Dispatches | November 15, 2008

I just read an article on newly discovered sea creatures that reminds me of a wonderful little essay by Lewis Thomas. The essay’s titled “Seven Wonders.” Everybody should read it. It appears in Lewis’s collection, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a title that fits rather nicely with our latest List of the Week.

My first encounter with “Seven Wonders” was as an undergraduate at Southeast Missouri State University in a class taught by Dr. Gaskins, an insightful writer and writing center director who years later would chair my thesis committee. I’m grateful he made our class read it. It’s a list essay, and in the spirit of the list, here are three reasons “Seven Wonders” is remarkable. 

For one, it’s a great example of personal writing supported by science (or would it be science decorated with personal writing?) — a tricky negotiation, as anyone who’s graded freshman composition essays will agree. The blending of evidence with opinion is elegant, and the authority steering the piece is unquestionable. Absent altogether are the usual gear-stripping shifts between what the author knows from personal observation and what is known to science at large.

For two, it’s a refreshing example of a literary artifact by a writer who’s into more than just being a writer and doing writerly things. Why refreshing? Because a lot of writers nowadays — even the very good ones — are kicking it FUBU-style. Maybe that sprung from the “write what you know” movement. I’m not sure. In any case, there are a whole lot of poems about writing poetry, and a whole lot of stories about English teachers trying to publish their stories, and a whole lot of essays about writers and about writing. We’re drawing creative nourishment from ourselves, and after a while, it sort of feels like we’ve become characters in a castaway movie, stuck on a raft together and drinking our own pee. In “Seven Wonders,” Thomas shows that a writer with varied interests and separate areas of expertise is invigorating to read. He makes a convincing case that this approach to writing is much healthier overall.  

Reason number three — and this seems like a silly reason “Seven Wonders” is a remarkable list essay — is that it’s a list essay that’s remarkable. There have been other successful attempts at this kind of writing; Brian Arundel’s “Things I Have Lost” over at Brevity is one noteworthy example. Generally, though, most list essays read like responses to exercises in self help books, lacking the curiosity and … well … wonder that makes Thomas’s essay endearing. In just a couple of pages he inspires a feeling that life on Earth is miraculous and special. Bill Bryson, in A Short History of Nearly Everything, inspires the same feeling, only decades later, and in a few hundred more pages. What Thomas achieved is the primary function of the list: rank things concisely, creating structure through categorization. He takes it a step farther with his insight, conveyed through his exquisite knack at explaining.

Got a Seven Wonders list of your own? You know we want to see it.