Three things do I require from a personal essay: interesting information about something or someone; a spot of personal information about the writer of said essay; and, please, a bit of humor.
William Zinsser manages to include all three in his online essays written for The American Scholar and collected in his book The Writer Who Stayed.
Interesting information: Check
I learned about the many contributions of songwriters of the Great American Songbook: Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, and how many of their song lyrics added phrases and idioms to America's language. They were the poets of America from 1926-1966.
I found out a bit about the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor, traveler and author, who was a great friend of Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire (Counting My Chickens). In 1933, he traveled on foot from Holland to Constantinople and it took him two years to do it. He stopped and talked to everyone from Romanian shepherds to royalty and wrote two books about his odyssey - A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Leigh Fermor (who shows up in Lawrence Durrell's Cyprus saga Bitter Lemons) died in June 2011 at the age of 96.
Personal tidbits about the author: Check
I learned the Mr. Zinsser served in Africa and Italy during World War II; that he at one time was movie critic for the now defunct Herald Tribune; that he was bitten by the travel bug and visited Tahiti, Samoa, Burma and other places in the South Seas; that he created and taught a course in nonfiction writing at Yale. The wisdom of that course is contained in his book On Writing Well. Mr. Zinsser is not, if not quite a total Luddite, at least leans in that direction. He doesn't use email and is a great believer in the idea that a little boredom never hurt anyone. In fact boredom clears the brain of the "sludge of information" that we are so accustomed to having at our fingertips all the time.
A bit of humor: Check
After reading that Central Park (which he used to visit when sheep grazed there) in Manhattan had a mobile app, he fears that we will never actually 'experience' anything in real time...a day when every organization has an app and nobody goes anywhere. A time when one can experience, in the palm of the hand, a day at the beach without the sunscreen and sand!
"I already have an app for major league baseball," Zinsser writes. "It's called a television set."
I wish Mr. Zinsser had an app. Oh wait! He does. His books: On Writing Well, American Places, Spring Training, Writing About Your Life, and now, The Writer Who Stayed. All in the palm of my hand.