Fighting the noon-day devil

Eclectic essays hit the spot

The verb "essay" means "to attempt," but the noun "essay" might conjure anxious memories of your Grade 10 English final exam and send you running. Too bad. Fighting the Noonday Devil, a book of essays, is an eclectic, engaging book of deep reflections and personal stories from First Things senior editor, Rusty Reno.

Unlike most non-fiction books, which usually sustain an argument or a thought over a few hundred pages, a personal essay has to pack the salient points into a dozen-or-so pages. Reno's essays are like a magnifying glass over fairly narrow topics. He looks closely at some small things, ruminates on them, then moves on to something else. He writes about the cultural malaise of endlessly waiting, offers an illuminating perspective on Jack Kerouac's novel, On The Road, and argues for a recovery of moral development as a key aspect to true education. On the personal side, he has a gorgeous essay about working on an oil rig and another about a near-disaster while climbing in the Alps. And combining the personal and theological, he writes about his conversion to Catholicism and his family's blending of Christianity and Judaism.

I might as well confess my bias: the personal essay is my favourite literary genre. An essay is to a book what a short story is to a novel: compact, clear, narrow in focus, lively, risky, able to hold my attention. And a book of good essays is guaranteed to be an eclectic mix.

I disagree with a lot of Reno's politics, but as the subtitle suggests, these essays really are personal and theological. I have tried to serve what is real with words rather than try to dissect it with ideas," he says in his introduction, seeking to write with the disposition of love and loyalty."

Reno's a sharp, opinionated thinker, and a beautiful writer. If you're convinced that essays really aren't for you, this book won't be an easy place to start. But if you're a fan of the personal essay and masterful essayists like Alan Jacobs or Wendell Berry, this will certainly be your cup of tea.

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About the author