On the Shoreline of Knowledge
“Chris Arthur is among the very best essayists in the English language today. He is ever mindful of the genre’s long literary tradition and understands—as did his great predecessors—that the genuine essay is grounded in the imagination, in our quest for art and beauty, as deeply as is poetry or painting. Every young writer who wants to experience the creative possibilities of the essay form must read Chris Arthur—it isn’t an option.”—Robert Atwan, series editor, The Best American Essays
“A remarkable demonstration of the kind of talented free association that characterizes the personal essay at its most imaginative."—Vivian Gornick, author, The Men in My Life
“Chris Arthur writes the kind of essays you rarely see anymore, the deeply meditative kind that shine with associative light, that humbly approach the vast complexity of the world in hopes of making some small bit of sense. He valiantly carries on the long, glorious tradition of making art out of thinking with On the Shoreline of Knowledge, a truly lovely book and a pure joy to read.”—Patrick Madden, author, Quotidiana
The carefully crafted, meditative essays in On the Shoreline of Knowledge sometimes start from unlikely objects or thoughts, a pencil or some fragments of commonplace conversation, but they soon lead the reader to consider fundamental themes in human experience. The unexpected circumnavigation of the ordinary unerringly gets to the heart of the matter.
Bringing a diverse range of material into play, from fifteenth-century Japanese Zen Buddhism to how we look at paintings, and from the nature of a briefcase to the ancient nest-sites of gyrfalcons, Chris Arthur reveals the extraordinary dimensions woven invisibly into the ordinary things around us. Compared to Loren Eiseley, George Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Aldo Leopold, V. S. Naipaul, W. G. Sebald, W. B. Yeats, and other literary luminaries, he is a master essayist whose work has quietly been gathering an impressive cargo of critical acclaim. Arthur speaks with an Irish accent, rooting the book in his own unique vision of the world, but he addresses elemental issues of life and death, love and loss, that circle the world and entwine us all.
It’s hard to explain the exact reasons behind the appeal chestnuts exert, but such explanation isn’t really necessary. Even if it’s interesting to speculate about why, their appeal works on a level that makes understanding automatic, if in the end opaque. This is something instinctual, of the blood. It issues in an immediate sense of empathy, so we can feel in ourselves the gravity of their attraction even if we can’t spell out the fine detail of its operation. I don’t wonder in the least at my daughter—or anyone—wanting to collect them. I only have to look at my own reaction to know why this is. But I’m at a loss to explain—and in the absence of any instinctual empathy, I feel the need for reasons—why this same daughter took such a shine to a tweed coat of my mother’s. She was drawn to it, wanted it, in the way we’re drawn to chestnuts.