The nearly 80 essays in “Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction” are as short as pieces you’d find on the Internet, ranging in length from roughly a blog post to a think piece.
But you wouldn’t find them on the Internet — at least, not easily.
To be fair, some of them were published on the Internet originally, on literary sites such as Brevity, the Rumpus and McSweeney’s. But these pieces aren’t clickbait. They didn’t go viral.
These are literary essays — some with a capital L, essentially prose poems. They traffic in subtle suggestion; in imagery and symbols; in showing, not telling. They’re all different. Somehow seeing this vast range of form and style in such bite-size servings underscores the enduring beauty and value of the sort of writing that rarely gets posted on Facebook.
“How much of the world are we missing, circle upon circle, ripples in the pond?” wonders Cheryl Merrill in “Wild Life,” an essay about our relationship with animals. “Perhaps instead of placing ourselves at the center, we should move to the edges where our skills are low and our learning curve high. We should extinguish our fire and sit in the darkness listening, really listening.”
In their understated ways, these pieces address big topics. Jane Brox’s lovely and unnerving “Star Light, Star Bright” connects the night sky to human loneliness and vulnerability. Jericho Parms’ “Red” turns the color into a metaphor for love and pain. Less surprisingly, “White,” by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, tackles race, but not in ways you’d expect.
The authors include maybe a dozen I’d heard of and others I will now seek out. A few have Minnesota ties, including Barrie Jean Borich, Anika Fajardo and Patricia Hampl, whose “Reading” starts out seeming highfalutin and then, with a sudden twist, turns funny and frank and utterly relatable.
Editor Judith Kitchen, who died last November of cancer, was an admired master of the form (she coedited two other collections of short essays). Her piece, titled “Who,” manages in less than one page to touch on childhood, light, mundane chores and the countless forgotten people who spent their lives performing them.
Co-editor Dinah Lenney also contemplates mortality — specifically that of her dying father — in an essay that mingles remembered facts with imagined futures.
OK, I take that back about the Internet. At least one piece has some genuine viral potential. Greg Glazner writes about going to a minor-league game and getting hit in the crotch by a foul ball. As he tells the story, it is — very deliberately, let me stress — hilarious. Reading it, I wiped away tears of mirth and sympathy. I could see posting it on Facebook. Preferably not with a video.
Katy Read is a writer for the Star Tribune.