Let Us Speak of the Essay

(Short talk originally given at the NonfictioNow conference 2010)

Let us speak, for a moment, of media mail, being the most humiliating class of service offered by the US Postal Service. While it doesn't betray the sender's or recipient's physical inadequacies like service classified as "free matter for the blind or other handicapped persons," which cannot include handwritten or typed letters in addition to Braille without incurring the fee for first-class postage, media mail is the steerage class of mail, something slow, surface, barely moving, seated behind coach. Originating in 1938 as "book rate," to "encourage the flow of educational materials through the mail," media mail should not be confused with "bound printed matter", "library mail", "parcel select", "standard mail", "priority," or "first class." It is not sealed from inspection. It is by far the cheapest way to transport your boxes of esoteric books to Arizona from Michigan if you don't mind them getting a little bit scuffed up and taking forever to arrive.

Media eligible for media mail include: "books, including books issued to supplement other books, of at least eight printed pages, consisting wholly of reading matter or scholarly bibliography, or reading matter with incidental blank spaces for notations and containing no advertising matter other than incidental announcements of books." You may also include "16-mm or narrower width films, positive prints in final form for viewing only, and catalogs of such films of 24 pages or more (at least 22 of which are printed) excepting films and film catalogs sent to or from commercial theaters." Eligible, too, are: printed music; "printed objective test materials and their accessories used by or on behalf of educational institutions to test ability, aptitude, achievement, interests, and other mental and personal qualities;" "sound recordings, including incidental announcement of recordings and guides or scripts" (this also includes video recordings and player piano rolls); playscripts and manuscripts for books, periodicals, and music; and "printed educational reference charts designed to instruct or train individuals for improving or developing their capabilities. Each chart must be a single printed sheet of information designed for educational reference. The information on the chart, which may be printed on one or both sides of the sheet, must be conveyed primarily by graphs, diagrams, tables, or other nonnarrative matter. An educational reference chart is normally but not necessarily devoted to one subject. A chart on which the information is conveyed primarily by textual matter in a narrative form does not qualify."

Issues of the weirdly hegemonic magazine Boys' Life from the 1980s include advertisements for the sort of gadgetry that appealed to boys from the 80s who aspired to be straight and square, helpful, clean, obedient, and reverent: lock blade knives, home taxidermy kits, counterfeiting machines, book safes, rock tumblers, private detection kits and licenses, the colossal letdown of X-ray spex. Brine shrimp masquerading as wet macaques in their sea kingdoms with crowns and thrones. These are technically advertisements—their purpose was once to advertise—but they no longer function do so. You can no longer buy any of these items from these vendors. The advertisements advertise something else: the past, who the advertisers thought boys who subscribed to Boys' Life wanted to be. Now they are ephemera, Americana, documentary, history. The unchanging text of Boys' Life has stayed about the same: new issues focus on how to make the best regatta boat, tales of high adventure, sports stars, and American Idol runner-up David Archuleta. So we wonder: can we ship old issues of Boys' Life media mail to Arizona, or must they go first class? This is a question for Sherry Suggs, Manager, in the Mailing Standards office of the US Postal Service, who, in her series of customer support rulings available on the heroically-named Postal Explorer, clarifies gaps and overlaps, and makes new postal law. In 2009 she ruled that old issues of Boys' Life or Dragon Magazine, or comic books that contain advertisements, even if they no longer serve as advertisements, may not be sent via media mail. Original intention matters. The sender sender and recipient matter, too, in that the braille copies of Boys' Life I bought recently from a library in California were incorrectly sent as "free matter for the blind or other handicapped persons," because the recipient has to be blind, and I am not.

These rules make up one small part of a colossal, circuitous system—a labyrinth, not made intentionally to repel or cage, but an accidental one. I mean to say that the world is a collection of labyrinths like this. The more closely you look at anything the more tangled it becomes. My essays—and the essays I love—start with a question in hand at the entry to one of these labyrinths. Some you get out of. Some you don't. Only very rarely is there is a trace of a minotaur, and if we ever encounter it, the minotaur turns out to be us. That is, another essayist, caught in his own snarled sentences, balding, aging—for we essayists are Gandalflike as you know, wizened, great-bearded, grey or white, dropping pearls of wisdom behind our mouldering bodies and clothes as we stride into the rift or into the sea, where we will in time be snatched by balrogs and transformed, or swept away, respectively. If you find another essayist in her labyrinth it is customary to leave a gift of food, a pop tart perhaps, or a glass of port.

The basic mission of the postal service is, to quote from many of their internal documents, "To bind the nation together through the correspondence of the people." This is also the unstated purpose of the essayist: we explore in order to bind, we spelunk to correspond, we track correspondences and convergences, we make public, we interact and intersect with the journeys of the Nicholson Bakers, the Barbara Hurds, the Robert Burtons, the Anne Fadimans, as we unwind our spools of thread behind our tracks. We are after pleasure. It is the hacker pleasure. The dungeon-delver pleasure. The flea market browser pleasure. It is a slow pleasure, this, the essayist's, living in an age of quickness, of nanosecond responses to digital queries. The essayist's pleasure is in distraction, not the book we ordered up on Kindle, but the ones next to it on the shelf we used to visit, the links that Google might suggest on the very last page of results, the information kept on card catalog cards now used notepaper in the university library. Some of us scrawl numbers on the front. The essayist reads the back, the fragment cut in half and half again.

The winding of the essayist down the labyrinth mirrors the unwinding of the entrails of the body in the zombie movie. It simulates the electric movement down the pathways of this particular brain, circuit by circuit, idea by idea, returning, trimming, revising, rethinking, and in this way the essay is both simulation and simulacrum of the brain, the body, and the world. We see it in the algorithmic workings of the computer. And if we open that computer up to look inside the case we find it again—the labyrinth, the circuits traced on the motherboard, the skein of SCSI cables. We should marvel at it before we close it up again.

I will leave you with some facts—open doors—that you may follow up if you so choose:

White canes may be mailed free, but other colored canes cannot.

Disease-free queen bees may be accompanied by up to eight attendants by air.

Honeybees without queen bees must be sent surface mail only.

Scorpions may be sent only by surface mail.

Adult chickens must be sent by express mail.

Adult turkeys, guinea fowl, doves, pigeons, pheasants, partridges, and quail, as well as ducks, geese, and swans sent by Express Mail...are mailable, if the number of birds per parcel follows the manufacturer limits, and if each bird weighs more than 6 ounces.