Great books, the best books, almost always sneak up on me out of obscurity. In 2020, the best book I read was James and Deborah Fallows’ Our Towns, which seemed to come out of nowhere to sweep me into the skies over the country. In 2021, it was Joe Posnanski’s The Baseball 100 that caught me by surprise. I read the former early in 2021, and it remained my favorite book of the year, despite dozens of book I read afterward. I came to Posnanski’s book late in 2021, and it beat out dozens of books that I’d read before it that year.
Midway through 2022, I have just finished reading A Place to Read by Michael Cohen. It is the 49th book I’ve read so far this year and it is also the best.
A Place to Read is a collection of essays by a retired professor of literature. Essay collections, I have been told again and again, are poison at the box office. And yet the essay has become my favorite form of writing–both as a writer and reader. Good essays are well-written, and yet feel natural. Think E. B. White. Cohen’s essays do more than that: that appeal to me on a personal level. He writes about thing that I enjoy. He writes about things I have written about. And he does a far better job than I could do.
The table of contents reads like an advertisement tailored specifically to me: “A Place to Read,” “Notebooks,” “A Fountain Pen of Good Repute,” “Flying Lessons,” “Selling My Library,” “On Not Being E.B. White.” Even when Cohen writes on subjects that are not in my personal wheelhouse, he writes with such charm and conviction that I not only enjoy the piece, but it makes me more interested in the subject than I thought I could be. Take, for instance, his essay on golf, “A Round with Friends.” Reading hat piece not only made me wish I enjoyed golf more, but afterward, I jotted the following in my idea file: “write post on my experience with golf.” Cohen is clever, too. HIs essay on golf is made up of 18 parts.
I didn’t want the book to end. I kept checking to see how much was left. And even as I finished the book, I wanted more. A good essayist is a rare artist and I collect them as one might gather treasure. Sitting down to write this essay, I lamented that Cohen hadn’t included more essays in his book.
I went online to check the publication date of A Place to Read (2014) and was surprised to find that Cohen had published a second essay collection in late 2020, this one titled, And Other Essays. Relief washed over me. For a little while, at least, I can continue reading Cohen’s essays.
It is an enviable power that a writer like Cohen has, one that makes me want to read more. It is even more enviable when you consider he is not writing thrillers or romance novel, but rather the humble, lovable essay.
Written on July 13, 2022.
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