genre a ‘genre’ if, when we read it from different angles and under different shades of light, the differences between it and something else start becoming indistinguishable?”
"You have to create the world that you want to exist in as an artist. You create your own audience, and your own community of peers, and in some ways you create your own forebears as well."
"What we respond to in essays is the intimacy of how they sound: the voice of the essayist, in other words, as it attempts to replicate the activity of a mind in the midst of considering something. It's the sound of an individual consciousness rolling over the folds of an idea or memory or emotion. It's the sound of privacy, in other words. And the essay gives us access to that."
"I like asking 'What if?'"
"Art is either good or it’s bad, but it can’t ever be fraudulent. It can be insincere or it can be shallow, it can be unfulfilling or mediocre or derivative or even offensive, but I don’t believe that it can ever be fraudulent, because art is not a commodity and it’s not a moral pact. Or at least it shouldn’t be."
“Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.”
“Perhaps the best way to talk about a place like Yucca Mountain is to use our own waste—to approach the subject through the other kind of garbage that we are accumulating in our culture. . .revealing just how toxic the everydayness of our lives is.”
“I think that it’s art’s job to lure us into terrain that is going to confuse us or make us feel uncomfortable, perhaps opening us up to possibilities in the world that we had not earlier considered. I think we have to be fooled like that before we’re really able to wonder.”
“When I'm called an &%$#*! by a major media outlet, or a jerk or a liar or a hack by others, it's clear that these reviewers are reading the persona in the book as me: that they think I'm actually that character. And for me at least, this proves that we approach nonfiction from a much different place than we do fiction or poetry or drama: we seem to have no room for metaphor in our interpretation of this genre. We expect the ‘I’ in a nonfiction text to be an autobiographical ‘I’. . .”
“Plutarch is far less concerned with consistency or with presenting us with a morally invariable persona than he is with digging into ideas because they interest him—even if those ideas that he’s embracing in one text are completely contradictory to his ideas in another. . . . He was a natural born essayist, in other words, a wanderer through paradoxes and into the sticking points of his own mind.”
“I tell this story to my students sometimes and I can feel their minds conspiring to throw me out the window. . .”
“I’m trying to track an alternative to a tradition, but an alternative that seems to have been with us since the very beginning.”