The essay is one of the richest of literary forms. Its most obvious characteristics are freedom, informality, and the personal touch - though it can also find room for poetry, satire, fantasy, and sustained argument.
All these qualities, and many others, are on display in The Oxford Book of Essays. The most wide-ranging collection of its kind to appear for many years, it includes 140 essays by 120 writers: classics, curiosities, meditations, diversions, old favourites, recent examples that deserve to be better known.
A particularly welcome feature is the amount of space allotted to American essayists, from Benjamin Franklin to John Updike and beyond.
This is an anthology that opens with wise words about the nature of truth, and closes with a consideration of the novels of Judith Krantz.
Some of the other topics discussed in its pages are anger, pleasure, Gandhi, Beau Brummell, wasps, party-going, gangsters, plumbers, Beethoven, potato crisps, the importance of being the right size, and the demolition of Westminster Abbey.
It contains some of the most eloquent writing in English, and some of the most entertaining.