"For more than twenty years, I wrote a personal essay every three months for the American Scholar magazine. Each time I did so I wondered if the readers of the magazine didn't pick it up and, with a half-exasperated sign, mutter to themselves, 'Him again' to be followed, if they decide to read the essay anyway, by such unhappy (for me) exclamations as 'Give him the hook!' 'Enough already!' and (most terrifying of all) 'Who cares!' Where, the question is, does the personal essayist acquire the effrontery to believe — and, more astonishing still, to act on the belief — that his or her interests, concerns, quirks, passions matter to anyone else in the world? If you happen to write personal essays, it's rather an embarrassing question. The answer, at least for me, comes in part out of two utterly contradictory beliefs. The first is my complete confidence that I am, in the larger scheme of things, an altogether insignificant and fairly ordinary being; the second is my belief that, even in my insignificance and ordinariness — possibly even because of it — what I think is worthy of interest. Another contradiction: I am a man committed to understanding the world and how it operates, all the while knowing that I haven't much chance in succeeding in this endeavor. What I do know is that the world is too rich, too various, too multifaceted and many-layered for a fellow incapable of an hour's sustained thought to hope to comprehend it. Still, through the personal essay, I can take up one or another of its oddities, unresolved questions, or occasional larger subjects, hoping against hope to chip away at true knowledge by obtaining some modicum of self-knowledge.

" :'The world exists,' said Mallarme, 'in order to become a book.' For the personal essayist, the first use for experience is for it to be translated into essays. In struggling to make sense of personal experience, the essayist must also fight off adopting the notion of being in any way a star, at center stage. By its very nature, the essay is modest in its assaults upon the world. It is modest, to begin with, in being an attempt (essayer, in French, of course, means just that: to attempt) and, to end with, in being content not to answer anywhere near all the questions the essayist's own work, let alone the world, raises. Like the painter Vermeer, the personal essayist is most profound, at least for me, when his intentions are most modest.

"An element of confession resides in the personal essay, but, in my view, it ought not to dominate. Confession leads to excessive self-dramatization, and behind most literary work in which self-dramatization plays a key role is the plea, not always entirely out in the open but always hovering in the background, for the sensitivity, soulfulness, and sweet virtue of the essayist. The etiquette for confession in the essay, again in my view, ought to be the same as that for confession in religion: be brief, be blunt, be gone.

"What the essayist confronting a subject usually has to confess is that he or she is not quite like other men or women — but then, it turns out, neither are most men and women like other men and women. That seems to me perhaps the chief value of the personal essayist: by displaying his individuality, he reminds readers of their own individuality. If he succeeds at his task, he also reminds them that their own lives exist in a world never dreamed of by social science, journalism, or any sort of academic thought."