I love John Berger's fiction, but a friend of mine recently mentioned Berger in the context of art criticism, so I've discovered his essays -- a new side of Berger for me. (As Geoff Dyer says in this book's introduction, people often seem to take different routes to Berger and only much later discover large parts of his multifarious work.)
Berger's essays are ernest and rigorous, not overly stylish or cute. He tends to let his subject matter wash over his beliefs and ideas, and he records what's left of them when the subject's tide goes out. Everything's personal for Berger; everything is a means of testing his thinking and feeling against paintings or books or any particular stimulus. Here's a man who wants to grow intellectually and as a human being. His "essai" is not a strictly stylistic one but a trial, a sharpening of himself. Berger's in his eighties, too, and his latest book is due out this fall. I always enjoy a good essayist's mind at work, but I also watch an almost religious devotion to character development, or something like it, in this large and fine selection of essays from all of his previous major collections.
John Berger is an essayist by being a poet, and a novelist by being a philosopher... and, although he's a Marxist, I also find something metaphysical in his thought. He's someone writing his ideas not with the limp hand of a scholar, but with callused hands, with dirt under the fingernails. Reading his essays on art, photography, politics, animals, I imagine his handshake being firm and his eyes seeing with a penetrating stare. Seeing, to find the poetic essence of what is seen.
I originally bought an edition of this book in Washington DC at the National Gallery bookstore, but then found this version on sale at Amazon. The text is the same, but this edition is printed on heavier paper with larger text - it's altogether an improvement in terms of the experience of reading. I gave it to my son as a present when he started his BA in Philosophy at Bristol University, knowing that he will enjoy dipping into it.
In my view Berger ranks alongside Robert Hughes and Christopher Hitchens as one of the greatest essayists of the last century and I would recommend this book to anybody with an interest in the study of the History of Art and/or political philosophy.