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top essay collections of all time

The 10 Best Essay Collections of the Decade

Ever tried. ever failed. no matter..

Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.

So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the best debut novels , the best short story collections , the best poetry collections , and the best memoirs of the decade , and we have now reached the fifth list in our series: the best essay collections published in English between 2010 and 2019.

The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. As ever, free to add any of your own favorites that we’ve missed in the comments below.

The Top Ten

Oliver sacks, the mind’s eye (2010).

Toward the end of his life, maybe suspecting or sensing that it was coming to a close, Dr. Oliver Sacks tended to focus his efforts on sweeping intellectual projects like On the Move (a memoir), The River of Consciousness (a hybrid intellectual history), and Hallucinations (a book-length meditation on, what else, hallucinations). But in 2010, he gave us one more classic in the style that first made him famous, a form he revolutionized and brought into the contemporary literary canon: the medical case study as essay. In The Mind’s Eye , Sacks focuses on vision, expanding the notion to embrace not only how we see the world, but also how we map that world onto our brains when our eyes are closed and we’re communing with the deeper recesses of consciousness. Relaying histories of patients and public figures, as well as his own history of ocular cancer (the condition that would eventually spread and contribute to his death), Sacks uses vision as a lens through which to see all of what makes us human, what binds us together, and what keeps us painfully apart. The essays that make up this collection are quintessential Sacks: sensitive, searching, with an expertise that conveys scientific information and experimentation in terms we can not only comprehend, but which also expand how we see life carrying on around us. The case studies of “Stereo Sue,” of the concert pianist Lillian Kalir, and of Howard, the mystery novelist who can no longer read, are highlights of the collection, but each essay is a kind of gem, mined and polished by one of the great storytellers of our era.  –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (2011)

The American essay was having a moment at the beginning of the decade, and Pulphead was smack in the middle. Without any hard data, I can tell you that this collection of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s magazine features—published primarily in GQ , but also in The Paris Review , and Harper’s —was the only full book of essays most of my literary friends had read since Slouching Towards Bethlehem , and probably one of the only full books of essays they had even heard of.

Well, we all picked a good one. Every essay in Pulphead is brilliant and entertaining, and illuminates some small corner of the American experience—even if it’s just one house, with Sullivan and an aging writer inside (“Mr. Lytle” is in fact a standout in a collection with no filler; fittingly, it won a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize). But what are they about? Oh, Axl Rose, Christian Rock festivals, living around the filming of One Tree Hill , the Tea Party movement, Michael Jackson, Bunny Wailer, the influence of animals, and by god, the Miz (of Real World/Road Rules Challenge fame).

But as Dan Kois has pointed out , what connects these essays, apart from their general tone and excellence, is “their author’s essential curiosity about the world, his eye for the perfect detail, and his great good humor in revealing both his subjects’ and his own foibles.” They are also extremely well written, drawing much from fictional techniques and sentence craft, their literary pleasures so acute and remarkable that James Wood began his review of the collection in The New Yorker with a quiz: “Are the following sentences the beginnings of essays or of short stories?” (It was not a hard quiz, considering the context.)

It’s hard not to feel, reading this collection, like someone reached into your brain, took out the half-baked stuff you talk about with your friends, researched it, lived it, and represented it to you smarter and better and more thoroughly than you ever could. So read it in awe if you must, but read it.  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (2013)

Such is the sentence-level virtuosity of Aleksandar Hemon—the Bosnian-American writer, essayist, and critic—that throughout his career he has frequently been compared to the granddaddy of borrowed language prose stylists: Vladimir Nabokov. While it is, of course, objectively remarkable that anyone could write so beautifully in a language they learned in their twenties, what I admire most about Hemon’s work is the way in which he infuses every essay and story and novel with both a deep humanity and a controlled (but never subdued) fury. He can also be damn funny. Hemon grew up in Sarajevo and left in 1992 to study in Chicago, where he almost immediately found himself stranded, forced to watch from afar as his beloved home city was subjected to a relentless four-year bombardment, the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. This extraordinary memoir-in-essays is many things: it’s a love letter to both the family that raised him and the family he built in exile; it’s a rich, joyous, and complex portrait of a place the 90s made synonymous with war and devastation; and it’s an elegy for the wrenching loss of precious things. There’s an essay about coming of age in Sarajevo and another about why he can’t bring himself to leave Chicago. There are stories about relationships forged and maintained on the soccer pitch or over the chessboard, and stories about neighbors and mentors turned monstrous by ethnic prejudice. As a chorus they sing with insight, wry humor, and unimaginable sorrow. I am not exaggerating when I say that the collection’s devastating final piece, “The Aquarium”—which details his infant daughter’s brain tumor and the agonizing months which led up to her death—remains the most painful essay I have ever read.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)

Of every essay in my relentlessly earmarked copy of Braiding Sweetgrass , Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s gorgeously rendered argument for why and how we should keep going, there’s one that especially hits home: her account of professor-turned-forester Franz Dolp. When Dolp, several decades ago, revisited the farm that he had once shared with his ex-wife, he found a scene of destruction: The farm’s new owners had razed the land where he had tried to build a life. “I sat among the stumps and the swirling red dust and I cried,” he wrote in his journal.

So many in my generation (and younger) feel this kind of helplessness–and considerable rage–at finding ourselves newly adult in a world where those in power seem determined to abandon or destroy everything that human bodies have always needed to survive: air, water, land. Asking any single book to speak to this helplessness feels unfair, somehow; yet, Braiding Sweetgrass does, by weaving descriptions of indigenous tradition with the environmental sciences in order to show what survival has looked like over the course of many millennia. Kimmerer’s essays describe her personal experience as a Potawotami woman, plant ecologist, and teacher alongside stories of the many ways that humans have lived in relationship to other species. Whether describing Dolp’s work–he left the stumps for a life of forest restoration on the Oregon coast–or the work of others in maple sugar harvesting, creating black ash baskets, or planting a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash, she brings hope. “In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship,” she writes of the Three Sisters, which all sustain one another as they grow. “This is how the world keeps going.”  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Hilton Als, White Girls (2013)

In a world where we are so often reduced to one essential self, Hilton Als’ breathtaking book of critical essays, White Girls , which meditates on the ways he and other subjects read, project and absorb parts of white femininity, is a radically liberating book. It’s one of the only works of critical thinking that doesn’t ask the reader, its author or anyone he writes about to stoop before the doorframe of complete legibility before entering. Something he also permitted the subjects and readers of his first book, the glorious book-length essay, The Women , a series of riffs and psychological portraits of Dorothy Dean, Owen Dodson, and the author’s own mother, among others. One of the shifts of that book, uncommon at the time, was how it acknowledges the way we inhabit bodies made up of variously gendered influences. To read White Girls now is to experience the utter freedom of this gift and to marvel at Als’ tremendous versatility and intelligence.

He is easily the most diversely talented American critic alive. He can write into genres like pop music and film where being part of an audience is a fantasy happening in the dark. He’s also wired enough to know how the art world builds reputations on the nod of rich white patrons, a significant collision in a time when Jean-Michel Basquiat is America’s most expensive modern artist. Als’ swerving and always moving grip on performance means he’s especially good on describing the effect of art which is volatile and unstable and built on the mingling of made-up concepts and the hard fact of their effect on behavior, such as race. Writing on Flannery O’Connor for instance he alone puts a finger on her “uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” From Eminem to Richard Pryor, André Leon Talley to Michael Jackson, Als enters the life and work of numerous artists here who turn the fascinations of race and with whiteness into fury and song and describes the complexity of their beauty like his life depended upon it. There are also brief memoirs here that will stop your heart. This is an essential work to understanding American culture.  –John Freeman, Executive Editor

Eula Biss, On Immunity (2014)

We move through the world as if we can protect ourselves from its myriad dangers, exercising what little agency we have in an effort to keep at bay those fears that gather at the edges of any given life: of loss, illness, disaster, death. It is these fears—amplified by the birth of her first child—that Eula Biss confronts in her essential 2014 essay collection, On Immunity . As any great essayist does, Biss moves outward in concentric circles from her own very private view of the world to reveal wider truths, discovering as she does a culture consumed by anxiety at the pervasive toxicity of contemporary life. As Biss interrogates this culture—of privilege, of whiteness—she interrogates herself, questioning the flimsy ways in which we arm ourselves with science or superstition against the impurities of daily existence.

Five years on from its publication, it is dismaying that On Immunity feels as urgent (and necessary) a defense of basic science as ever. Vaccination, we learn, is derived from vacca —for cow—after the 17th-century discovery that a small application of cowpox was often enough to inoculate against the scourge of smallpox, an etymological digression that belies modern conspiratorial fears of Big Pharma and its vaccination agenda. But Biss never scolds or belittles the fears of others, and in her generosity and openness pulls off a neat (and important) trick: insofar as we are of the very world we fear, she seems to be suggesting, we ourselves are impure, have always been so, permeable, vulnerable, yet so much stronger than we think.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor-in-Chief 

Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (2016)

When Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” was published in 2008, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon unlike almost any other in recent memory, assigning language to a behavior that almost every woman has witnessed—mansplaining—and, in the course of identifying that behavior, spurring a movement, online and offline, to share the ways in which patriarchal arrogance has intersected all our lives. (It would also come to be the titular essay in her collection published in 2014.) The Mother of All Questions follows up on that work and takes it further in order to examine the nature of self-expression—who is afforded it and denied it, what institutions have been put in place to limit it, and what happens when it is employed by women. Solnit has a singular gift for describing and decoding the misogynistic dynamics that govern the world so universally that they can seem invisible and the gendered violence that is so common as to seem unremarkable; this naming is powerful, and it opens space for sharing the stories that shape our lives.

The Mother of All Questions, comprised of essays written between 2014 and 2016, in many ways armed us with some of the tools necessary to survive the gaslighting of the Trump years, in which many of us—and especially women—have continued to hear from those in power that the things we see and hear do not exist and never existed. Solnit also acknowledges that labels like “woman,” and other gendered labels, are identities that are fluid in reality; in reviewing the book for The New Yorker , Moira Donegan suggested that, “One useful working definition of a woman might be ‘someone who experiences misogyny.'” Whichever words we use, Solnit writes in the introduction to the book that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” This storytelling work has always been vital; it continues to be vital, and in this book, it is brilliantly done.  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends (2017)

The newly minted MacArthur fellow Valeria Luiselli’s four-part (but really six-part) essay  Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions  was inspired by her time spent volunteering at the federal immigration court in New York City, working as an interpreter for undocumented, unaccompanied migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Written concurrently with her novel  Lost Children Archive  (a fictional exploration of the same topic), Luiselli’s essay offers a fascinating conceit, the fashioning of an argument from the questions on the government intake form given to these children to process their arrivals. (Aside from the fact that this essay is a heartbreaking masterpiece, this is such a  good  conceit—transforming a cold, reproducible administrative document into highly personal literature.) Luiselli interweaves a grounded discussion of the questionnaire with a narrative of the road trip Luiselli takes with her husband and family, across America, while they (both Mexican citizens) wait for their own Green Card applications to be processed. It is on this trip when Luiselli reflects on the thousands of migrant children mysteriously traveling across the border by themselves. But the real point of the essay is to actually delve into the real stories of some of these children, which are agonizing, as well as to gravely, clearly expose what literally happens, procedural, when they do arrive—from forms to courts, as they’re swallowed by a bureaucratic vortex. Amid all of this, Luiselli also takes on more, exploring the larger contextual relationship between the United States of America and Mexico (as well as other countries in Central America, more broadly) as it has evolved to our current, adverse moment.  Tell Me How It Ends  is so small, but it is so passionate and vigorous: it desperately accomplishes in its less-than-100-pages-of-prose what centuries and miles and endless records of federal bureaucracy have never been able, and have never cared, to do: reverse the dehumanization of Latin American immigrants that occurs once they set foot in this country.  –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Zadie Smith, Feel Free (2018)

In the essay “Meet Justin Bieber!” in Feel Free , Zadie Smith writes that her interest in Justin Bieber is not an interest in the interiority of the singer himself, but in “the idea of the love object”. This essay—in which Smith imagines a meeting between Bieber and the late philosopher Martin Buber (“Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German surname,” she explains in one of many winning footnotes. “Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?”). Smith allows that this premise is a bit premise -y: “I know, I know.” Still, the resulting essay is a very funny, very smart, and un-tricky exploration of individuality and true “meeting,” with a dash of late capitalism thrown in for good measure. The melding of high and low culture is the bread and butter of pretty much every prestige publication on the internet these days (and certainly of the Twitter feeds of all “public intellectuals”), but the essays in Smith’s collection don’t feel familiar—perhaps because hers is, as we’ve long known, an uncommon skill. Though I believe Smith could probably write compellingly about anything, she chooses her subjects wisely. She writes with as much electricity about Brexit as the aforementioned Beliebers—and each essay is utterly engrossing. “She contains multitudes, but her point is we all do,” writes Hermione Hoby in her review of the collection in The New Republic . “At the same time, we are, in our endless difference, nobody but ourselves.”  –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (2019)

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an academic who has transcended the ivory tower to become the sort of public intellectual who can easily appear on radio or television talk shows to discuss race, gender, and capitalism. Her collection of essays reflects this duality, blending scholarly work with memoir to create a collection on the black female experience in postmodern America that’s “intersectional analysis with a side of pop culture.” The essays range from an analysis of sexual violence, to populist politics, to social media, but in centering her own experiences throughout, the collection becomes something unlike other pieces of criticism of contemporary culture. In explaining the title, she reflects on what an editor had said about her work: “I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naïve to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It was too thick.” One of the most powerful essays in the book is “Dying to be Competent” which begins with her unpacking the idiocy of LinkedIn (and the myth of meritocracy) and ends with a description of her miscarriage, the mishandling of black woman’s pain, and a condemnation of healthcare bureaucracy. A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Thick confirms McMillan Cottom as one of our most fearless public intellectuals and one of the most vital.  –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Dissenting Opinions

The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed (2010)

In The Possessed Elif Batuman indulges her love of Russian literature and the result is hilarious and remarkable. Each essay of the collection chronicles some adventure or other that she had while in graduate school for Comparative Literature and each is more unpredictable than the next. There’s the time a “well-known 20th-centuryist” gave a graduate student the finger; and the time when Batuman ended up living in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for a summer; and the time that she convinced herself Tolstoy was murdered and spent the length of the Tolstoy Conference in Yasnaya Polyana considering clues and motives. Rich in historic detail about Russian authors and literature and thoughtfully constructed, each essay is an amalgam of critical analysis, cultural criticism, and serious contemplation of big ideas like that of identity, intellectual legacy, and authorship. With wit and a serpentine-like shape to her narratives, Batuman adopts a form reminiscent of a Socratic discourse, setting up questions at the beginning of her essays and then following digressions that more or less entreat the reader to synthesize the answer for herself. The digressions are always amusing and arguably the backbone of the collection, relaying absurd anecdotes with foreign scholars or awkward, surreal encounters with Eastern European strangers. Central also to the collection are Batuman’s intellectual asides where she entertains a theory—like the “problem of the person”: the inability to ever wholly capture one’s character—that ultimately layer the book’s themes. “You are certainly my most entertaining student,” a professor said to Batuman. But she is also curious and enthusiastic and reflective and so knowledgeable that she might even convince you (she has me!) that you too love Russian literature as much as she does. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)

Roxane Gay’s now-classic essay collection is a book that will make you laugh, think, cry, and then wonder, how can cultural criticism be this fun? My favorite essays in the book include Gay’s musings on competitive Scrabble, her stranded-in-academia dispatches, and her joyous film and television criticism, but given the breadth of topics Roxane Gay can discuss in an entertaining manner, there’s something for everyone in this one. This book is accessible because feminism itself should be accessible – Roxane Gay is as likely to draw inspiration from YA novels, or middle-brow shows about friendship, as she is to introduce concepts from the academic world, and if there’s anyone I trust to bridge the gap between high culture, low culture, and pop culture, it’s the Goddess of Twitter. I used to host a book club dedicated to radical reads, and this was one of the first picks for the club; a week after the book club met, I spied a few of the attendees meeting in the café of the bookstore, and found out that they had bonded so much over discussing  Bad Feminist  that they couldn’t wait for the next meeting of the book club to keep discussing politics and intersectionality, and that, in a nutshell, is the power of Roxane. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Rivka Galchen, Little Labors (2016)

Generally, I find stories about the trials and tribulations of child-having to be of limited appeal—useful, maybe, insofar as they offer validation that other people have also endured the bizarre realities of living with a tiny human, but otherwise liable to drift into the musings of parents thrilled at the simple fact of their own fecundity, as if they were the first ones to figure the process out (or not). But Little Labors is not simply an essay collection about motherhood, perhaps because Galchen initially “didn’t want to write about” her new baby—mostly, she writes, “because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact, those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” Like many new mothers, though, Galchen soon discovered her baby—which she refers to sometimes as “the puma”—to be a preoccupying thought, demanding to be written about. Galchen’s interest isn’t just in her own progeny, but in babies in literature (“Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions”), The Pillow Book , the eleventh-century collection of musings by Sei Shōnagon, and writers who are mothers. There are sections that made me laugh out loud, like when Galchen continually finds herself in an elevator with a neighbor who never fails to remark on the puma’s size. There are also deeper, darker musings, like the realization that the baby means “that it’s not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” It is a slim collection that I happened to read at the perfect time, and it remains one of my favorites of the decade. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Charlie Fox, This Young Monster (2017)

On social media as in his writing, British art critic Charlie Fox rejects lucidity for allusion and doesn’t quite answer the Twitter textbox’s persistent question: “What’s happening?” These days, it’s hard to tell.  This Young Monster  (2017), Fox’s first book,was published a few months after Donald Trump’s election, and at one point Fox takes a swipe at a man he judges “direct from a nightmare and just a repulsive fucking goon.” Fox doesn’t linger on politics, though, since most of the monsters he looks at “embody otherness and make it into art, ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of their own invention.”

If clichés are loathed because they conform to what philosopher Georges Bataille called “the common measure,” then monsters are rebellious non-sequiturs, comedic or horrific derailments from a classical ideal. Perverts in the most literal sense, monsters have gone astray from some “proper” course. The book’s nine chapters, which are about a specific monster or type of monster, are full of callbacks to familiar and lesser-known media. Fox cites visual art, film, songs, and books with the screwy buoyancy of a savant. Take one of his essays, “Spook House,” framed as a stage play with two principal characters, Klaus (“an intoxicated young skinhead vampire”) and Hermione (“a teen sorceress with green skin and jet-black hair” who looks more like The Wicked Witch than her namesake). The chorus is a troupe of trick-or-treaters. Using the filmmaker Cameron Jamie as a starting point, the rest is free association on gothic decadence and Detroit and L.A. as cities of the dead. All the while, Klaus quotes from  Artforum ,  Dazed & Confused , and  Time Out. It’s a technical feat that makes fictionalized dialogue a conveyor belt for cultural criticism.

In Fox’s imagination, David Bowie and the Hydra coexist alongside Peter Pan, Dennis Hopper, and the maenads. Fox’s book reaches for the monster’s mask, not really to peel it off but to feel and smell the rubber schnoz, to know how it’s made before making sure it’s still snugly set. With a stylistic blend of arthouse suavity and B-movie chic,  This Young Monster considers how monsters in culture are made. Aren’t the scariest things made in post-production? Isn’t the creature just duplicity, like a looping choir or a dubbed scream? –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (2017)

Elena Passarello’s collection of essays Animals Strike Curious Poses picks out infamous animals and grants them the voice, narrative, and history they deserve. Not only is a collection like this relevant during the sixth extinction but it is an ambitious historical and anthropological undertaking, which Passarello has tackled with thorough research and a playful tone that rather than compromise her subject, complicates and humanizes it. Passarello’s intention is to investigate the role of animals across the span of human civilization and in doing so, to construct a timeline of humanity as told through people’s interactions with said animals. “Of all the images that make our world, animal images are particularly buried inside us,” Passarello writes in her first essay, to introduce us to the object of the book and also to the oldest of her chosen characters: Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2010. It was an occasion so remarkable and so unfathomable given the span of human civilization that Passarello says of Yuka: “Since language is epically younger than both thought and experience, ‘woolly mammoth’ means, to a human brain, something more like time.” The essay ends with a character placing a hand on a cave drawing of a woolly mammoth, accompanied by a phrase which encapsulates the author’s vision for the book: “And he becomes the mammoth so he can envision the mammoth.” In Passarello’s hands the imagined boundaries between the animal, natural, and human world disintegrate and what emerges is a cohesive if baffling integrated history of life. With the accuracy and tenacity of a journalist and the spirit of a storyteller, Elena Passarello has assembled a modern bestiary worthy of contemplation and awe. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019)

Esmé Weijun Wang’s collection of essays is a kaleidoscopic look at mental health and the lives affected by the schizophrenias. Each essay takes on a different aspect of the topic, but you’ll want to read them together for a holistic perspective. Esmé Weijun Wang generously begins The Collected Schizophrenias by acknowledging the stereotype, “Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy.” From there, she walks us through the technical language, breaks down the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ( DSM-5 )’s clinical definition. And then she gets very personal, telling us about how she came to her own diagnosis and the way it’s touched her daily life (her relationships, her ideas about motherhood). Esmé Weijun Wang is uniquely situated to write about this topic. As a former lab researcher at Stanford, she turns a precise, analytical eye to her experience while simultaneously unfolding everything with great patience for her reader. Throughout, she brilliantly dissects the language around mental health. (On saying “a person living with bipolar disorder” instead of using “bipolar” as the sole subject: “…we are not our diseases. We are instead individuals with disorders and malfunctions. Our conditions lie over us like smallpox blankets; we are one thing and the illness is another.”) She pinpoints the ways she arms herself against anticipated reactions to the schizophrenias: high fashion, having attended an Ivy League institution. In a particularly piercing essay, she traces mental illness back through her family tree. She also places her story within more mainstream cultural contexts, calling on groundbreaking exposés about the dangerous of institutionalization and depictions of mental illness in television and film (like the infamous Slender Man case, in which two young girls stab their best friend because an invented Internet figure told them to). At once intimate and far-reaching, The Collected Schizophrenias is an informative and important (and let’s not forget artful) work. I’ve never read a collection quite so beautifully-written and laid-bare as this. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Ross Gay, The Book of Delights (2019)

When Ross Gay began writing what would become The Book of Delights, he envisioned it as a project of daily essays, each focused on a moment or point of delight in his day. This plan quickly disintegrated; on day four, he skipped his self-imposed assignment and decided to “in honor and love, delight in blowing it off.” (Clearly, “blowing it off” is a relative term here, as he still produced the book.) Ross Gay is a generous teacher of how to live, and this moment of reveling in self-compassion is one lesson among many in The Book of Delights , which wanders from moments of connection with strangers to a shade of “red I don’t think I actually have words for,” a text from a friend reading “I love you breadfruit,” and “the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything .”

Gay does not linger on any one subject for long, creating the sense that delight is a product not of extenuating circumstances, but of our attention; his attunement to the possibilities of a single day, and awareness of all the small moments that produce delight, are a model for life amid the warring factions of the attention economy. These small moments range from the physical–hugging a stranger, transplanting fig cuttings–to the spiritual and philosophical, giving the impression of sitting beside Gay in his garden as he thinks out loud in real time. It’s a privilege to listen. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Honorable Mentions

A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).

Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings (2010) · Joyce Carol Oates, In Rough Country (2010) · Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011) · Christopher Hitchens, Arguably (2011) ·  Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer, Between Parentheses (2011) · Dubravka Ugresic, tr. David Williams, Karaoke Culture (2011) · Tom Bissell, Magic Hours (2012)  · Kevin Young, The Grey Album (2012) · William H. Gass, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012) · Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012) · Herta Müller, tr. Geoffrey Mulligan, Cristina and Her Double (2013) · Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)  · Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable (2014)  · Daphne Merkin, The Fame Lunches (2014)  · Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering (2015) · Wendy Walters, Multiply/Divide (2015) · Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop (2015) ·  Renee Gladman, Calamities (2016)  · Jesmyn Ward, ed. The Fire This Time (2016)  · Lindy West, Shrill (2016)  · Mary Oliver, Upstream (2016)  · Emily Witt, Future Sex (2016)  · Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (2016)  · Mark Greif, Against Everything (2016)  · Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood (2017)  · Sarah Gerard, Sunshine State (2017)  · Jim Harrison, A Really Big Lunch (2017)  · J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays: 2006-2017 (2017) · Melissa Febos, Abandon Me (2017)  · Louise Glück, American Originality (2017)  · Joan Didion, South and West (2017)  · Tom McCarthy, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (2017)  · Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until they Kill Us (2017)  · Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017)  ·  Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (2017)  · Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018)  · Alice Bolin, Dead Girls (2018)  · Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (2018)  · Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done (2018)  · Maggie O’Farrell, I Am I Am I Am (2018)  · Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018)  · Rachel Cusk, Coventry (2019)  · Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror (2019)  · Emily Bernard, Black is the Body (2019)  · Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard (2019)  · Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations (2019)  ·  Rachel Munroe, Savage Appetites (2019)  · Robert A. Caro,  Working  (2019) · Arundhati Roy, My Seditious Heart (2019).

Emily Temple

Emily Temple

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top essay collections of all time

The 25 Greatest Essay Collections of All Time

Today marks the release of Aleksandar Hemon’s excellent book of personal essays, The Book of My Lives , which we loved, and which we’re convinced deserves a place in the literary canon. To that end, we were inspired to put together our list of the greatest essay collections of all time, from the classic to the contemporary, from the personal to the critical. In making our choices, we’ve steered away from posthumous omnibuses (Michel de Montaigne’s Complete Essays , the collected Orwell, etc.) and multi-author compilations, and given what might be undue weight to our favorite writers (as one does). After the jump, our picks for the 25 greatest essay collections of all time. Feel free to disagree with us, praise our intellect, or create an entirely new list in the comments.

top essay collections of all time

The Book of My Lives , Aleksandar Hemon

Hemon’s memoir in essays is in turns wryly hilarious, intellectually searching, and deeply troubling. It’s the life story of a fascinating, quietly brilliant man, and it reads as such. For fans of chess and ill-advised theme parties and growing up more than once.

top essay collections of all time

Slouching Towards Bethlehem , Joan Didion

Well, obviously. Didion’s extraordinary book of essays, expertly surveying both her native California in the 1960s and her own internal landscape with clear eyes and one eyebrow raised ever so slightly. This collection, her first, helped establish the idea of journalism as art, and continues to put wind in the sails of many writers after her, hoping to move in that Didion direction.

top essay collections of all time

Pulphead , John Jeremiah Sullivan

This was one of those books that this writer deemed required reading for all immediate family and friends. Sullivan’s sharply observed essays take us from Christian rock festivals to underground caves to his own home, and introduce us to 19-century geniuses, imagined professors and Axl Rose. Smart, curious, and humane, this is everything an essay collection should be.

top essay collections of all time

The Boys of My Youth , Jo Ann Beard

Another memoir-in-essays, or perhaps just a collection of personal narratives, Jo Ann Beard’s award-winning volume is a masterpiece. Not only does it include the luminous, emotionally destructive “The Fourth State of the Matter,” which we’ve already implored you to read , but also the incredible “Bulldozing the Baby,” which takes on a smaller tragedy: a three-year-old Beard’s separation from her doll Hal. “The gorgeous thing about Hal,” she tells us, “was that not only was he my friend, he was also my slave. I made the majority of our decisions, including the bathtub one, which in retrospect was the beginning of the end.”

top essay collections of all time

Consider the Lobster , David Foster Wallace

This one’s another “duh” moment, at least if you’re a fan of the literary essay. One of the most brilliant essayists of all time, Wallace pushes the boundaries (of the form, of our patience, of his own brain) and comes back with a classic collection of writing on everything from John Updike to, well, lobsters. You’ll laugh out loud right before you rethink your whole life. And then repeat.

top essay collections of all time

Notes of a Native Son , James Baldwin

Baldwin’s most influential work is a witty, passionate portrait of black life and social change in America in the 1940s and early 1950s. His essays, like so many of the greats’, are both incisive social critiques and rigorous investigations into the self, told with a perfect tension between humor and righteous fury.

top essay collections of all time

Naked , David Sedaris

His essays often read more like short stories than they do social criticism (though there’s a healthy, if perhaps implied, dose of that slippery subject), but no one makes us laugh harder or longer. A genius of the form.

top essay collections of all time

Against Interpretation , Susan Sontag

This collection, Sontag’s first, is a dazzling feat of intellectualism. Her essays dissect not only art but the way we think about art, imploring us to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” It also contains the brilliant “Notes on ‘Camp,'” one of our all-time favorites.

top essay collections of all time

The Common Reader , Virginia Woolf

Woolf is a literary giant for a reason — she was as incisive and brilliant a critic as she was a novelist. These witty essays, written for the common reader (“He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole- a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing”), are as illuminating and engrossing as they were when they were written.

top essay collections of all time

Teaching a Stone to Talk , Annie Dillard

This is Dillard’s only book of essays, but boy is it a blazingly good one. The slender volume, filled with examinations of nature both human and not, is deft of thought and tongue, and well worth anyone’s time. As the Chicago Sun-Times ‘s Edward Abbey gushed, “This little book is haloed and informed throughout by Dillard’s distinctive passion and intensity, a sort of intellectual radiance that reminds me both Thoreau and Emily Dickinson.”

top essay collections of all time

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man , Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In this eloquent volume of essays, all but one of which were originally published in the New Yorker , Gates argues against the notion of the singularly representable “black man,” preferring to represent him in a myriad of diverse profiles, from James Baldwin to Colin Powell. Humane, incisive, and satisfyingly journalistic, Gates cobbles together the ultimate portrait of the 20th-century African-American male by refusing to cobble it together, and raises important questions about race and identity even as he entertains.

top essay collections of all time

Otherwise Known As the Human Condition , Geoff Dyer

This book of essays, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the year of its publication, covers 25 years of the uncategorizable, inimitable Geoff Dyer’s work — casually erudite and yet liable to fascinate anyone wandering in the door, witty and breathing and full of truth. As Sam Lipsyte said, “You read Dyer for his caustic wit, of course, his exquisite and perceptive crankiness, and his deep and exciting intellectual connections, but from these enthralling rants and cultural investigations there finally emerges another Dyer, a generous seeker of human feeling and experience, a man perhaps closer than he thinks to what he believes his hero Camus achieved: ‘a heart free of bitterness.'”

top essay collections of all time

Art and Ardor , Cynthia Ozick

Look, Cynthia Ozick is a genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s favorite writers, and one of ours, Ozick has no less than seven essay collections to her name, and we could have chosen any one of them, each sharper and more perfectly self-conscious than the last. This one, however, includes her stunner “A Drugstore in Winter,” which was chosen by Joyce Carol Oates for The Best American Essays of the Century , so we’ll go with it.

top essay collections of all time

No More Nice Girls , Ellen Willis

The venerable Ellen Willis was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker , and a rollicking anti-authoritarian, feminist, all-around bad-ass woman who had a hell of a way with words. This collection examines the women’s movement, the plight of the aging radical, race relations, cultural politics, drugs, and Picasso. Among other things.

top essay collections of all time

The War Against Cliché , Martin Amis

As you know if you’ve ever heard him talk , Martin Amis is not only a notorious grouch but a sharp critical mind, particularly when it comes to literature. That quality is on full display in this collection, which spans nearly 30 years and twice as many subjects, from Vladimir Nabokov (his hero) to chess to writing about sex. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that he’s a brilliant old grump.

top essay collections of all time

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts , Clive James

James’s collection is a strange beast, not like any other essay collection on this list but its own breed. An encyclopedia of modern culture, the book collects 110 new biographical essays, which provide more than enough room for James to flex his formidable intellect and curiosity, as he wanders off on tangents, anecdotes, and cultural criticism. It’s not the only who’s who you need, but it’s a who’s who you need.

top essay collections of all time

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman , Nora Ephron

Oh Nora, we miss you. Again, we could have picked any of her collections here — candid, hilarious, and willing to give it to you straight, she’s like a best friend and mentor in one, only much more interesting than any of either you’ve ever had.

top essay collections of all time

Arguably , Christopher Hitchens

No matter what you think of his politics (or his rhetorical strategies), there’s no denying that Christopher Hitchens was one of the most brilliant minds — and one of the most brilliant debaters — of the century. In this collection, packed with cultural commentary, literary journalism, and political writing, he is at his liveliest, his funniest, his exactingly wittiest. He’s also just as caustic as ever.

top essay collections of all time

The Solace of Open Spaces , Gretel Ehrlich

Gretel Ehrlich is a poet, and in this collection, you’ll know it. In 1976, she moved to Wyoming and became a cowherd, and nearly a decade later, she published this lovely, funny set of essays about rural life in the American West.”Keenly observed the world is transformed,” she writes. “The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient.”

top essay collections of all time

The Braindead Megaphone , George Saunders

Saunders may be the man of the moment, but he’s been at work for a long while, and not only on his celebrated short stories. His single collection of essays applies the same humor and deliciously slant view to the real world — which manages to display nearly as much absurdity as one of his trademark stories.

top essay collections of all time

Against Joie de Vivre , Phillip Lopate

“Over the years,” the title essay begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre , the knack of knowing how to live.” Lopate goes on to dissect, in pleasantly sardonic terms, the modern dinner party. Smart and thought-provoking throughout (and not as crotchety as all that), this collection is conversational but weighty, something to be discussed at length with friends at your next — oh well, you know.

top essay collections of all time

Sex and the River Styx , Edward Hoagland

Edward Hoagland, who John Updike deemed “the best essayist of my generation,” has a long and storied career and a fat bibliography, so we hesitate to choose such a recent installment in the writer’s canon. Then again, Garrison Keillor thinks it’s his best yet , so perhaps we’re not far off. Hoagland is a great nature writer (name checked by many as the modern Thoreau) but in truth, he’s just as fascinated by humanity, musing that “human nature is interstitial with nature, and not to be shunned by a naturalist.” Elegant and thoughtful, Hoagland may warn us that he’s heading towards the River Styx, but we’ll hang on to him a while longer.

top essay collections of all time

Changing My Mind , Zadie Smith

Smith may be best known for her novels (and she should be), but to our eyes she is also emerging as an excellent essayist in her own right, passionate and thoughtful. Plus, any essay collection that talks about Barack Obama via Pygmalion is a winner in our book.

top essay collections of all time

My Misspent Youth , Meghan Daum

Like so many other writers on this list, Daum dives head first into the culture and comes up with meat in her mouth. Her voice is fresh and her narratives daring, honest and endlessly entertaining.

top essay collections of all time

The White Album , Joan Didion

Yes, Joan Didion is on this list twice, because Joan Didion is the master of the modern essay, tearing at our assumptions and building our world in brisk, clever strokes. Deal.

top essay collections of all time

While We’re On the Subject: 10 of the Best Essay Collections

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Liberty Hardy

Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading. Twitter: @MissLiberty

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One of the great things about being adult is that you only have to read the books you want to read now. No more assigned reading (unless you’re pursuing more education)! And while the word “essay” can conjure up images of homework, it’s actually just another really fun form of writing as a way to get information into your brain. An essay is a short piece of writing about a specific subject. That’s all. And just like all other writing, the subject possibilities are endless! There are so many amazing collections of essays to choose from. That’s why we’re helping you find a few great ones with this list of ten of the best essay collections.

These books cover a variety of topics, such as music, nature, race, and writing. Each of these are written by one particular author, but you can find essay collections with multiple contributors. The Best American Essays are a great place to start — the most recent one was guest edited by Alexander Chee, who has a book also listed below. He knows essays! I also highly recommend A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen. I had no idea how much I would love a small collection of essays about the famous mime Marcel Marceau until I picked it up. What a gem!

cover of They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib; photo of a wolf wearing a black track suit and a gold medallion

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

Poet, essayist, and critic Abdurraqib’s first collection is an amazing jumping-off point if you’ve not read many essays. These are smart and thoughtful pieces, some about life as viewed through the lens of culture, such as his experience at a Carly Rae Jepsen show and his thoughts on attending concerts in the wake of the shootings in Paris. And some are about his experience as a Black man living in America. This collection was so successful, it got a new five-year anniversary cover, so you might also find this with a blue cover with a wolf in a red track suit.

cover of Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin; photo of Baldwin, a Black man

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s famous essay collection about racism and the lives of Black people in America was written in the 1940s and early 1950s, at the start of the Civil Rights movement. A powerful writer and activist, Baldwin was one of the early writers discussing the violence and murder perpetrated against Black people. His essays exposed readers to police violence and racial injustice in a time before it was being discussed publicly and nationally.

cover of How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee; red with a small photo of the author, an Asian man

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

Chee, who is a brilliant teacher as well as a published writer, discusses how the life of the writer is entangled in work in various ways. While explaining the importance of art and how it gives meaning to our lives, he revisits his own experiences, including the death of his father, the AIDS crisis, and writing his first novel Edinburgh .

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cover of Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D'Ambrosio; image of bird's wing with feathers made from pages of a book

Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio

D’Ambrosio tackles very different subjects in this collection of things that loiter in his brain, while weaving very personal, heartbreaking information into each one. There’s a discussion of the trial of jailed teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, the work of J.D. Salinger, a haunted house, weather, and more. It is also an examination of mental illness and suicide in his family.

cover of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion; b&W photo of the author, a middle-aged white woman wearing a scarf

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion

Like Baldwin, Didion is one of the most famous essayists in the American literary canon. This memorable book includes her sharp, original takes on John Wayne and Howard Hughes, as well as a look at her life growing up in California, and other memorable takes on places around the state.

cover of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby; yellow with a photo of an angry gray kitten

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

And if you want a collection that will make you laugh out loud, pick up this (or any of Irby’s other books.) These are screamingly funny, honest essays about relationships, health and bodies, sex, pet ownership, family, and more. (A few more funny essayists to check out: Jenny Lawson, Helen Ellis, Phoebe Robinson, and Mary Laura Philpott.)

cover of Small Wonder: Essays by Barbara Kingsolver; white with an illustration of a white flower at the bottom

Small Wonder: Essays by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver is one of the finest novelists of the last few decades, but did you know she also writes smart, touching nonfiction? Using nature as the underlying them in each one, Kingsolver probes our world, from mountains and trees, to the dangers of genetically modified foods, to what we owe the children of the world. It’s a collection about growth, literally and metaphorically.

cover of Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver; photo deep inside a forest

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver was an award-winning poet, and her immense, gorgeous talent for writing poetry is apparent in these beautiful, thoughtful essays. They examine her interest in nature and the world at large from a young age, and how the beauty she found around her influence her life and her work. Get ready to underline pretty much everything.

Book cover of let me clear my throat by elena passarello

Let Me Clear My Throat: Essays by Elena Passarello

This is a fascinating collection about voices throughout popular culture, from an 18th century opera singer to Spaceballs to A Streetcar Named Desire . Passarello examines the sound and shape of the sounds that have contributed to the soundtracks of human lives. Equally fascinating is Animals Strike Curious Poses , her essay collection about famous animals throughout history.

cover of Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan; photo of an air freshener with a jaguar on it hanging from a rear view mirror

Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan

And last but not least, another lesser-known gem. Pulphead is like a road trip in a book that covers pop culture, and events around America. Sullivan investigates a Christian rock festival, Real World alumni, the BP oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, and more. It’s an absorbing collection that belongs on the shelf of every essay lover.

For more essays to enrich your life, be sure to check out 100 Must-Read Essay Collections and Essay Collections That Make You Necessarily Uncomfortable .

top essay collections of all time

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20 Brilliant Essay Collections - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

20 Brilliant Essay Collections

Essay collections exist in a kind of literary no-man’s-land. They’re non-fiction, but they don’t often slip neatly into a particular category (like “science” or “history”). Often, they draw from the author’s own life, but they don’t follow the chronology we expect of a memoir or autobiography . But if you can figure out where they’re shelved in your local independent bookshop, essay collections can make for some of the best reads. Check out these twenty brilliant essay collections, from all kinds of authors about all kinds of subjects.

20 Brilliant Essay Collections - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things To Me is a slim little essay collection with a provocative title and a brilliant premise. Rebecca Solnit writes about the lived experience of women in the patriarchy in seven essays (or nine, if you get a later edition) from the last twenty years. She addresses violence against women, marriage equality, the influence of Virginia Woolf, the erasure of women from the archive, fraught online spaces, and more. Solnit was even credited with coining the term “mansplaining” – even though the word itself doesn’t appear in the title essay, and she later said she didn’t necessarily agree with such a gendered term.

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Zadie Smith - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zadie Smith is a once-in-a-generation literary darling, writing beloved fiction and brilliant non-fiction with the same zeal. In Feel Free , her 2018 essay collection, she addresses questions we all find ourselves pondering from time to time. Why do we love libraries? How will we explain our inaction on climate change to future generations? What are online social networks doing to us? Her answers are categorised in the book’s five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free (from which the essay collection gets its name). Smith interrogates major world-changing events and small personal disruptions with equal fascination, which makes for an illuminating read.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay has built a career on being forthright, unabashed, and holding a microphone to the best and worst of the little voices in our heads. Bad Feminist is a collection of her essays, most published individually elsewhere prior to the 2014 release, grouped thematically. They’re all loosely tied to the overarching ideas of feminism and womanhood, what it means to do it well, and what the consequences are for doing it badly. As the title suggests, in one of the collection’s most memorable moments, she addresses the difficulty of reconciling her feminism with her love of hip-hop music and the colour pink. She contends throughout this essay collection that it’s better to be a ‘bad feminist’ than to be no kind of feminist at all. Read my full review of Bad Feminist here.

Shrill by Lindy West

Shrill - Lindy West - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever felt like you just take up too much space in a world that wants you to be small and quiet? Lindy West has, and that’s what she writes in Shrill , the first of her hilarious and insightful essay collections. She lays bear the shame and humiliation that comes with the journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance, in a world that insists you be smaller and quieter. West has battled internet trolls, waged war against rape jokes, and reached an uneasy accord with her unruly body and mind. These essays are brilliant, relatable and hilarious for all women who have felt like they didn’t quite fit.

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel - Alexander Chee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel seems like an odd title for an essay collection, but it makes sense once you hear Alexander Chee’s explanation behind it. On book tours and at speaking events regarding his novels, he found himself facing the same question over and over: “how much of this fictional story is autobiographical?”. He started thinking about how we forge identities in literature, giving rise to this brilliant collection of essays. It’s his “manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him”.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby

Samantha Irby describes herself as a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person… with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees… who still hides past due bills under her pillow”. Wow, No Thank You a collection of her essays about… stuff. Life. Ridiculous jobs. Trying to make friends as an adult. The lost art of making a mix-tape. Living in a place where most people don’t share your politics. Getting your period and bleeding all over the sheets of your Airbnb. Trying to remember why you ever found nightclubs fun. There’s even a whole essay of “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever…” jokes (the format might mystify you if you’re not on Twitter , but it’s hilarious). Read my full review of Wow, No Thank You here.

Dead Girls by Alice Bolin

Dead Girls - Alice Bolin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Are you sick of the trope where a nice, skinny, white girl shows up dead and that’s all we ever get to know about her? You’re not the only one. Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls interrogates “iconic American works from the essays of Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, illuminating the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories”. This is one of those essay collections that will stick with you, and change the way you consume stories forever.

If you want alternatives to read, check out my list of crime thrillers without dead girls here .

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Jia Tolentino has been called “a peerless voice of our generation” and a “Joan Didion of our time”. Trick Mirror is one of the most critically acclaimed essay collections of recent years, a “dazzling collection of nine entirely original essays… [that] delves into the forces that warp our vision”. Have you ever wondered why we think what we do and the way we do? Normally, that’s the kind of question we’d leave to marketing professionals and moral philosophy professors, but Tolentino addresses it in an accessible and relatable way. She wants us to understand what advertising, social media, consumerism, and the whole she-bang has done to our consciousness and our understanding of ourselves.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

The David Foster Wallace Reader - David Foster Wallace - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll confess: David Foster Wallace is kind of my literary secret shame. The man was hardly a paragon of virtue, he treated the women in his life horribly, and he clearly had a lot of troubles that were never adequately addressed. But damn, if his essays aren’t some of the funniest I’ve ever read! Seriously, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one of those brilliant essay collections that will have you howling with laughter so loud your neighbours might call the cops. Wallace is, at turns, cynical, curious, credulous, and cutting – and yet his essays feel seamless. They’re long, they’re stuffed with footnotes that would make a lit professor weep, and yet you’ll read them feeling like no time is passing at all because you’re having so much fun. I can’t speak for his fiction, but his essay collections? Must-reads, especially this one!

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Any library of brilliant essay collections is woefully incomplete without David Sedaris, especially his 2000 collection Me Talk Pretty One Day . It’s over twenty years old, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless. It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday. It’s also a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

I find it hard not to build up a head of steam when I talk about Nora Ephron, because she is criminally underrated. Because she wrote about women and their relationships (to each other and themselves), instead of men with businesses or guns, she’s relegated to the “chick lit” and “rom-com” shelves, described as “fluffy” instead of ingenious. Want proof? Pick up I Feel Bad About My Neck , one of the most brilliant and incisive essay collections you’ll read anywhere. With her trademark candour and dry humour, she tackles the unspeakable: aging as a woman in a society that values perpetual youth.

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud - Anne Helen Petersen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Scan the headlines of any celebrity gossip website, and you’ll notice: times have changed. We’re a long way from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. The women of today’s front pages are boundary pushers, provocative and powerful in ways that women of previous generations wouldn’t dare dream about. Anne Helen Petersen has had a lot of cause to study these women in her role as a Buzzfeed editor, and she’s written Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud to explain what she’s seen. She “uses the lens of “unruliness” to explore the ascension of powerhouses like Serena Williams, Hillary Clinton, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, exploring why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures”.

All About Love by bell hooks

All About Love - bell hooks - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet we would all love better if we used it as a verb,” writes bell hooks in All About Love, one of her most widely-read and lauded essay collections. She posits that our society is descending into lovelessness. Not romantic lovelessness – we’re drowning in smooches – but the kind where we lack basic compassion and empathy for each other, and ourselves. We are divided and discontented, due to “society’s failure to provide a model for learning to love”. You’ll want to set aside a lot of time to read and think about this one, to really absorb its message – if you do, it’ll change your life.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is Eddo-Lodge’s first essay collection. It started with her blog post of the same name that she published back in 2014, but there’s no need to go trawling the internet for it: Eddo-Lodge reproduces it in full in the preface. It serves as a thesis statement, framing and contextualising everything that is to follow. So, the $64,000 question: why isn’t Eddo-Lodge talking to white people about race? Well, basically, she’s fed up: with white denial, with white self-flagellation, with trying to shake hands with a brick wall. Ironically, this is a collection of essays about race and racism that every white person should absolutely read. Read my full review of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race here.

Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe

If you loved Say Nothing and Empire Of Pain (like I did), you’ll be overjoyed (as I was) to get your hands on a copy of Rogues , a collection of Patrick Radden Keefe’s most celebrated essays from The New Yorker . These delightfully detailed investigative pieces focus on his favourite subjects: “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial”. They’re like delectable bite-sized true crime tales, all meticulously researched and fact-checked so as to ensure they’re completely believable. Each and every one is masterfully crafted, perfectly balanced, and totally gripping. Read my full review of Rogues here.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

The best essay collections combine both sweeping views of the way we live our lives and the minutiae of how the author lives their own. How To Be A Woman is the perfect example. Caitlin Moran interrogates what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, with broad observations as well as deeply personal (not to mention riotously funny) anecdotes. From abortions to Brazilian waxes to pop culture to reproduction, Moran explores the opportunities and constraints for women in all areas of life. She “lays bare the reasons why female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself”.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

When you think about it, essay collections are a medium well suited to the millennial generation, with our attention spans ruined by television and our ingrained narcissism and all. Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love is to our generation what Bridget Jones’s Diary was to the Gen Xers. In it, she writes about contemporary young adulthood and all its essential components: “falling in love, finding a job, getting drunk, getting dumped, realizing that Ivan from the corner shop might just be the only reliable man in her life, and that absolutely no one can ever compare to her best girlfriends”.

Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring - Maria Popova - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve ever Googled any kind of lofty question – what did Toni Morrison say makes life worth living? is stoicism a solution to anxiety? what the heck is a ‘growth mindset’? – chances are you’ve stumbled upon BrainPickings.org (now renamed The Marginalian). The mind behind the brilliant website is Maria Popova, and while her online archives constitute about a hundred essay collections’ worth of material, she’s condensed her best and made her contribution in the form of Figuring . This one is a must-read for the literary nerds and the philosophy students and the history buffs. It features snippets and essential lessons from the lives of figures like Herman Melville , Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman.

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

Axiomatic - Maria Tumarkin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It took Maria Tumarkin nine years to research and write Axiomatic , one of the most powerful essay collections you’ll encounter at your local independent bookstore. She seeks to understand grief, loss, and trauma, and how they inform who we are as people. So, as you can probably already tell, it’s not exactly a light read – but if you’re in the mood to do some deep thinking, it’s an excellent selection. Each of its five sections is based on an axiom about the past and present (like “history repeats itself” or “time heals all wounds”), and examines true stories from Tumarkin’s own life and those around her to illustrate her wider points.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

The problem with essay collections about successful people is that too many of them are of the “here’s how you can be successful too, invest in this stock and get rich quick!” variety. Outliers is the exception (and you have no idea how hard it was not to call it an ‘outlier’ just now). Malcolm Gladwell takes an intellectual look at the best and the brightest, the shining stars of innovation and industry, with the aim of finding out what exactly makes them different. This isn’t just about waking up early or taking cold showers; there are very specific concoctions of culture, community, and cunning that get people to the very top of the game, and Gladwell lays them out for us.

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Features & Discussion

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November 26, 2022 at 1:54 AM

Wow this is such a great list and now I want to read them all? I have, in fact, read a handful of them – but am adding a whole bunch more to my wishlist.

Some brilliant essay collections I’ve read in recent years are Notes To Self by Emilie Pine, Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth, Miss Fortune by Lauren Weedman, How We Love by Clementine Ford. Notes From No-Man’s Land by Eula Biss is uneven, but the first essay in it is unforgettable. It’s only now that I realise I apparently never read essay collections by men…

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December 13, 2022 at 9:16 PM

Interesting, I was fifty-fifty on whether I’d check out How We Love, but your commendation is definitely weighing the scale in its favour! Thank you 😀

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December 3, 2022 at 2:47 PM

A favorite genre of mine that I don’t read enough in. Bookmarking this post for future reference. (One of my favorite essayists is C.S. Lewis, the master philosopher and apologist IMHO.)

Oooh! I’ve not read any of C.S. Lewis’s essay, great tip Hannah – I’ll be keeping an eye out for them!

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The decade’s best essay collections, from Zadie Smith to Jia Tolentino

Incisive and exacting, these collections make light work of untangling the last 10 years, writes annabel nugent, article bookmarked.

Find your bookmarks in your Independent Premium section, under my profile

Essays that tackle the big and the small: Collections by Naomi Klein, Jia Tolentino and Zadie Smith

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Between the climate crisis, Brexit and the launch of winter Love Island , it is easy to feel caught in an existential spiderweb, waiting for anxiety (or the onset of World War Three, whichever comes first) to consume you.

But some writers are making light work of untangling the last 10 years. Incisive and exacting, their essays tackle the big and the small – meme culture, Dostoyevsky, Bieber pandemonium, race politics, and the climate crisis are made comprehensible in their hands. These are the essay collections that make any resolution to “read more nonfiction” infinitely more enjoyable.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (2019)

Jia Tolentino rebuffs critics’ claims that she’s the voice of a generation, but after reading Trick Mirror , any other title seems to fall short. The New Yorker staff writer is most astute when deciphering her home ground – the internet. Her best essays talk double-tapping automaton, monetisation and surveillance, and hardcore fans begging their favourite celebrities to kill them. For anyone simultaneously disillusioned and addicted to the perils of modern life, Tolentino’s words will strike a chord.

White Girls by Hilton Als (2013)

Hilton Als cut his teeth on theatre reviews (earning him a Pulitzer Prize in 2017), but the writer’s talents are anything but narrow. Race, class and sexuality coalesce in a collection of essays that opens up American culture for prying eyes. Als writes equally well on Eminem and porn as he does queerness and love. Flannery O’Connor, Michael Jackson and Truman Capote all feature in this politically astute, moving collection.

Books of the decade

See What Can be Done by Lorrie Moore (2018)

The title borrows from a phrase that Moore’s editor at The New York Review would use when editing her fiction. See What Can be Done does not simply despair at the state of today, but mines that despair to find some way forward. The master of short stories writes expectedly well on fellow literary greats such as Margaret Atwood , Miranda July and Philip Roth . More surprising is her poetic wrestling with subjects like Barack Obama , HBO’s True Detective and the Republican primary debate. Each chapter offers up enormous wisdom far beyond its bite-sized proportions.

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan (2011)

John Jeremiah Sullivan takes a scalpel to pop culture and history in Pulphead . Incisive prose on everything from Christian Rock festivals in the Ozarks to Bunny Wailer with vigour and humanity. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, Sullivan writes prose with the qualities of storytelling and the grounding of in-depth research.

Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami (2011)

The Japanese author is known for surrealist fiction and running ultra-marathons, but here, he sits down instead with friend and former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa. What ensues is an enthusiastic and unpretentious discussion on their shared love for classical music. Their metiers are in perfect sync – boring industry topics like mundane bureaucracies and performer personalities are transformed by Murakami’s deft hand. While the subject may be esoteric, its appeal is definitely not.‘

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays by Marilynne Robinson (2012)

The list of books by Marilynne Robinson is upsettingly short, but every brilliant word she writes makes up for the scarcity. Robinson’s prose takes on a more exacting frankness in her nonfiction than in her Gilead trilogy. Essays on society and theology sound like a drag, but in this collection they are anything but. The Christian core of her Pulitzer prize-winning fiction comes through more visibly in these essays, but similarly does not have the alienating effect you would expect.

Feel Free by Zadie Smith (2018)

Razor-sharp essays take a long, hard look at topics both large – think intelligent takes on Bieber fever – and very, very small, as in the author’s childhood bathroom. As the title suggests, each essay explores the concept of freedom in all its meanings, but most are concerned with the artistic kind and the act of taking it, whether it’s given to you or not. Smith’s writing is casual and discursive but never rambling. Feel Free champions art as a place where freedom allows for complex issues to be safely explored.

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman (2010)

Elif Batuman makes Russian literature fun. An unapologetic nerd for Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Batuman’s book is likely to be the best thing that’s happened to the genre in modern times. The Possessed is a biblio-memoir of sorts, tracking the author’s time spent studying Russian lit at Stanford. The New Yorker staff writer fires on all cylinders in a collection of essays more about reading as a way of life than the idiosyncrasies of The Idiot .

All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks (2010)

In this collection, bell hooks moves deftly between affection, respect, commitment, gender stereotypes, domination, ego and aggression. With the help of psychological and philosophical ideas, the author pins down the airiness of love in a ruthless dissection, moments of ecstasy offset by brooding on patriarchal thinking. This collection paves the way for a more universal understanding of love.

  • Six of the biggest books released this month

This Young Monster by Charlie Fox (2017)

The last decade has birthed monsters of the good, bad and ugly varieties. In his debut novel, art critic Charlie Fox writes on modern monstrosity. In nine essays, Fox pays tribute to the art world’s outsiders. His subjects are diverse, taking on the 19th century poet Rimbaud as impressively as he grapples with The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things . This Young Monster is a love letter to those who “rebel against a reality that’s too cruel or boring for them to inhabit”. Fox’s voice is equal parts critical and personal, and always playful.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate by Naomi Klein (2014)

Naomi Klein takes no prisoners in this polemic book on climate change. Klein makes a damning argument against powerful right-wing think tanks, lobby groups and corporate elites that have dictated catastrophic environmental policies and contributed to widespread climate change denial. Klein’s writing is forthright in its condemnation of capitalism. This Changes Everything is an urgent read and one that couldn’t be more pertinent than it is today – or tomorrow, and all the days after that.

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The Best Essay Collections to Add to Your TBR List

Discover big ideas in small doses.

some of the best essay collections

Anyone who has read very much of it knows that some of the best prose around is happening in nonfiction. From personal essays to political ones, cultural criticism to travelogues, these 10 books represent some of the best essay writing of the last century, spanning continents and languages, tackling subjects that range from political unrest to pulp fiction—and everything in-between. 

So, if you’re ready to expand your mind and change your outlook, add these essay collections to your TBR list today!

A Day in the Life of Roger Angell

A Day in the Life of Roger Angell

By Roger Angell

While you may not recognize Roger Angell’s name, you probably know who he is. The stepson of legendary author E. B. White, Angell has worked for the New Yorker in various capacities for decades, including as a frequent contributing writer. 

He has written about all sorts of subjects, especially baseball, and this unique collection pulls together a variety of his best-loved pieces, including his famous Christmas poems, a variety of parodies, and a “tense correspondence over a short fiction contest that pays only in baked goods.”

Related: "Your Horoscope," by Roger Angell

My Seditious Heart

My Seditious Heart

By Arundhati Roy

A New York Times  bestseller and Booker Prize winner, Arundhati Roy is many things, and in My Seditious Heart  she proves that among those is an “electrifying political essayist” ( Booklist ). 

Collecting essays from two decades of her life, this “lucid and probing” ( Time Magazine ) book presents a lifetime of battling for social and political justice and human rights, from American capitalism to the Hindu caste system and beyond. “The scale of what Roy surveys is staggering,” writes The New York Times Book Review . “Her pointed indictment is devastating.”

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Men Explain Things to Me

Men Explain Things to Me

By Rebecca Solnit

In these “personal but unsentimental essays” ( The New York Times ), National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author Rebecca Solnit provides the perfect “antidote to mansplaining” ( The Stranger ). 

From the title essay, which explores why men talk over women and what the ultimate cost of that is, to essays about Virginia Woolf and marriage equality, Solnit’s unsparing prose has been called “ essential feminist reading ” by The New Republic – and simply “essential” by Marketplace .

Collection of Sand

Collection of Sand

By Italo Calvino

Newly translated into English for the first time by Martin McLaughlin, this “brilliant collection of essays” and travelogues, the last piece of new writing published by the legendary Italo Calvino before his death, “may change the way you see the world around you” ( The Guardian ). 

From antique maps to Japanese gardens, Calvino takes us on a tour of the world, but also of his own mind, in the process heightening our appreciation of the visual world around us. 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

By Joan Didion

In her first work of nonfiction, one of America’s most “dazzling” prose stylists ( The New York Times ) also establishes herself as a singular voice on American culture, painting a vivid portrait of a nation in the midst of tumultuous change. 

First published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has become a modern classic , hailed as “a rare display of some of the best prose written today in this country” by the New York Times Book Review . No wonder Time Magazine chose it as one of the 100 best and most influential nonfiction books to date.

Related: Joan Didion: Her Books, Life and Legacy

Essays After Eighty

Essays After Eighty

By Donald Hall

A former Poet Laureate of the United States, Donald Hall has “wrought his prose to a keen autumnal edge” in his waning years, according to The Wall Street Journal . This collection of essays written, as the title implies, after he turned 80, sees Hall reflecting on his life, on his career, on writing itself, and on the view out his window. 

“Alternately lyrical and laugh-out-loud funny ” ( The New York Times ), these essays show that Hall has never lost his deft touch, nor his passion for life and all of its mysteries, whimsies, and wonders.

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle

By Angela Y. Davis

Author of such classic works as Women, Race, and  Class, Angela Y. Davis made a name for herself as an activist and scholar with a penetrating insight into social issues. 

In this new collection of essays, she tackles some of the most pressing issues that affect our present moment , from the Black Lives Matter movement to Palestine and beyond, calling upon us all to imagine a better world – and do the important work required to make it possible.

Illuminations

Illuminations

By Walter Benjamin

A German cultural critic who has been called one of most original thinkers of the 20th century, Walter Benjamin fled Germany in 1932, as the Nazi party rose to power, and died in exile before the end of the second World War. 

Hannah Arendt, herself one of the most influential political theorists of the modern age, hand-assembled this collection of some of Benjamin’s most famous and most important essays, including his legendary “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to form this unforgettable book from a unique mind.

Tell Me How It Ends

Tell Me How It Ends

By Valeria Luiselli

An American Book Award Winner and a finalist for both the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, this “essay in forty questions” is a “moving, intimate” account of serving as a translator for undocumented children facing deportation ( The New York Times Book Review ). 

As a volunteer worker, Luiselli translated these forty questions from a court form to ask undocumented children who were under threat of deportation. By structuring her writing around them, she helps to put a vitally human face on children who are thrust into an often-uncaring system in this book that is, “Worth of inclusion in a great American (and international) canon of writing about migration” ( Texas Observer ).

Maps and Legends

Maps and Legends

By Michael Chabon

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay “makes an inviting case for bridging the gap between popular and literary writing” ( O, The Oprah Magazine ) in this appreciation of everything from pulp fiction to comic books, horror to westerns. 

By writing about the stories that move him, speak to him, and inspired him to write, Chabon also talks about his own identity as an author, and what storytelling means to all of us, whether he’s writing about Superman or Sherlock Holmes.

Related: 12 Michael Chabon Books You Won't Be Able to Put Down

Keep Reading: 10 Essential Essay-Length Memoirs You Can Read Online for Free

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100 Best Essays Books of All Time

We've researched and ranked the best essays books in the world, based on recommendations from world experts, sales data, and millions of reader ratings. Learn more

top essay collections of all time

Men Explain Things to Me

Rebecca Solnit | 5.00

top essay collections of all time

Chelsea Handler Goes deep with statistics, personal stories, and others’ accounts of how brutal this world can be for women, the history of how we've been treated, and what it will take to change the conversation: MEN. We need them to be as outraged as we are and join our fight. (Source)

See more recommendations for this book...

top essay collections of all time

Me Talk Pretty One Day

David Sedaris | 4.96

top essay collections of all time

Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates | 4.94

top essay collections of all time

Barack Obama The president also released a list of his summer favorites back in 2015: All That Is, James Salter The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (Source)

Jack Dorsey Q: What are the books that had a major influence on you? Or simply the ones you like the most. : Tao te Ching, score takes care of itself, between the world and me, the four agreements, the old man and the sea...I love reading! (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Doug McMillon Here are some of my favorite reads from 2017. Lots of friends and colleagues send me book suggestions and it's impossible to squeeze them all in. I continue to be super curious about how digital and tech are enabling people to transform our lives but I try to read a good mix of books that apply to a variety of areas and stretch my thinking more broadly. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion | 4.94

top essay collections of all time

Peter Hessler I like Didion for her writing style and her control over her material, but also for the way in which she captures a historical moment. (Source)

Liz Lambert I love [this book] so much. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | 4.92

top essay collections of all time

Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay | 4.88

top essay collections of all time

Irina Nica It’s hard to pick an all-time favorite because, as time goes by and I grow older, my reading list becomes more “mature” and I find myself interested in new things. I probably have a personal favorite book for each stage of my life. Right now I’m absolutely blown away by everything Roxane Gay wrote, especially Bad Feminist. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Trick Mirror

Reflections on Self-Delusion

Jia Tolentino | 4.86

top essay collections of all time

Lydia Polgreen This book is amazing and you should read it. https://t.co/pcbmYUR4QP (Source)

Maryanne Hobbs ⁦@jiatolentino⁩ hello Jia :) finding your perspectives in the new book fascinating and so resonant.. thank you 🌹 m/a..x https://t.co/BoNzB1BuDf (Source)

Yashar Ali . @jiatolentino’s fabulous book is one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2019 https://t.co/QHzZsHl2rF (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Consider the Lobster

And Other Essays

David Foster Wallace | 4.85

top essay collections of all time

A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf | 4.75

top essay collections of all time

Dress Your Family in Corduroy & Denim

David Sedaris | 4.73

top essay collections of all time

Adam Kay @penceyprepmemes How about David Sedaris, for starters - "Dress your family in corduroy and denim" is an amazing book. (Source)

Don't have time to read the top Essays books of all time? Read Shortform summaries.

Shortform summaries help you learn 10x faster by:

  • Being comprehensive: you learn the most important points in the book
  • Cutting out the fluff: you focus your time on what's important to know
  • Interactive exercises: apply the book's ideas to your own life with our educators' guidance.

top essay collections of all time

The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin | 4.69

Barack Obama Fact or fiction, the president knows that reading keeps the mind sharp. He also delved into these non-fiction reads: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Evan Osnos Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman Moral Man And Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr A Kind And Just Parent, William Ayers The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria Lessons in Disaster, Gordon Goldstein Sapiens: A Brief History of... (Source)

top essay collections of all time

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

David Sedaris | 4.67

top essay collections of all time

David Sedaris | 4.63

top essay collections of all time

David Blaine It’s hilarious. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

The White Album

Joan Didion | 4.62

top essay collections of all time

Dan Richards I feel Joan Didion is the patron saint of a maelstrom of culture and environment of a particular time. She is the great American road-trip writer, to my mind. She has that great widescreen filmic quality to her work. (Source)

Steven Amsterdam With her gaze on California of the late 60s and early 70s, Didion gives us the Black Panthers, Janis Joplin, Nancy Reagan, and the Manson follower Linda Kasabian. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Essays and Arguments

David Foster Wallace | 4.61

top essay collections of all time

Tressie McMillan Cottom | 4.60

top essay collections of all time

Melissa Moore The best book I read this year was Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom. I read it twice and both times found it challenging and revelatory. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

David Sedaris and Hachette Audi | 4.60

top essay collections of all time

Sister Outsider

Essays and Speeches

Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke | 4.60

top essay collections of all time

Bianca Belair For #BHM  I will be sharing some of my favorite books by Black Authors 26th Book: Sister Outsider By: Audre Lorde My first time reading anything by Audre Lorde. I am now really looking forward to reading more of her poems/writings. What she writes is important & timeless. https://t.co/dUDMcaAAbx (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

David Sedaris | 4.58

Austin Kleon I read this one, then I read his collected diaries, Theft By Finding, and then I read the visual compendium, which might have even been the most interesting of the three books, but I’m listing this one because it’s hilarious, although with the interstitial fiction bits, it’s sort of like one of those classic 90s hip-hop albums where you skip the “skit” tracks. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Notes from a Loud Woman

Lindy West | 4.56

top essay collections of all time

Matt Mcgorry "Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman" by Lindy West @TheLindyWest # Lovvvvveeedddd, loved, loved, loved this book!!!  West is a truly remarkable writer and her stories are beautifully poignant while dosed with her… https://t.co/nzJtXtOGTn (Source)

Shannon Coulter @JennLHaglund @tomi_adeyemi I love that feeling! Just finished the audiobook version of Shrill by Lindy West after _years_ of meaning to read it and that's the exact feeling it gave me. Give me your book recommendations! (Source)

top essay collections of all time

The Collected Schizophrenias

Esmé Weijun Wang | 4.52

top essay collections of all time

Tiny Beautiful Things

Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Cheryl Strayed | 4.49

top essay collections of all time

Ryan Holiday It was wonderful to read these two provocative books of essays by two incredibly wise and compassionate women. Cheryl Strayed, also the author of Wild, was the anonymous columnist behind the online column, Dear Sugar and boy, are we better off for it. This is not a random smattering of advice. This book contains some of the most cogent insights on life, pain, loss, love, success, youth that I... (Source)

James Altucher Cheryl had an advice column called “Dear Sugar”. I was reading the column long before Oprah recommended “Wild” by Cheryl and then Wild became a movie and “Tiny Beautiful Things” (the collection of her advice column) became a book. She is so wise and compassionate. A modern saint. I used to do Q&A sessions on Twitter. I’d read her book beforehand to get inspiration about what true advice is. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

We Were Eight Years in Power

An American Tragedy

Ta-Nehisi Coates | 4.47

top essay collections of all time

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Albert Camu | 4.47

top essay collections of all time

David Heinemeier Hansson Camus’ philosophical exposition of absurdity, suicide in the face of meaninglessness, and other cherry topics that continue on from his fictional work in novels like The Stranger. It’s surprisingly readable, unlike many other mid 20th century philosophers, yet no less deep or pointy. It’s a great follow-up, as an original text, to that book The Age of Absurdity, I recommended last year. Still... (Source)

Kenan Malik The Myth of Sisyphus is a small work, but Camus’s meditation on faith and fate has personally been hugely important in developing my ideas. Writing in the embers of World War II, Camus confronts in The Myth of Sisyphus both the tragedy of recent history and what he sees as the absurdity of the human condition. There is, he observes, a chasm between the human need for meaning and what he calls... (Source)

top essay collections of all time

The Penguin Essays Of George Orwell

George Orwell, Bernard Crick | 4.46

top essay collections of all time

Peter Kellner George Orwell was not only an extraordinary writer but he also hated any form of cant. Some of his most widely read works such as 1984 and Animal Farm are an assault on the nastier, narrow-minded, dictatorial tendencies of the left, although Orwell was himself on the left. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

The Opposite of Loneliness

Essays and Stories

Marina Keegan, Anne Fadiman | 4.46

top essay collections of all time

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | 4.45

top essay collections of all time

The Tipping Point

How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Malcolm Gladwell | 4.45

top essay collections of all time

Kevin Rose Bunch of really good information in here on how to make ideas go viral. This could be good to apply to any kind of products or ideas you may have. Definitely, check out The Tipping Point, which is one of my favorites. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Seth Godin Malcolm Gladwell's breakthrough insight was to focus on the micro-relationships between individuals, which helped organizations realize that it's not about the big ads and the huge charity balls... it's about setting the stage for the buzz to start. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Andy Stern I think that when we talk about making change, it is much more about macro change, like in policy. This book reminds you that at times when you're building big movements, or trying to elect significant decision-makers in politics, sometimes it's the little things that make a difference. Ever since the book was written, we've become very used to the idea of things going viral unexpectedly and then... (Source)

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Selected Essays

Mary Oliver | 4.44

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We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

Samantha Irby | 4.44

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Complete Essays

Michel de Montaigne, Charles Cotton | 4.42

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Ryan Holiday There is plenty to study and see simply by looking inwards — maybe even an alarming amount. (Source)

Alain de Botton I’ve given quite a lot of copies of [this book] to people down the years. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Mindy Kaling | 4.42

top essay collections of all time

Angela Kinsey .@mindykaling I am rereading your book and cracking up. I appreciate your chapter on The Office so much more now. But all of it is fantastic. Thanks for starting my day with laughter. You know I loves ya. ❤️ https://t.co/EB99xnyt0p (Source)

Yashar Ali Reminds me of one of my favorite lines from @mindykaling's book (even though I'm an early riser): “There is no sunrise so beautiful that it is worth waking me up to see it.” https://t.co/pS56bmyYjS (Source)

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Not That Bad

Dispatches from Rape Culture

Roxane Gay, Brandon Taylor, et al | 4.40

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Henry David Thoreau | 4.40

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Laura Dassow Walls The book that we love as Walden began in the journal entries that he wrote starting with his first day at the pond. (Source)

Roman Krznaric In 1845 the American naturalist went out to live in the woods of Western Massachusetts. Thoreau was one of the great masters of the art of simple living. (Source)

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John Kaag There’s this idea that philosophy can blend into memoir and that, ideally, philosophy, at its best, is to help us through the business of living with people, within communities. This is a point that Thoreau’s Walden gave to me, as a writer, and why I consider it so valuable for today. (Source)

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Confessions of a Common Reader

Anne Fadiman | 4.40

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I Feel Bad About My Neck

And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

Nora Ephron | 4.39

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Holidays on Ice

David Sedaris | 4.37

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An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine | 4.36

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Cheryl Strayed A really important book for us to be reading right now. (Source)

Jeremy Noel-Tod Obviously, it’s been admired and acclaimed, but I do feel the general reception of it has underplayed its artfulness. Its technical subtlety and overall arrangement has been neglected, because it has been classified as a kind of documentary work. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Christopher Hitchens | 4.36

top essay collections of all time

Le Grove @billysubway Hitchens book under your arm. I’m reading Arguably. When he’s at his best, he is a savage. Unbelievable prose. (Source)

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Notes of a Native Son

James Baldwin | 4.35

top essay collections of all time

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

Oliver Sacks | 4.34

top essay collections of all time

Suzanne O'Sullivan I didn’t choose neurology because of it but the way Oliver Sacks writes about neurology is very compelling. (Source)

Tanya Byron This is a seminal book that anyone who wants to work in mental health should read. It is a charming and gentle and also an honest exposé of what can happen to us when our mental health is compromised for whatever reason. (Source)

Bradley Voytek I can’t imagine one day waking up and not knowing who my wife is, or seeing my wife and thinking that she was replaced by some sort of clone or robot. But that could happen to any of us. (Source)

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The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison | 4.33

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This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett | 4.31

top essay collections of all time

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

A Low Culture Manifesto

Chuck Klosterman | 4.30

Karen Pfaff Manganillo Never have I read a book that I said “this is so perfect, amazing, hilarious, he’s thinking what I’m thinking (in a much more thought out and cool way)”. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Bird By Bird

Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Anne Lamott | 4.29

top essay collections of all time

Susan Cain I love [this book]. Such a good book. (Source)

Timothy Ferriss Bird by Bird is one of my absolute favorite books, and I gift it to everybody, which I should probably also give to startup founders, quite frankly. A lot of the lessons are the same. But you can get to your destination, even though you can only see 20 feet in front of you. (Source)

Ryan Holiday It was wonderful to read these two provocative books of essays by two incredibly wise and compassionate women. [...] Anne Lamott’s book is ostensibly about the art of writing, but really it too is about life and how to tackle the problems, temptations and opportunities life throws at us. Both will make you think and both made me a better person this year. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Zadie Smith | 4.29

Barack Obama As 2018 draws to a close, I’m continuing a favorite tradition of mine and sharing my year-end lists. It gives me a moment to pause and reflect on the year through the books I found most thought-provoking, inspiring, or just plain loved. It also gives me a chance to highlight talented authors – some who are household names and others who you may not have heard of before. Here’s my best of 2018... (Source)

top essay collections of all time

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

Malcolm Gladwell | 4.28

top essay collections of all time

Sam Freedman @mrianleslie (Also I agree What the Dog Saw is his best book). (Source)

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The Witches Are Coming

Lindy West | 4.27

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Against Interpretation and Other Essays

Susan Sontag | 4.25

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

Alexander Chee | 4.25

Eula Biss Alex Chee explores the realm of the real with extraordinarily beautiful essays. Being real here is an ambition, a haunting, an impossibility, and an illusion. What passes for real, his essays suggest, becomes real, just as life becomes art and art, pursued this fully, becomes a life. (Source)

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Changing My Mind

Occasional Essays

Zadie Smith | 4.25

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Barrel Fever

David Sedaris | 4.24

Chelsea Handler [The author] is fucking hilarious and there's nothing I prefer to do more than laugh. If this book doesn't make you laugh, I'll refund you the money. (Source)

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The Fire This Time

A New Generation Speaks About Race

Jesmyn Ward | 4.24

top essay collections of all time

Why Not Me?

Mindy Kaling | 4.24

top essay collections of all time

The View from the Cheap Seats

Selected Nonfiction

Neil Gaiman | 4.24

top essay collections of all time

I Was Told There'd Be Cake

Sloane Crosley | 4.24

top essay collections of all time

The Intelligent Investor

The Classic Text on Value Investing

Benjamin Graham | 4.23

top essay collections of all time

Warren Buffett To invest successfully over a lifetime does not require a stratospheric IQ, unusual business insights, or inside information. What's needed is a sound intellectual framework for making decisions and the ability to keep emotions from corroding that framework. This book precisely and clearly prescribes the proper framework. You must provide the emotional discipline. (Source)

Kevin Rose The foundation for investing. A lot of people have used this as their guide to getting into investment, basic strategies. Actually Warren Buffett cites this as the book that got him into investing and he says that principles he learned here helped him to become a great investor. Highly recommend this book. It’s a great way understand what’s going on and how to evaluate different companies out... (Source)

top essay collections of all time

John Kay The idea is that you look at the underlying value of the company’s activities instead of relying on market gossip. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Tell Me How It Ends

An Essay in Forty Questions

Valeria Luiselli | 4.23

top essay collections of all time

Tina Fey | 4.22

Sheryl Sandberg I absolutely loved Tina Fey's "Bossypants" and didn't want it to end. It's hilarious as well as important. Not only was I laughing on every page, but I was nodding along, highlighting and dog-earing like crazy. [...] It is so, so good. As a young girl, I was labeled bossy, too, so as a former - O.K., current - bossypants, I am grateful to Tina for being outspoken, unapologetic and hysterically... (Source)

top essay collections of all time

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us

Hanif Abdurraqib, Dr. Eve L. Ewing | 4.22

top essay collections of all time

Saadia Muzaffar Man, this is such an amazing book of essays. Meditations on music and musicians and their moments and meaning-making. @NifMuhammad's mindworks are a gift. Go find it. (thank you @asad_ch!) https://t.co/htSueYYBUT (Source)

top essay collections of all time

This Is Water

Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

David Foster Wallace | 4.21

top essay collections of all time

John Jeremiah Sullivan | 4.21

top essay collections of all time

Greil Marcus This is a new book by a writer in his mid-thirties, about all kinds of things. A lot of it is about the South, some of it is autobiographical, there is a long and quite wonderful piece about going to a Christian music camp. (Source)

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The Mother of All Questions

Rebecca Solnit | 4.20

top essay collections of all time

The Partly Cloudy Patriot

Sarah Vowell, Katherine Streeter | 4.20

top essay collections of all time

Essays of E.B. White

E. B. White | 4.19

top essay collections of all time

Adam Gopnik White, for me, is the great maker of the New Yorker style. Though it seems self-serving for me to say it, I think that style was the next step in the creation of the essay tone. One of the things White does is use a lot of the habits of the American newspaper in his essays. He is a genuinely simple, spare, understated writer. In the presence of White, even writers as inspired as Woolf and... (Source)

top essay collections of all time

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Rebecca Solnit | 4.19

top essay collections of all time

A Man Without a Country

Kurt Vonnegut | 4.18

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No Time to Spare

Thinking About What Matters

Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler | 4.17

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard | 4.16

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Laura Dassow Walls She’s enacting Thoreau, but in a 20th-century context: she takes on quantum physics, the latest research on DNA and the nature of life. (Source)

Sara Maitland This book, which won the Pulitzer literature prize when it was released, is the most beautiful book about the wild. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Maggie Nelson | 4.14

top essay collections of all time

Furiously Happy

A Funny Book About Horrible Things

Jenny Lawson | 4.13

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Women & Power

A Manifesto

Mary Beard | 4.13

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Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Timothy Snyder | 4.12

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George Saunders Please read this book. So smart, so timely. (Source)

Tom Holland "There isn’t a page of this magnificent book that does not contain some fascinating detail and the narrative is held together with a novelist’s eye for character and theme." #Dominion https://t.co/FESSNxVDLC (Source)

Maya Wiley Prof. Tim Snyder, author of “In Tyranny” reminded us in that important little book that we must protect our institutions. #DOJ is one of our most important in gov’t for the rule of law. This is our collective house & #Barr should be evicted. https://t.co/PPxM9IMQUm (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Small Wonder

Barbara Kingsolver | 4.11

top essay collections of all time

The Source of Self-Regard

Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations

Toni Morrison | 4.11

top essay collections of all time

Hyperbole and a Half

Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened

Allie Brosh | 4.11

top essay collections of all time

Bill Gates While she self-deprecatingly depicts herself in words and art as an odd outsider, we can all relate to her struggles. Rather than laughing at her, you laugh with her. It is no hyperbole to say I love her approach -- looking, listening, and describing with the observational skills of a scientist, the creativity of an artist, and the wit of a comedian. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Samantha Irby | 4.10

top essay collections of all time

Both Flesh and Not

David Foster Wallace | 4.10

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David Papineau People can learn to do amazing things with their bodies, and people start honing and developing these skills as an end in itself, a very natural thing for humans to do. (Source)

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So Sad Today

Personal Essays

Melissa Broder | 4.10

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Hope in the Dark

Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Rebecca Solnit | 4.09

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Prem Panicker @sanjayen This is from an essay Solnit wrote to introduce the updated version of her book Hope In The Dark. Anything Solnit is brilliant; at times like these, she is the North Star. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

The Faraway Nearby

top essay collections of all time

How to Be Alone

Jonathan Franzen | 4.08

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Regarding the Pain of Others

Susan Sontag | 4.08

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The Essays of Warren Buffett

Lessons for Corporate America, Fifth Edition

Lawrence A. Cunningham and Warren E. Buffett | 4.08

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One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Scaachi Koul | 4.07

top essay collections of all time

Amy Poehler | 4.06

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The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Du Bois | 4.05

Barack Obama According to the president’s Facebook page and a 2008 interview with the New York Times, these titles are among his most influential forever favorites: Moby Dick, Herman Melville Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson Song Of Solomon, Toni Morrison Parting The Waters, Taylor Branch Gilead, Marylinne Robinson Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton Souls of Black... (Source)

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In Praise of Shadows

Jun'ichiro Tanizaki | 4.05

top essay collections of all time

Kyle Chayka Tanizaki is mourning what has been paved over, which is the old Japanese aesthetic of darkness, of softness, of appreciating the imperfect—rather than the cold, glossy surfaces of industrialized modernity that the West had brought to Japan at that moment. For me, that’s really valuable, because it does preserve a different way of looking at the world. (Source)

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Ways of Seeing

John Berger | 4.04

top essay collections of all time

Robert Jones He’s a Marxist and says that the role of publicity or branding is to make people marginally dissatisfied with their current way of life. (Source)

David McCammon Ways of Seeing goes beyond photography and will continue to develop your language around images. (Source)

John Harrison (Eton College) You have to understand the Marxist interpretation of art; it is absolutely fundamental to the way that art history departments now study the material. Then you have to critique it, because we’ve moved on from the 1970s and the collapse of Marxism in most of the world shows—amongst other things—that the model was flawed. But it’s still a very good book to read, for a teenager especially. (Source)

top essay collections of all time

Tackling the Texas Essays

Efficient Preparation for the Texas Bar Exam

Catherine Martin Christopher | 4.04

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The Book of Delights

Ross Gay | 4.04

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Mere Christianity

C. S. Lewis | 4.04

Anoop Anthony "Mere Christianity" is first and foremost a rational book — it is in many ways the opposite of a traditional religious tome. Lewis, who was once an atheist, has been on both sides of the table, and he approaches the notion of God with accessible, clear thinking. The book reveals that experiencing God doesn't have to be a mystical exercise; God can be a concrete and logical conclusion. Lewis was... (Source)

top essay collections of all time

I Remember Nothing

and Other Reflections

Nora Ephron | 4.04

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On Photography

Susan Sontag | 4.03

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Susan Bordo Sontag was the first to make the claim, which at the time was very controversial, that photography is misleading and seductive because it looks like reality but is in fact highly selective. (Source)

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Notes from No Man's Land

American Essays

Eula Biss | 4.03

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The Doors of Perception

Heaven and Hell (Thinking Classics)

Aldous Huxley, Robbie McCallum | 4.03

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Michelle Rodriguez Aldous Huxley on Technodictators https://t.co/RDyX70lnZz via @YouTube ‘Doors of Perception’ is a great book entry level to hallucinogenics (Source)

Auston Bunsen I also really loved “The doors of perception” by Aldous Huxley. (Source)

Dr. Andrew Weil Came first [in terms of my interests]. (Source)

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The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley | 4.02

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Wow, No Thank You.

Samantha Irby | 4.01

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A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift | 4.01

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At Large and at Small

Familiar Essays

Anne Fadiman | 4.00

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Nonfiction Books » Essays

Adam gopnik on his favourite essay collections.

In Mid-Air: Points of View from over a Decade by Adam Gopnik

In Mid-Air: Points of View from over a Decade by Adam Gopnik

What makes a great essayist? Who had it, who didn’t? And whose work left the biggest mark on the New Yorker ? Longtime writer for the magazine, Adam Gopnik , picks out five masters of the craft

In Mid-Air: Points of View from over a Decade by Adam Gopnik

And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White

Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - A Sad Heart At The Supermarket by Randall Jarrell

A Sad Heart At The Supermarket by Randall Jarrell

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - Visions Before Midnight by Clive James

Visions Before Midnight by Clive James

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

1 And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

2 the common reader by virginia woolf, 3 essays of e.b. white by e.b. white, 4 a sad heart at the supermarket by randall jarrell, 5 visions before midnight by clive james.

B efore we get into the books, I wanted to ask you about essays generally. In your introduction to The Best American Essays of 2008 you have a rather nice phrase: “The essay is a classical form for short-winded Romantics.” What do you mean by that?

There are certain kinds of criticism that I think of as essentially essays – Clive James or Randall Jarrell’s criticism, for instance – whereas there are other critics whom I admire just as much – say [William] Empson and [WH] Auden – but whom I don’t think of as essayists. They’re superior literary critics.

Is the distinction to do with the presence of the “I” in their work?

The “I” need not appear in the piece, but it’s always implicit in the essay. Empson and Auden want to win you round to their point of view, Jarrell and James want to make their experience persuasive. Of course, one of the best ways of winning you round to a point of view is to make your experience persuasive, and one of the best ways to make your experience persuasive is to win you round to a point of view!

There are no absolute lines in this. But there does seem to me a real difference between the things Empson – who is an absolutely wonderful writer and an amazing companion – is trying to do in his critical articles and the things Jarrell is trying to do in his. Jarrell conceives of criticism poetically. That is, that it should have some of the surprise and delight of personal revelation: “ I felt this then, and I passed through the prism of a work of writing” rather than “this is a general truth of literature”.

With essayists, we feel we’re reading their first names rather than their honorifics. We’re reading Clive and Virginia and Randall rather than James and Woolf and Jarrell, in a way we never feel we’re reading William and Wystan rather than Empson and Auden.

You have written that the essay has an implicit politics to it, and that the job of the essay is “to drain the melodrama from overwrought debate and replace it with common sense and comedy”.

Did I say that? When you think [of essays] historically, beginning with Montaigne, one of the things Montaigne does – at a time of violent and feverish religious debate – is he makes the case for both and at once, for either and or, for the division within oneself. That there is no pure or certain state which we can be in in our mental lives.

Even someone as seemingly non-political as Max Beerbohm is placed at the intersection of all kinds of political passions – Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw’s socialism, Rudyard Kipling’s imperialism and so on – and he makes fun of them all. That’s one of the things that makes Beerbohm attractive. In a very decorous and mischievous way, he mocks that kind of ideological passion.

You mentioned Beerbohm. Let’s begin with his book And Even Now . You said his approach was to parody and make light of things. He was also a caricaturist. Do you see a link between his illustrations and his essays?

Yes, absolutely. He was a caricaturist with remarkable insight and relatively little malice in his parodies and cartoons. He found the pomposities of over-zealous ideology absurd. He also had a lovely vein of affection. One of my favourite of his picture-books is called Rossetti and H is Circle . It’s basically imaginary pictures of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites in their very complicated domestic life. The implicit theme of the whole book is that behind the Pre-Raphaelite dream of the perfect Botticelli nymph and the medieval romantic life is this very funny, furtive domestic life in Chelsea [London]. Constantly referring dream-life back to reality is another way Beerbohm works.

He’s an essayist who isn’t so widely read these days. Why do you think that is?

For me, Beerbohm has an almost dangerously perfect tone – a mixture of benign serenity and quiet intellectual authority that I think is the tone every essayist searches for. It’s not accidental that Beerbohm was influential on the first generation of The New Yorker writers, people like Wolcott Gibbs.

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One of the dangers of that tone, though, is that it can seem unduly complacent or self-satisfied. I suspect that the note of complacency in Beerbohm’s writing is kind of out of kilter with the times. It’s a note that was so hugely popular for 50 or 60 years that I guess it came to seem old-fashioned. If you ever read old collections of light editorials from The  London Times , they all strive for the Beerbohm sound. Inevitably, when a sound gets imitated for too long it becomes a little empty.

Beerbohm is also not a writer of fanatic passion or political certainty. You can’t consult him directly for the quote you might need about the topic of the day. For those reasons, he’s gone a bit out of fashion. But he remains a wonderful writer, and for me the best witness of that period – the end of the Victorian age and the beginning of the modern age.

What do you think he writes best about?

Literature. My favourite of his essays are ones like “A Clergyman”, which is a very close, loving analysis of an obscure passage of [James] Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson . A clergyman, identified in no other way, squeaks out a little objection to something Dr Johnson has said, and Johnson crushes him with his rejoinder. Beerbohm reflects on the lost and hidden life of this clergyman, who made one brief bid for literary immortality and whose name even Boswell couldn’t recall.

Let’s go on to another English essayist, Virginia Woolf . She wrote a great deal of non-fiction. Why does her writing in The Common Reader qualify as essays rather than what they strictly appear to be – reviews or criticism?

Exactly because we read Woolf for her tone – her equanimity, her ability to weave together a detached and usually very severe critical judgement with a tone of ruminative engagement. That’s a tone, as much as Beerbohm’s is in another way, which seems to me particularly enviable.

Is it, along with Beerbohm, a particularly English tone? The next three essayists we’re going to talk about are American or Australian.

I think that’s true. There’s a sense in which both Woolf and Beerbohm come after the age of Victorian literary industry. They both take for granted this common pool of Dickens , [George] Eliot and Trollope – writers of huge industry, enormous achievement and vast social observation – and they both make a quiet case for the miniature, for the perfectly wrought. So there’s a kind of running commentary on Victorian fiction in both of their work.

I also think, without having illusions about the nature of the societies in which they worked, that there is a strong lure of a stable and secure literary society in their work. They both feel themselves to be at home with literature, not out of place in any way. Their tone – unlike certain American essayists – does not give a sense of having an uncertain or anxious relationship to literature.

That sense is certainly something you get from the title essay of Jarrell’s collection.

Next, you have gone with a collection of EB White ’s essays. He is one of the most iconic New Yorker writers.

White, for me, is the great maker of the New Yorker style. Though it seems self-serving for me to say it, I think that style was the next step in the creation of the essay tone. One of the things White does is use a lot of the habits of the American newspaper in his essays. He is a genuinely simple, spare, understated writer. In the presence of White, even writers as inspired as Woolf and Beerbohm suddenly look stuffy and literary. White has an amazing ability, which I still marvel at, to come very close to a faux-naïve simplicity that’s excessive and then pull it back.

I’m just picking up one of his collections. I’m going to open it up at random and look for a sentence that captures White. Here’s one from a piece called “The Trailer Park”:

“Before sitting down to draft a preamble to the constitution of a world federations of democracies uniting free people under one banner, I decided I would mosey over to the trailer park at the edge of town and ask some of the campers whether they favoured any such idea of this union.”

The virtue of White’s kind of writing is to start with something that sounds pompous and editorial and then use a verb like “mosey over” to make it work. He cleans up the prose of the essay. Both Beerbohm and Woolf are belle-lettrist sort of writers and they connect to that leisurely tradition. White is a much more urbane and American writer.

What is the key “if you haven’t read any White, read this essay” essay for you?

Next up is A Sad Heart At The Supermarket . Randall Jarrell is best known as a poet, rather than an essayist. Why are his essays worth reading?

Jarrell, for me, is the absolute master of what I like to think of as “cabaret criticism”. The man has endless wit. I think his novel Pictures From an Institution is the single wittiest book of the last century, even though I’ve read it 10 times and can never recall the story! He’s a very poor storyteller but an amazingly witty writer.

Jarrell is a comedian of a kind. He always finds something not just witty in a literary way but outright funny to say about extremely serious subjects – about Auden, [Robert] Graves, Laura Riding or Wallace Stevens. I admire that ability to turn straight, old-fashioned literary criticism into a constant performance in the best sense – into a form of entertainment in itself. He supplied a new tone of enormous, wonderful excitability. That’s one of the things I love about Jarrell, and one of the things I struggle to infuse my own work with – a sense of excitement and pleasure even in the driest texts. Most of all he’s just a wonderful joker.

Do you have any favourite lines of his?

Again, let me open the book and take a sentence at random. Here’s one. He’s writing about [Walt] Whitman:

“The interesting thing about Whitman’s worst language (for, just as few poets have ever written better, few poets have written worse) is how unusually absurd, how really ingeniously bad, such language is.”

It’s that tone of hyperbolic excitability in the presence of literature, which is a constant antidote to the solemnity and false seriousness of most literary study.

You mention that Jarrell is a model you seek to emulate. But in terms of taste, at least, you’re a very different kind of writer. In the title essay of A Sad Heart at the Supermarket Jarrell is very wary of popular culture, whereas in last week’s New Yorker you compare the Book of Revelations to Transformers. Love of popular culture runs through your work.

That’s very true. I think all the interesting writers of my generation drew the high brow-low brow line in a very different way to Jarrell’s generation. We all came of age – I’m thinking of Louis Menand or Martin Amis or Clive James – when there seemed to be more genuine artistic energy in popular culture, movies and rock music in particular, than there was in high culture. The experience of The Beatles or Fellini or the Godfather films illuminated our understanding of high culture, rather than the other way around. I think that is a true fault line in the history of modern writing – you’re either on one side of it or the other.

Do you think for Jarrell and his contemporaries it was a lack of genuinely great pop culture in their time that put them off? Or was it a generational thing where they couldn’t get on board with the idea that pop culture, even if very good, is something you can consider seriously alongside high culture?

A little of both. Jarrell writes wonderfully about race cars and American football . He was no snob. But as far as I remember he never references jazz – which is a kind of in-between form of pop culture, more culture than pop in lots of ways. You have to remember too that for Jarrell’s generation, the GI generation, they were in the process of recognising and discovering what we now think of as high culture.

My own father was one of that generation. For him, each piece of high culture he achieved, understood, enjoyed – whether it was Bach or Milton – was part of a mountain climbed. We all, in a sense, started too easily – somewhere up on the mountain – because of their work, and therefore had a different view of it.

Do you have a favourite Jarrell essay?

Your last choice is Visions Before Midnight by Clive James. How did you come across his work? He’s well known in Britain, especially for his TV career, but not so much in America.

In 1980, Knopf did an anthology of his essays called First Reactions . In a curious way it was an advantage to read him flat-out as a writer. All of my friends in England read him as an entanglement of personal presence and prose style. I read him simply as prose style, without any knowledge of what his personal presence was like.

What was it you liked about his writing?

He has some of Jarrell’s excitability in the presence of creative energy. He has the ability to bring you into his writing, even when he’s writing about things that are in some ways utterly trivial and often completely forgotten, like British TV of the 1970s. He has a way of turning each of those subjects into a wonderful essay – an exercise in cabaret criticism – about values.

Values, I think, are his real subject. The overriding lesson of his work is that categories – high art, low art, television, theatre – are misleading guides to value. That even runs at a deeper, moral level in James’s work about the larger categories – provincial and metropolitan, for instance. He’s a provincial guy who comes to the city, but his provincial experience is in lots of ways richer than his metropolitan experience. It’s the rejection of categories in place of values that is the Montaigne-like takeaway in all his work.

Did he have an influence on your writing, or were you far enough in your writing career to find him as a friend and ally rather than a mentor figure?

Whereas Jarrell, Beerbohm and White were in different ways direct elements in the long-simmering braise that produced my prose style, for whatever it’s worth, Clive came along when I was already, in some sense, a formed writer.

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But I did learn one very specific thing from his writing. He’s a very linear writer. His essays are always organised around sharp, direct and forward-pushing sentences. Whereas with Virginia Woolf your first response to one of her paragraphs, in the best way, is to read it again. Your first response to a Clive James piece is to keep on reading. I learned a great deal about how to make a piece propulsive from reading him.

And can you pick a favourite Clive James essay?

As with Woolf, the joy is cumulative – it’s the pleasure of reading all of his work. But here’s a good one. It’s a television column from December 3rd 1972 which goes from an argument between the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire, to a documentary on “Bomber” Harris and the morality of area bombing, to a production of Oedipus Rex , to a new David Mercer play. In the midst of it, this comes up:

“Why, then, with all this talent [in the production of Oedipus], including a sumptuous lighting design that covers the décor with spiced gloom, does the production have so little sting? The answer, I think, is that there’s not much point in trying to supply a binding image to a play whose author was so intent on leaving imagery out. It’s difficult to think of Sophocles looking with favour on any attempt to pin his universalised theme to mere political instability.”

That’s a deep and original thought, perfectly expressed, which rises out of the normal eddies of TV journalism. That combination of range, ease and aphoristic subtlety is what I love in Clive’s work.

March 7, 2012

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Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1986. His many books include A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism . He is a three time winner of the National Magazine Award for Essays & Criticism, and in 2021 was made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur by the French Republic.

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Rafal Reyzer

40 Best Essays of All Time (Including Links & Writing Tips)

Author: Rafal Reyzer

I wanted to improve my writing skills. I thought that reading the forty best essays of all time would bring me closer to my goal.

I had little money (buying forty collections of essays was out of the question) so I’ve found them online instead. I’ve hacked through piles of them, and finally, I’ve found the great ones. Now I want to share the whole list with you (with the addition of my notes about writing). Each item on the list has a direct link to the essay, so please click away and indulge yourself. Also, next to each essay, there’s an image of the book that contains the original work.

About this essay list:

Reading essays is like indulging in candy; once you start, it’s hard to stop. I sought out essays that were not only well-crafted but also impactful. These pieces genuinely shifted my perspective. Whether you’re diving in for enjoyment or to hone your writing, these essays promise to leave an imprint. It’s fascinating how an essay can resonate with you, and even if details fade, its essence remains. I haven’t ranked them in any way; they’re all stellar. Skim through, explore the summaries, and pick up some writing tips along the way. For more essay gems, consider “Best American Essays” by Joyce Carol Oates or “101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think” curated by Brianna Wiest.

George Orwell Typing

40 Best Essays of All Time (With Links And Writing Tips)

1. david sedaris – laugh, kookaburra.

david sedaris - the best of me essay collection

A great family drama takes place against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness. And the Kookaburra laughs… This is one of the top essays of the lot. It’s a great mixture of family reminiscences, travel writing, and advice on what’s most important in life. You’ll also learn an awful lot about the curious culture of the Aussies.

Writing tips from the essay:

  • Use analogies (you can make it funny or dramatic to achieve a better effect): “Don’t be afraid,” the waiter said, and he talked to the kookaburra in a soothing, respectful voice, the way you might to a child with a switchblade in his hand”.
  • You can touch a few cognate stories in one piece of writing . Reveal the layers gradually. Intertwine them and arrange for a grand finale where everything is finally clear.
  • Be on the side of the reader. Become their friend and tell the story naturally, like around the dinner table.
  • Use short, punchy sentences. Tell only as much as is required to make your point vivid.
  • Conjure sentences that create actual feelings: “I had on a sweater and a jacket, but they weren’t quite enough, and I shivered as we walked toward the body, and saw that it was a . . . what, exactly?”
  • You may ask a few tough questions in a row to provoke interest and let the reader think.

2. Charles D’Ambrosio – Documents

Charles D'Ambrosio - Loitering - New and Collected Essays

Do you think your life punches you in the face all too often? After reading this essay, you will change your mind. Reading about loss and hardships often makes us sad at first, but then enables us to feel grateful for our lives . D’Ambrosio shares his documents (poems, letters) that had a major impact on his life, and brilliantly shows how not to let go of the past.

  • The most powerful stories are about your family and the childhood moments that shaped your life.
  • You don’t need to build up tension and pussyfoot around the crux of the matter. Instead, surprise the reader by telling it like it is: “The poem was an allegory about his desire to leave our family.” Or: “My father had three sons. I’m the eldest; Danny, the youngest, killed himself sixteen years ago”.
  • You can use real documents and quotes from your family and friends. It makes it so much more personal and relatable.
  • Don’t cringe before the long sentence if you know it’s a strong one.
  • At the end of the essay, you may come back to the first theme to close the circuit.
  • Using slightly poetic language is acceptable, as long as it improves the story.

3. E. B. White – Once more to the lake

E.B. White - Essays

What does it mean to be a father? Can you see your younger self, reflected in your child? This beautiful essay tells the story of the author, his son, and their traditional stay at a placid lake hidden within the forests of Maine. This place of nature is filled with sunshine and childhood memories. It also provides for one of the greatest meditations on nature and the passing of time.

  • Use sophisticated language, but not at the expense of readability.
  • Use vivid language to trigger the mirror neurons in the reader’s brain: “I took along my son, who had never had any fresh water up his nose and who had seen lily pads only from train windows”.
  • It’s important to mention universal feelings that are rarely talked about (it helps to create a bond between two minds): “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings when the lake was cool and motionless”.
  • Animate the inanimate: “this constant and trustworthy body of water”.
  • Mentioning tales of yore is a good way to add some mystery and timelessness to your piece.
  • Using double, or even triple “and” in one sentence is fine. It can make the sentence sing.

4. Zadie Smith – Fail Better

Zadie Smith - Changing My Mind

Aspiring writers feel tremendous pressure to perform. The daily quota of words often turns out to be nothing more than gibberish. What then? Also, should the writer please the reader or should she be fully independent? What does it mean to be a writer, anyway? This essay is an attempt to answer these questions, but its contents are not only meant for scribblers. Within it, you’ll find some great notes about literary criticism, how we treat art , and the responsibility of the reader.

  • A perfect novel ? There’s no such thing.
  • The novel always reflects the inner world of the writer. That’s why we’re fascinated with writers.
  • Writing is not simply about craftsmanship, but about taking your reader to the unknown lands. In the words of Christopher Hitchens: “Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.”
  • Style comes from your unique personality and the perception of the world. It takes time to develop it.
  • Never try to tell it all. “All” can never be put into language. Take a part of it and tell it the best you can.
  • Avoid being cliché. Try to infuse new life into your writing .
  • Writing is about your way of being. It’s your game. Paradoxically, if you try to please everyone, your writing will become less appealing. You’ll lose the interest of the readers. This rule doesn’t apply in the business world where you have to write for a specific person (a target audience).
  • As a reader, you have responsibilities too. According to the critics, every thirty years, there’s just a handful of great novels. Maybe it’s true. But there’s also an element of personal connection between the reader and the writer. That’s why for one person a novel is a marvel, while for the other, nothing special at all. That’s why you have to search and find the author who will touch you.

5. Virginia Woolf – Death of the Moth

Virginia Woolf - Essays

Amid an ordinary day, sitting in a room of her own, Virginia Woolf tells about the epic struggle for survival and the evanescence of life. This short essay is truly powerful. In the beginning, the atmosphere is happy. Life is in full force. And then, suddenly, it fades away. This sense of melancholy would mark the last years of Woolf’s life.

  • The melody of language… A good sentence is like music: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow- underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us”.
  • You can show the grandest in the mundane (for example, the moth at your window and the drama of life and death).
  • Using simple comparisons makes the style more lucid: “Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure”.

6. Meghan Daum – My Misspent Youth

Meghan Daum - My Misspent Youth - Essays

Many of us, at some point or another, dream about living in New York. Meghan Daum’s take on the subject differs slightly from what you might expect. There’s no glamour, no Broadway shows, and no fancy restaurants. Instead, there’s the sullen reality of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. You’ll get all the juicy details about credit cards, overdue payments, and scrambling for survival. It’s a word of warning. But it’s also a great story about shattered fantasies of living in a big city. Word on the street is: “You ain’t promised mañana in the rotten manzana.”

  • You can paint a picture of your former self. What did that person believe in? What kind of world did he or she live in?
  • “The day that turned your life around” is a good theme you may use in a story. Memories of a special day are filled with emotions. Strong emotions often breed strong writing.
  • Use cultural references and relevant slang to create a context for your story.
  • You can tell all the details of the story, even if in some people’s eyes you’ll look like the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived. It adds to the originality.
  • Say it in a new way: “In this mindset, the dollars spent, like the mechanics of a machine no one bothers to understand, become an abstraction, an intangible avenue toward self-expression, a mere vehicle of style”.
  • You can mix your personal story with the zeitgeist or the ethos of the time.

7. Roger Ebert – Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Roger Ebert - The Great Movies

Probably the greatest film critic of all time, Roger Ebert, tells us not to rage against the dying of the light. This essay is full of courage, erudition, and humanism. From it, we learn about what it means to be dying (Hitchens’ “Mortality” is another great work on that theme). But there’s so much more. It’s a great celebration of life too. It’s about not giving up, and sticking to your principles until the very end. It brings to mind the famous scene from Dead Poets Society where John Keating (Robin Williams) tells his students: “Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary”.

  • Start with a powerful sentence: “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear.”
  • Use quotes to prove your point -”‘Ask someone how they feel about death’, he said, ‘and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die’. Ask them, ‘In the next 30 seconds?’ No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen”.
  • Admit the basic truths about reality in a childlike way (especially after pondering quantum physics) – “I believe my wristwatch exists, and even when I am unconscious, it is ticking all the same. You have to start somewhere”.
  • Let other thinkers prove your point. Use quotes and ideas from your favorite authors and friends.

8. George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant

George Orwell - A collection of Essays

Even after one reading, you’ll remember this one for years. The story, set in British Burma, is about shooting an elephant (it’s not for the squeamish). It’s also the most powerful denunciation of colonialism ever put into writing. Orwell, apparently a free representative of British rule, feels to be nothing more than a puppet succumbing to the whim of the mob.

  • The first sentence is the most important one: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me”.
  • You can use just the first paragraph to set the stage for the whole piece of prose.
  • Use beautiful language that stirs the imagination: “I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains.” Or: “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.”
  • If you’ve ever been to war, you will have a story to tell: “(Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.)”
  • Use simple words, and admit the sad truth only you can perceive: “They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching”.
  • Share words of wisdom to add texture to the writing: “I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his freedom that he destroys.”
  • I highly recommend reading everything written by Orwell, especially if you’re looking for the best essay collections on Amazon or Goodreads.

9. George Orwell – A Hanging

George Orwell - Essays

It’s just another day in Burma – time to hang a man. Without much ado, Orwell recounts the grim reality of taking another person’s life. A man is taken from his cage and in a few minutes, he’s going to be hanged. The most horrible thing is the normality of it. It’s a powerful story about human nature. Also, there’s an extraordinary incident with the dog, but I won’t get ahead of myself.

  • Create brilliant, yet short descriptions of characters: “He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting mustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the mustache of a comic man on the films”.
  • Understand and share the felt presence of a unique experience: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man”.
  • Make your readers hear the sound that will stay with them forever: “And then when the noose was fixed, the prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”
  • Make the ending original by refusing the tendency to seek closure or summing it up.

10. Christopher Hitchens – Assassins of The Mind

Christopher Hitchens - Arguably - Essays

In one of the greatest essays written in defense of free speech, Christopher Hitchens shares many examples of how modern media kneel to the explicit threats of violence posed by Islamic extremists. He recounts the story of his friend, Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses who, for many years, had to watch over his shoulder because of the fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini. With his usual wit, Hitchens shares various examples of people who died because of their opinions and of editors who refuse to publish anything related to Islam because of fear (and it was written long before the Charlie Hebdo massacre). After reading the essay, you realize that freedom of expression is one of the most precious things we have and that we have to fight for it. I highly recommend all essay collections penned by Hitchens, especially the ones written for Vanity Fair.

  • Assume that the readers will know the cultural references. When they do, their self-esteem goes up – they are a part of an insider group.
  • When proving your point, give a variety of real-life examples from eclectic sources. Leave no room for ambiguity or vagueness. Research and overall knowledge are essential here.
  • Use italics to emphasize a specific word or phrase (here I use the underlining): “We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal. In consequence, several things have not happened.”
  • Think about how to make it sound more original: “So there is now a hidden partner in our cultural and academic and publishing and the broadcasting world: a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table.”

11. Christopher Hitchens – The New Commandments

Christopher Hitchens - Essays

It’s high time to shatter the tablets and amend the biblical rules of conduct. Watch, as Christopher Hitchens slays one commandment after the other on moral, as well as historical grounds. For example, did you know that there are many versions of the divine law dictated by God to Moses which you can find in the Bible? Aren’t we thus empowered to write our version of a proper moral code? If you approach it with an open mind, this essay may change the way you think about the Bible and religion.

  • Take the iconoclastic approach. Have a party on the hallowed soil.
  • Use humor to undermine orthodox ideas (it seems to be the best way to deal with an established authority).
  • Use sarcasm and irony when appropriate (or not): “Nobody is opposed to a day of rest. The international Communist movement got its start by proclaiming a strike for an eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, against Christian employers who used child labor seven days a week”.
  • Defeat God on legal grounds: “Wise lawmakers know that it is a mistake to promulgate legislation that is impossible to obey”.
  • Be ruthless in the logic of your argument. Provide evidence.

12. Phillip Lopate – Against Joie de Vivre

Philip Lopate - The Art Of Personal Essay

While reading this fantastic essay, this quote from Slavoj Žižek kept coming back to me: “I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves”. I can bear the onus of happiness or joie de vivre for some time. But this force enables me to get free and wallow in the sweet feelings of melancholy and nostalgia. By reading this work of Lopate, you’ll enter into the world of an intelligent man who finds most social rituals a drag. It’s worth exploring.

  • Go against the grain. Be flamboyant and controversial (if you can handle it).
  • Treat the paragraph like a group of thoughts on one theme. Next paragraph, next theme.
  • Use references to other artists to set the context and enrich the prose: “These sunny little canvases with their talented innocence, the third-generation spirit of Montmartre, bore testimony to a love of life so unbending as to leave an impression of rigid narrow-mindedness as extreme as any Savonarola. Their rejection of sorrow was total”.
  • Capture the emotions in life that are universal, yet remain unspoken.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your intimate experiences.

13. Philip Larkin – The Pleasure Principle

Philip Larkin - Jazz Writings, and other essays

This piece comes from the Required Writing collection of personal essays. Larkin argues that reading in verse should be a source of intimate pleasure – not a medley of unintelligible thoughts that only the author can (or can’t?) decipher. It’s a sobering take on modern poetry and a great call to action for all those involved in it. Well worth a read.

  • Write about complicated ideas (such as poetry) simply. You can change how people look at things if you express yourself enough.
  • Go boldly. The reader wants a bold writer: “We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry, not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try”.
  • Play with words and sentence length. Create music: “It is time some of you playboys realized, says the judge, that reading a poem is hard work. Fourteen days in stir. Next case”.
  • Persuade the reader to take action. Here, direct language is the most effective.

14. Sigmund Freud – Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

Sigmund Freud - On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia

This essay reveals Freud’s disillusionment with the whole project of Western civilization. How the peaceful European countries could engage in a war that would eventually cost over 17 million lives? What stirs people to kill each other? Is it their nature, or are they puppets of imperial forces with agendas of their own? From the perspective of time, this work by Freud doesn’t seem to be fully accurate. Even so, it’s well worth your time.

  • Commence with long words derived from Latin. Get grandiloquent, make your argument incontrovertible, and leave your audience discombobulated.
  • Use unending sentences, so that the reader feels confused, yet impressed.
  • Say it well: “In this way, he enjoyed the blue sea and the grey; the beauty of snow-covered mountains and green meadowlands; the magic of northern forests and the splendor of southern vegetation; the mood evoked by landscapes that recall great historical events, and the silence of untouched nature”.
  • Human nature is a subject that never gets dry.

15. Zadie Smith – Some Notes on Attunement

“You are privy to a great becoming, but you recognize nothing” – Francis Dolarhyde. This one is about the elusiveness of change occurring within you. For Zadie, it was hard to attune to the vibes of Joni Mitchell – especially her Blue album. But eventually, she grew up to appreciate her genius, and all the other things changed as well. This top essay is all about the relationship between humans, and art. We shouldn’t like art because we’re supposed to. We should like it because it has an instantaneous, emotional effect on us. Although, according to Stansfield (Gary Oldman) in Léon, liking Beethoven is rather mandatory.

  • Build an expectation of what’s coming: “The first time I heard her I didn’t hear her at all”.
  • Don’t be afraid of repetition if it feels good.
  • Psychedelic drugs let you appreciate things you never appreciated.
  • Intertwine a personal journey with philosophical musings.
  • Show rather than tell: “My friends pitied their eyes. The same look the faithful give you as you hand them back their “literature” and close the door in their faces”.
  • Let the poets speak for you: “That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no
  • more, / And all its dizzy raptures”.
  • By voicing your anxieties, you can heal the anxieties of the reader. In that way, you say: “I’m just like you. I’m your friend in this struggle”.
  • Admit your flaws to make your persona more relatable.

16. Annie Dillard – Total Eclipse

Annie Dillard - Teaching A stone to talk

My imagination was always stirred by the scene of the solar eclipse in Pharaoh, by Boleslaw Prus. I wondered about the shock of the disoriented crowd when they saw how their ruler could switch off the light. Getting immersed in this essay by Annie Dillard has a similar effect. It produces amazement and some kind of primeval fear. It’s not only the environment that changes; it’s your mind and the perception of the world. After the eclipse, nothing is going to be the same again.

  • Yet again, the power of the first sentence draws you in: “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass”.
  • Don’t miss the extraordinary scene. Then describe it: “Up in the sky, like a crater from some distant cataclysm, was a hollow ring”.
  • Use colloquial language. Write as you talk. Short sentences often win.
  • Contrast the numinous with the mundane to enthrall the reader.

17. Édouard Levé – When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue

Édouard Levé - Suicide

This suicidally beautiful essay will teach you a lot about the appreciation of life and the struggle with mental illness. It’s a collection of personal, apparently unrelated thoughts that show us the rich interior of the author. You look at the real-time thoughts of another person, and then recognize the same patterns within yourself… It sounds like a confession of a person who’s about to take their life, and it’s striking in its originality.

  • Use the stream-of-consciousness technique and put random thoughts on paper. Then, polish them: “I have attempted suicide once, I’ve been tempted four times to attempt it”.
  • Place the treasure deep within the story: “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss”.
  • Don’t worry about what people might think. The more you expose, the more powerful the writing. Readers also take part in the great drama. They experience universal emotions that mostly stay inside.  You can translate them into writing.

18. Gloria E. Anzaldúa – How to Tame a Wild Tongue

Gloria Anzaldúa - Reader

Anzaldúa, who was born in south Texas, had to struggle to find her true identity. She was American, but her culture was grounded in Mexico. In this way, she and her people were not fully respected in either of the countries. This essay is an account of her journey of becoming the ambassador of the Chicano (Mexican-American) culture. It’s full of anecdotes, interesting references, and different shades of Spanish. It’s a window into a new cultural dimension that you’ve never experienced before.

  • If your mother tongue is not English, but you write in English, use some of your unique homeland vocabulary.
  • You come from a rich cultural heritage. You can share it with people who never heard about it, and are not even looking for it, but it is of immense value to them when they discover it.
  • Never forget about your identity. It is precious. It is a part of who you are. Even if you migrate, try to preserve it. Use it to your best advantage and become the voice of other people in the same situation.
  • Tell them what’s really on your mind: “So if you want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language”.

19. Kurt Vonnegut – Dispatch From A Man Without a Country

Kurt Vonnegut - A man without a country

In terms of style, this essay is flawless. It’s simple, conversational, humorous, and yet, full of wisdom. And when Vonnegut becomes a teacher and draws an axis of “beginning – end”, and, “good fortune – bad fortune” to explain literature, it becomes outright hilarious. It’s hard to find an author with such a down-to-earth approach. He doesn’t need to get intellectual to prove a point. And the point could be summed up by the quote from Great Expectations – “On the Rampage, Pip, and off the Rampage, Pip – such is Life!”

  • Start with a curious question: “Do you know what a twerp is?”
  • Surprise your readers with uncanny analogies: “I am from a family of artists. Here I am, making a living in the arts. It has not been a rebellion. It’s as though I had taken over the family Esso station.”
  • Use your natural language without too many special effects. In time, the style will crystalize.
  • An amusing lesson in writing from Mr. Vonnegut: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college”.
  • You can put actual images or vignettes between the paragraphs to illustrate something.

20. Mary Ruefle – On Fear

Mary Ruefle - Madness, rack and honey

Most psychologists and gurus agree that fear is the greatest enemy of success or any creative activity. It’s programmed into our minds to keep us away from imaginary harm. Mary Ruefle takes on this basic human emotion with flair. She explores fear from so many angles (especially in the world of poetry-writing) that at the end of this personal essay, you will look at it, dissect it, untangle it, and hopefully be able to say “f**k you” the next time your brain is trying to stop you.

  • Research your subject thoroughly. Ask people, have interviews, get expert opinions, and gather as much information as possible. Then scavenge through the fields of data, and pull out the golden bits that will let your prose shine.
  • Use powerful quotes to add color to your story: “The poet who embarks on the creation of the poem (as I know by experience), begins with the aimless sensation of a hunter about to embark on a night hunt through the remotest of forests. Unaccountable dread stirs in his heart”. – Lorca.
  • Writing advice from the essay: “One of the fears a young writer has is not being able to write as well as he or she wants to, the fear of not being able to sound like X or Y, a favorite author. But out of fear, hopefully, is born a young writer’s voice”.

21. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation

Susan Sontag - Against Interpretation

In this highly intellectual essay, Sontag fights for art and its interpretation. It’s a great lesson, especially for critics and interpreters who endlessly chew on works that simply defy interpretation. Why don’t we just leave the art alone? I always hated it when at school they asked me: “What did the author have in mind when he did X or Y?” Iēsous Pantocrator! Hell if I know! I will judge it through my subjective experience!

  • Leave the art alone: “Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities”.
  • When you have something really important to say, style matters less.
  • There’s no use in creating a second meaning or inviting interpretation of our art. Just leave it be and let it speak for itself.

22. Nora Ephron – A Few Words About Breasts

Nora Ephron - The most of Nora Ephron

This is a heartwarming, coming-of-age story about a young girl who waits in vain for her breasts to grow. It’s simply a humorous and pleasurable read. The size of breasts is a big deal for women. If you’re a man, you may peek into the mind of a woman and learn many interesting things. If you’re a woman, maybe you’ll be able to relate and at last, be at peace with your bosom.

  • Touch an interesting subject and establish a strong connection with the readers (in that case, women with small breasts). Let your personality shine through the written piece. If you are lighthearted, show it.
  • Use hyphens to create an impression of real talk: “My house was full of apples and peaches and milk and homemade chocolate chip cookies – which were nice, and good for you, but-not-right-before-dinner-or-you’ll-spoil-your-appetite.”
  • Use present tense when you tell a story to add more life to it.
  • Share the pronounced, memorable traits of characters: “A previous girlfriend named Solange, who was famous throughout Beverly Hills High School for having no pigment in her right eyebrow, had knitted them for him (angora dice)”.

23. Carl Sagan – Does Truth Matter – Science, Pseudoscience, and Civilization

Carl Sagan - The Demon Haunted World

Carl Sagan was one of the greatest proponents of skepticism, and an author of numerous books, including one of my all-time favorites – The Demon-Haunted World . He was also a renowned physicist and the host of the fantastic Cosmos: A Personal Voyage series, which inspired a whole generation to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. He was also a dedicated weed smoker – clearly ahead of his time. The essay that you’re about to read is a crystallization of his views about true science, and why you should check the evidence before believing in UFOs or similar sorts of crap.

  • Tell people the brutal truth they need to hear. Be the one who spells it out for them.
  • Give a multitude of examples to prove your point. Giving hard facts helps to establish trust with the readers and show the veracity of your arguments.
  • Recommend a good book that will change your reader’s minds – How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life

24. Paul Graham – How To Do What You Love

Paul Graham - Hackers and Painters

How To Do What You Love should be read by every college student and young adult. The Internet is flooded with a large number of articles and videos that are supposed to tell you what to do with your life. Most of them are worthless, but this one is different. It’s sincere, and there’s no hidden agenda behind it. There’s so much we take for granted – what we study, where we work, what we do in our free time… Surely we have another two hundred years to figure it out, right? Life’s too short to be so naïve. Please, read the essay and let it help you gain fulfillment from your work.

  • Ask simple, yet thought-provoking questions (especially at the beginning of the paragraph) to engage the reader: “How much are you supposed to like what you do?”
  • Let the readers question their basic assumptions: “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like”.
  • If you’re writing for a younger audience, you can act as a mentor. It’s beneficial for younger people to read a few words of advice from a person with experience.

25. John Jeremiah Sullivan – Mister Lytle

John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead

A young, aspiring writer is about to become a nurse of a fading writer – Mister Lytle (Andrew Nelson Lytle), and there will be trouble. This essay by Sullivan is probably my favorite one from the whole list. The amount of beautiful sentences it contains is just overwhelming. But that’s just a part of its charm. It also takes you to the Old South which has an incredible atmosphere. It’s grim and tawny but you want to stay there for a while.

  • Short, distinct sentences are often the most powerful ones: “He had a deathbed, in other words. He didn’t go suddenly”.
  • Stay consistent with the mood of the story. When reading Mister Lytle you are immersed in that southern, forsaken, gloomy world, and it’s a pleasure.
  • The spectacular language that captures it all: “His French was superb, but his accent in English was best—that extinct mid-Southern, land-grant pioneer speech, with its tinges of the abandoned Celtic urban Northeast (“boned” for burned) and its raw gentility”.
  • This essay is just too good. You have to read it.

26. Joan Didion – On Self Respect

Joan Didion - The white album

Normally, with that title, you would expect some straightforward advice about how to improve your character and get on with your goddamn life – but not from Joan Didion. From the very beginning, you can feel the depth of her thinking, and the unmistakable style of a true woman who’s been hurt. You can learn more from this essay than from whole books about self-improvement . It reminds me of the scene from True Detective, where Frank Semyon tells Ray Velcoro to “own it” after he realizes he killed the wrong man all these years ago. I guess we all have to “own it”, recognize our mistakes, and move forward sometimes.

  • Share your moral advice: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs”.
  • It’s worth exploring the subject further from a different angle. It doesn’t matter how many people have already written on self-respect or self-reliance – you can still write passionately about it.
  • Whatever happens, you must take responsibility for it. Brave the storms of discontent.

27. Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp

Susan Sontag - Essays of the 1960 and 1970

I’ve never read anything so thorough and lucid about an artistic current. After reading this essay, you will know what camp is. But not only that – you will learn about so many artists you’ve never heard of. You will follow their traces and go to places where you’ve never been before. You will vastly increase your appreciation of art. It’s interesting how something written as a list could be so amazing. All the listicles we usually see on the web simply cannot compare with it.

  • Talking about artistic sensibilities is a tough job. When you read the essay, you will see how much research, thought and raw intellect came into it. But that’s one of the reasons why people still read it today, even though it was written in 1964.
  • You can choose an unorthodox way of expression in the medium for which you produce. For example, Notes on Camp is a listicle – one of the most popular content formats on the web. But in the olden days, it was uncommon to see it in print form.
  • Just think about what is camp: “And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling”.

28. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self-Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Self Reliance and other essays

That’s the oldest one from the lot. Written in 1841, it still inspires generations of people. It will let you understand what it means to be self-made. It contains some of the most memorable quotes of all time. I don’t know why, but this one especially touched me: “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design, and posterity seems to follow his steps as a train of clients”. Now isn’t it purely individualistic, American thought? Emerson told me (and he will tell you) to do something amazing with my life. The language it contains is a bit archaic, but that just adds to the weight of the argument. You can consider it to be a meeting with a great philosopher who shaped the ethos of the modern United States.

  • You can start with a powerful poem that will set the stage for your work.
  • Be free in your creative flow. Do not wait for the approval of others: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness”.
  • Use rhetorical questions to strengthen your argument: “I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly say a new and spontaneous word?”

29. David Foster Wallace – Consider The Lobster

David Foster Wallece - Consider the lobster and other essays

When you want simple field notes about a food festival, you needn’t send there the formidable David Foster Wallace. He sees right through the hypocrisy and cruelty behind killing hundreds of thousands of innocent lobsters – by boiling them alive. This essay uncovers some of the worst traits of modern American people. There are no apologies or hedging one’s bets. There’s just plain truth that stabs you in the eye like a lobster claw. After reading this essay, you may reconsider the whole animal-eating business.

  • When it’s important, say it plainly and stagger the reader: “[Lobsters] survive right up until they’re boiled. Most of us have been in supermarkets or restaurants that feature tanks of live lobster, from which you can pick out your supper while it watches you point”.
  • In your writing, put exact quotes of the people you’ve been interviewing (including slang and grammatical errors). It makes it more vivid, and interesting.
  • You can use humor in serious situations to make your story grotesque.
  • Use captions to expound on interesting points of your essay.

30. David Foster Wallace – The Nature of the Fun

David Foster Wallece - a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

The famous novelist and author of the most powerful commencement speech ever done is going to tell you about the joys and sorrows of writing a work of fiction. It’s like taking care of a mutant child that constantly oozes smelly liquids. But you love that child and you want others to love it too. It’s a very humorous account of what it means to be an author. If you ever plan to write a novel, you should read that one. And the story about the Chinese farmer is just priceless.

  • Base your point on a chimerical analogy. Here, the writer’s unfinished work is a “hideously damaged infant”.
  • Even in expository writing, you may share an interesting story to keep things lively.
  • Share your true emotions (even when you think they won’t interest anyone). Often, that’s exactly what will interest the reader.
  • Read the whole essay for marvelous advice on writing fiction.

31. Margaret Atwood – Attitude

Margaret Atwood - Writing with Intent - Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005

This is not an essay per se, but I included it on the list for the sake of variety. It was delivered as a commencement speech at The University of Toronto, and it’s about keeping the right attitude. Soon after leaving university, most graduates have to forget about safety, parties, and travel and start a new life – one filled with a painful routine that will last until they drop. Atwood says that you don’t have to accept that. You can choose how you react to everything that happens to you (and you don’t have to stay in that dead-end job for the rest of your days).

  • At times, we are all too eager to persuade, but the strongest persuasion is not forceful. It’s subtle. It speaks to the heart. It affects you gradually.
  • You may be tempted to talk about a subject by first stating what it is not, rather than what it is. Try to avoid that.
  • Simple advice for writers (and life in general): “When faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it”.

32. Jo Ann Beard – The Fourth State of Matter

Jo Ann Beard - The boys of my youth

Read that one as soon as possible. It’s one of the most masterful and impactful essays you’ll ever read. It’s like a good horror – a slow build-up, and then your jaw drops to the ground. To summarize the story would be to spoil it, so I recommend that you just dig in and devour this essay in one sitting. It’s a perfect example of “show, don’t tell” writing, where the actions of characters are enough to create the right effect. No need for flowery adjectives here.

  • The best story you will tell is going to come from your personal experience.
  • Use mysteries that will nag the reader. For example, at the beginning of the essay, we learn about the “vanished husband” but there’s no explanation. We have to keep reading to get the answer.
  • Explain it in simple terms: “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma”. Why complicate?

33. Terence McKenna – Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness

Terrence McKenna - Food of gods

To me, Terence McKenna was one of the most interesting thinkers of the twentieth century. His many lectures (now available on YouTube) attracted millions of people who suspect that consciousness holds secrets yet to be unveiled. McKenna consumed psychedelic drugs for most of his life and it shows (in a positive way). Many people consider him a looney, and a hippie, but he was so much more than that. He dared to go into the abyss of his psyche and come back to tell the tale. He also wrote many books (the most famous being Food Of The Gods ), built a huge botanical garden in Hawaii , lived with shamans, and was a connoisseur of all things enigmatic and obscure. Take a look at this essay, and learn more about the explorations of the subconscious mind.

  • Become the original thinker, but remember that it may require extraordinary measures: “I call myself an explorer rather than a scientist because the area that I’m looking at contains insufficient data to support even the dream of being a science”.
  • Learn new words every day to make your thoughts lucid.
  • Come up with the most outlandish ideas to push the envelope of what’s possible. Don’t take things for granted or become intellectually lazy. Question everything.

34. Eudora Welty – The Little Store

Eudora Welty - The eye of the story

By reading this little-known essay, you will be transported into the world of the old American South. It’s a remembrance of trips to the little store in a little town. It’s warm and straightforward, and when you read it, you feel like a child once more. All these beautiful memories live inside of us. They lay somewhere deep in our minds, hidden from sight. The work by Eudora Welty is an attempt to uncover some of them and let you get reacquainted with some smells and tastes of the past.

  • When you’re from the South, flaunt it. It’s still good old English but sometimes it sounds so foreign. I can hear the Southern accent too: “There were almost tangible smells – licorice recently sucked in a child’s cheek, dill-pickle brine that had leaked through a paper sack in a fresh trail across the wooden floor, ammonia-loaded ice that had been hoisted from wet Croker sacks and slammed into the icebox with its sweet butter at the door, and perhaps the smell of still-untrapped mice”.
  • Yet again, never forget your roots.
  • Childhood stories can be the most powerful ones. You can write about how they shaped you.

35. John McPhee – The Search for Marvin Gardens

John Mc Phee - The John Mc Phee reader

The Search for Marvin Gardens contains many layers of meaning. It’s a story about a Monopoly championship, but also, it’s the author’s search for the lost streets visible on the board of the famous board game. It also presents a historical perspective on the rise and fall of civilizations, and on Atlantic City, which once was a lively place, and then, slowly declined, the streets filled with dirt and broken windows.

  • There’s nothing like irony: “A sign- ‘Slow, Children at Play’- has been bent backward by an automobile”.
  • Telling the story in apparently unrelated fragments is sometimes better than telling the whole thing in a logical order.
  • Creativity is everything. The best writing may come just from connecting two ideas and mixing them to achieve a great effect. Shush! The muse is whispering.

36. Maxine Hong Kingston – No Name Woman

Maxine Hong Kingston - Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston

A dead body at the bottom of the well makes for a beautiful literary device. The first line of Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red delivers it perfectly: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well”. There’s something creepy about the idea of the well. Just think about the “It puts the lotion in the basket” scene from The Silence of the Lambs. In the first paragraph of Kingston’s essay, we learn about a suicide committed by uncommon means of jumping into the well. But this time it’s a real story. Who was this woman? Why did she do it? Read the essay.

  • Mysterious death always gets attention. The macabre details are like daiquiris on a hot day – you savor them – you don’t let them spill.
  • One sentence can speak volumes: “But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space”.
  • It’s interesting to write about cultural differences – especially if you have the relevant experience. Something normal for us is unthinkable for others. Show this different world.
  • The subject of sex is never boring.

37. Joan Didion – On Keeping A Notebook

Joan Didion - We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of the most famous collections of essays of all time. In it, you will find a curious piece called On Keeping A Notebook. It’s not only a meditation about keeping a journal. It’s also Didion’s reconciliation with her past self. After reading it, you will seriously reconsider your life’s choices and look at your life from a wider perspective.

  • When you write things down in your journal, be more specific – unless you want to write a deep essay about it years later.
  • Use the beauty of the language to relate to the past: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing ‘How High the Moon’ on the car radio”.
  • Drop some brand names if you want to feel posh.

38. Joan Didion – Goodbye To All That

Joan Didion - Slouching Towards Bethlehem

This one touched me because I also lived in New York City for a while. I don’t know why, but stories about life in NYC are so often full of charm and this eerie-melancholy-jazz feeling. They are powerful. They go like this: “There was a hard blizzard in NYC. As the sound of sirens faded, Tony descended into the dark world of hustlers and pimps.” That’s pulp literature but in the context of NYC, it always sounds cool. Anyway, this essay is amazing in too many ways. You just have to read it.

  • Talk about New York City. They will read it.
  • Talk about the human experience: “It did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young?”
  • Look back at your life and reexamine it. Draw lessons from it.

39. George Orwell – Reflections on Gandhi

George Orwell could see things as they were. No exaggeration, no romanticism – just facts. He recognized totalitarianism and communism for what they were and shared his worries through books like 1984 and Animal Farm . He took the same sober approach when dealing with saints and sages. Today, we regard Gandhi as one of the greatest political leaders of the twentieth century – and rightfully so. But did you know that when asked about the Jews during World War II, Gandhi said that they should commit collective suicide and that it: “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” He also recommended utter pacifism in 1942, during the Japanese invasion, even though he knew it would cost millions of lives. But overall he was a good guy. Read the essay and broaden your perspective on the Bapu of the Indian Nation.

  • Share a philosophical thought that stops the reader for a moment: “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid”.
  • Be straightforward in your writing – no mannerisms, no attempts to create ‘style’, and no invocations of the numinous – unless you feel the mystical vibe.

40. George Orwell – Politics and the English Language

Let Mr. Orwell give you some writing tips. Written in 1946, this essay is still one of the most helpful documents on writing in English. Orwell was probably the first person who exposed the deliberate vagueness of political language. He was very serious about it and I admire his efforts to slay all unclear sentences (including ones written by distinguished professors). But it’s good to make it humorous too from time to time. My favorite examples of that would be the immortal Soft Language sketch by George Carlin or the “Romans Go Home” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Overall, it’s a great essay filled with examples from many written materials. It’s a must-read for any writer.

  • Listen to the master: “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.” Do something about it.
  • This essay is all about writing better, so go to the source if you want the goodies.

The thinker

Other Essays You May Find Interesting

The list that I’ve prepared is by no means complete. The literary world is full of exciting essays and you’ll never know which one is going to change your life. I’ve found reading essays very rewarding because sometimes, a single one means more than reading a whole book. It’s almost like wandering around and peeking into the minds of the greatest writers and thinkers that ever lived. To make this list more comprehensive, below I included more essays you may find interesting.

Oliver Sacks – On Libraries

One of the greatest contributors to the knowledge about the human mind, Oliver Sacks meditates on the value of libraries and his love of books.

Noam Chomsky – The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Chomsky did probably more than anyone else to define the role of the intelligentsia in the modern world . There is a war of ideas over there – good and bad – intellectuals are going to be those who ought to be fighting for the former.

Sam Harris – The Riddle of The Gun

Sam Harris, now a famous philosopher and neuroscientist, takes on the problem of gun control in the United States. His thoughts are clear of prejudice. After reading this, you’ll appreciate the value of logical discourse overheated, irrational debate that more often than not has real implications on policy.

Tim Ferriss – Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide

This piece was written as a blog post , but it’s worth your time. The author of the NYT bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek shares an emotional story about how he almost killed himself, and what can you do to save yourself or your friends from suicide.

Edward Said – Reflections on Exile

The life of Edward Said was a truly fascinating one. Born in Jerusalem, he lived between Palestine and Egypt and finally settled down in the United States, where he completed his most famous work – Orientalism. In this essay, he shares his thoughts about what it means to be in exile.

Richard Feynman – It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…

Richard Feynman is one of the most interesting minds of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant physicist, but also an undeniably great communicator of science, an artist, and a traveler. By reading this essay, you can observe his thought process when he tries to figure out what affects our perception of time. It’s a truly fascinating read.

Rabindranath Tagore – The Religion of The Forest

I like to think about Tagore as my spiritual Friend. His poems are just marvelous. They are like some of the Persian verses that praise love, nature, and the unity of all things. By reading this short essay, you will learn a lot about Indian philosophy and its relation to its Western counterpart.

Richard Dawkins – Letter To His 10-Year-Old Daughter

Every father should be able to articulate his philosophy of life to his children. With this letter that’s similar to what you find in the Paris Review essays , the famed atheist and defender of reason, Richard Dawkins, does exactly that. It’s beautifully written and stresses the importance of looking at evidence when we’re trying to make sense of the world.

Albert Camus – The Minotaur (or, The Stop In Oran)

Each person requires a period of solitude – a period when one’s able to gather thoughts and make sense of life. There are many places where you may attempt to find quietude. Albert Camus tells about his favorite one.

Koty Neelis – 21 Incredible Life Lessons From Anthony Bourdain

I included it as the last one because it’s not really an essay, but I just had to put it somewhere. In this listicle, you’ll find the 21 most original thoughts of the high-profile cook, writer, and TV host, Anthony Bourdain. Some of them are shocking, others are funny, but they’re all worth checking out.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca – On the Shortness of Life

It’s similar to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because it praises life. Seneca shares some of his stoic philosophy and tells you not to waste your time on stupidities. Drink! – for once dead you shall never return.

Bertrand Russell – In Praise of Idleness

This old essay is a must-read for modern humans. We are so preoccupied with our work, our phones, and all the media input we drown in our business. Bertrand Russell tells you to chill out a bit – maybe it will do you some good.

James Baldwin – Stranger in the Village

It’s an essay on the author’s experiences as an African-American in a Swiss village, exploring race, identity, and alienation while highlighting the complexities of racial dynamics and the quest for belonging.

Bonus – More writing tips from two great books

The mission to improve my writing skills took me further than just going through the essays. I’ve come across some great books on writing too. I highly recommend you read them in their entirety. They’re written beautifully and contain lots of useful knowledge. Below you’ll find random (but useful) notes that I took from The Sense of Style and On Writing.

The Sense of Style – By Steven Pinker

  • Style manuals are full of inconsistencies. Following their advice might not be the best idea. They might make your prose boring.
  • Grammarians from all eras condemn students for not knowing grammar. But it just evolves. It cannot be rigid.
  • “Nothing worth learning can be taught” – Oscar Wilde. It’s hard to learn to write from a manual – you have to read, write, and analyze.
  • Good writing makes you imagine things and feel them for yourself – use word pictures.
  • Don’t fear using voluptuous words.
  • Phonesthetics – or how the words sound.
  • Use parallel language (consistency of tense).
  • Good writing finishes strong.
  • Write to someone. Never write for no one in mind. Try to show people your view of the world.
  • Don’t tell everything you are going to say in summary (signposting) – be logical, but be conversational.
  • Don’t be pompous.
  • Don’t use quotation marks where they don’t “belong”. Be confident about your style.
  • Don’t hedge your claims (research first, and then tell it like it is).
  • Avoid clichés and meta-concepts (concepts about concepts). Be more straightforward!
  • Not prevention – but prevents or prevented – don’t use dead nouns.
  • Be more vivid while using your mother tongue – don’t use passive where it’s not needed. Direct the reader’s gaze to something in the world.
  • The curse of knowledge – the reader doesn’t know what you know – beware of that.
  • Explain technical terms.
  • Use examples when you explain a difficult term.
  • If you ever say “I think I understand this” it probably means you don’t.
  • It’s better to underestimate the lingo of your readers than to overestimate it.
  • Functional fixedness – if we know some object (or idea) well, we tend to see it in terms of usage, not just as an object.
  • Use concrete language instead of an abstraction.
  • Show your work to people before you publish (get feedback!).
  • Wait for a few days and then revise, revise, revise. Think about clarity and the sound of sentences. Then show it to someone. Then revise one more time. Then publish (if it’s to be serious work).
  • Look at it from the perspective of other people.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Put the heaviest words at the end of the sentence.
  • It’s good to use the passive, but only when appropriate.
  • Check all text for cohesion. Make sure that the sentences flow gently.
  • In expository work, go from general to more specific. But in journalism start from the big news and then give more details.
  • Use the paragraph break to give the reader a moment to take a breath.
  • Use the verb instead of a noun (make it more active) – not “cancellation”, but “canceled”. But after you introduce the action, you can refer to it with a noun.
  • Avoid too many negations.
  • If you write about why something is so, don’t spend too much time writing about why it is not.

On Writing Well – By William Zinsser

  • Writing is a craft. You need to sit down every day and practice your craft.
  • You should re-write and polish your prose a lot.
  • Throw out all the clutter. Don’t keep it because you like it. Aim for readability.
  • Look at the best examples of English literature . There’s hardly any needless garbage there.
  • Use shorter expressions. Don’t add extra words that don’t bring any value to your work.
  • Don’t use pompous language. Use simple language and say plainly what’s going on (“because” equals “because”).
  • The media and politics are full of cluttered prose (because it helps them to cover up for their mistakes).
  • You can’t add style to your work (and especially, don’t add fancy words to create an illusion of style). That will look fake. You need to develop a style.
  • Write in the “I” mode. Write to a friend or just for yourself. Show your personality. There is a person behind the writing.
  • Choose your words carefully. Use the dictionary to learn different shades of meaning.
  • Remember about phonology. Make music with words .
  • The lead is essential. Pull the reader in. Otherwise, your article is dead.
  • You don’t have to make the final judgment on any topic. Just pick the right angle.
  • Do your research. Not just obvious research, but a deep one.
  • When it’s time to stop, stop. And finish strong. Think about the last sentence. Surprise them.
  • Use quotations. Ask people. Get them talking.
  • If you write about travel, it must be significant to the reader. Don’t bother with the obvious. Choose your words with special care. Avoid travel clichés at all costs. Don’t tell that the sand was white and there were rocks on the beach. Look for the right detail.
  • If you want to learn how to write about art, travel, science, etc. – read the best examples available. Learn from the masters.
  • Concentrate on one big idea (“Let’s not go peeing down both legs”).
  • “The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.”
  • One very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What the piece is about?”)

Now immerse yourself in the world of essays

By reading the essays from the list above, you’ll become a better writer , a better reader, but also a better person. An essay is a special form of writing. It is the only literary form that I know of that is an absolute requirement for career or educational advancement. Nowadays, you can use an AI essay writer or an AI essay generator that will get the writing done for you, but if you have personal integrity and strong moral principles, avoid doing this at all costs. For me as a writer, the effect of these authors’ masterpieces is often deeply personal. You won’t be able to find the beautiful thoughts they contain in any other literary form. I hope you enjoy the read and that it will inspire you to do your writing. This list is only an attempt to share some of the best essays available online. Next up, you may want to check the list of magazines and websites that accept personal essays .

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The Top 10 Essays Since 1950

Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.

Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays , not essayists . A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.

To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (originally appeared in Harper’s , 1955)

“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.

Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent , 1957)

An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?

Read the essay here .

Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review , 1964)

Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.

John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker , 1972)

“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).

Read the essay here (subscription required).

Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West , 1979)

Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).

Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus , 1982)

In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988 , Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.

Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares , 1986)

This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre , the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989 .

Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)

“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.

Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker , 1996)

A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997 , the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).

David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet , 2004)

They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).

Read the essay here . (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster. )

I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).

top essay collections of all time

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History's Greatest Essayists

Ranker Books

Michel de Montaigne

George Orwell

George Orwell

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

Mark Twain

Joan Didion

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb

David Hume

Jorge Luis Borges

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo

E. B. White

E. B. White

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh

William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt

Henry James

Henry James

Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima

Lists about novelists, poets, short story authors, journalists, essayists, and playwrights, from simple rankings to fun facts about the men and women behind the pens.

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What I’ve Learned From My Students’ College Essays

The genre is often maligned for being formulaic and melodramatic, but it’s more important than you think.

An illustration of a high school student with blue hair, dreaming of what to write in their college essay.

By Nell Freudenberger

Most high school seniors approach the college essay with dread. Either their upbringing hasn’t supplied them with several hundred words of adversity, or worse, they’re afraid that packaging the genuine trauma they’ve experienced is the only way to secure their future. The college counselor at the Brooklyn high school where I’m a writing tutor advises against trauma porn. “Keep it brief , ” she says, “and show how you rose above it.”

I started volunteering in New York City schools in my 20s, before I had kids of my own. At the time, I liked hanging out with teenagers, whom I sometimes had more interesting conversations with than I did my peers. Often I worked with students who spoke English as a second language or who used slang in their writing, and at first I was hung up on grammar. Should I correct any deviation from “standard English” to appeal to some Wizard of Oz behind the curtains of a college admissions office? Or should I encourage students to write the way they speak, in pursuit of an authentic voice, that most elusive of literary qualities?

In fact, I was missing the point. One of many lessons the students have taught me is to let the story dictate the voice of the essay. A few years ago, I worked with a boy who claimed to have nothing to write about. His life had been ordinary, he said; nothing had happened to him. I asked if he wanted to try writing about a family member, his favorite school subject, a summer job? He glanced at his phone, his posture and expression suggesting that he’d rather be anywhere but in front of a computer with me. “Hobbies?” I suggested, without much hope. He gave me a shy glance. “I like to box,” he said.

I’ve had this experience with reluctant writers again and again — when a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously. Of course the primary goal of a college essay is to help its author get an education that leads to a career. Changes in testing policies and financial aid have made applying to college more confusing than ever, but essays have remained basically the same. I would argue that they’re much more than an onerous task or rote exercise, and that unlike standardized tests they are infinitely variable and sometimes beautiful. College essays also provide an opportunity to learn precision, clarity and the process of working toward the truth through multiple revisions.

When a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously.

Even if writing doesn’t end up being fundamental to their future professions, students learn to choose language carefully and to be suspicious of the first words that come to mind. Especially now, as college students shoulder so much of the country’s ethical responsibility for war with their protest movement, essay writing teaches prospective students an increasingly urgent lesson: that choosing their own words over ready-made phrases is the only reliable way to ensure they’re thinking for themselves.

Teenagers are ideal writers for several reasons. They’re usually free of preconceptions about writing, and they tend not to use self-consciously ‘‘literary’’ language. They’re allergic to hypocrisy and are generally unfiltered: They overshare, ask personal questions and call you out for microaggressions as well as less egregious (but still mortifying) verbal errors, such as referring to weed as ‘‘pot.’’ Most important, they have yet to put down their best stories in a finished form.

I can imagine an essay taking a risk and distinguishing itself formally — a poem or a one-act play — but most kids use a more straightforward model: a hook followed by a narrative built around “small moments” that lead to a concluding lesson or aspiration for the future. I never get tired of working with students on these essays because each one is different, and the short, rigid form sometimes makes an emotional story even more powerful. Before I read Javier Zamora’s wrenching “Solito,” I worked with a student who had been transported by a coyote into the U.S. and was reunited with his mother in the parking lot of a big-box store. I don’t remember whether this essay focused on specific skills or coping mechanisms that he gained from his ordeal. I remember only the bliss of the parent-and-child reunion in that uninspiring setting. If I were making a case to an admissions officer, I would suggest that simply being able to convey that experience demonstrates the kind of resilience that any college should admire.

The essays that have stayed with me over the years don’t follow a pattern. There are some narratives on very predictable topics — living up to the expectations of immigrant parents, or suffering from depression in 2020 — that are moving because of the attention with which the student describes the experience. One girl determined to become an engineer while watching her father build furniture from scraps after work; a boy, grieving for his mother during lockdown, began taking pictures of the sky.

If, as Lorrie Moore said, “a short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage,” what is a college essay? Every once in a while I sit down next to a student and start reading, and I have to suppress my excitement, because there on the Google Doc in front of me is a real writer’s voice. One of the first students I ever worked with wrote about falling in love with another girl in dance class, the absolute magic of watching her move and the terror in the conflict between her feelings and the instruction of her religious middle school. She made me think that college essays are less like love than limerence: one-sided, obsessive, idiosyncratic but profound, the first draft of the most personal story their writers will ever tell.

Nell Freudenberger’s novel “The Limits” was published by Knopf last month. She volunteers through the PEN America Writers in the Schools program.

Make Lists, Not War

The meta-lists website, best essays of all time – ranked.

A reader suggested I create a meta-list of the best essays of all time, so I did.  I found over 12 best essays lists and several essay anthologies and combined the essays into one meta-list.  The meta-list below includes every essay that was on at least two of the original source lists. They are organized by rank, that is, with the essays on the most lists at the top. To see the same list organized chronologically, go HERE .

Note 1:  Some of the essays are actually chapters from books.  In such cases, I have identified the source book.

Note 2: Some of the essays are book-length, such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own .  One book listed as an essay by two listers – Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet – is also regularly categorized as a work of fiction.

On 11 lists James Baldwin – Notes of a Native Son (1955)

On 6 lists George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant (1936) E.B. White – Once More to the Lake (1941) Joan Didion – Goodbye To All That (1968)

On 5 lists Joan Didion – On Keeping A Notebook (1968) Annie Dillard – Total Eclipse (1982) Jo Ann Beard – The Fourth State of Matter (1996) David Foster Wallace – A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again (1996)

On 4 lists William Hazlitt – On the Pleasure of Hating (1823) Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self-Reliance (1841) Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own (1928) Virginia Woolf – The Death of a Moth (1942) George Orwell – Such, Such Were the Joys (1952) Joan Didion – In Bed (1968) Amy Tan – Mother Tongue (1991) David Foster Wallace – Consider The Lobster (2005)

On 3 lists Jonathan Swift – A Modest Proposal  (1729) Virginia Woolf – Street Haunting: A London Adventure (1930) John McPhee – The Search for Marvin Gardens (1972) Joan Didion – The White Album (1968-1978) Eudora Welty – The Little Store (1978) Phillip Lopate – Against Joie de Vivre (1989)

On 2 lists Sei Shonagon – Hateful Things (from The Pillow Book ) (1002) Yoshida Kenko – Essays in Idleness (1332) Michel de Montaigne – On Some Verses of Virgil (1580) Robert Burton – Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) John Milton – Areopagitica  (1644) William Hazlitt – On Going a Journey (1822) Charles Lamb – The Superannuated Man (1823) Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience (1849) Henry David Thoreau – Where I Lived, and What I Lived For (from  Walden ) (1854) Henry David Thoreau – Economy (from  Walden ) (1854) Henry David Thoreau – Walking (1861) Robert Louis Stevenson – The Lantern-Bearers (1888) Zora Neale Hurston – How It Feels to Be Colored Me (1928) George Orwell – A Hanging (1931) Junichiro Tanizaki – In Praise of Shadows (1933) Fernando Pessoa – The Book of Disquiet (1935) James Agee and Walker Evans – Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) Simone Weil – On Human Personality (1943) M.F.K. Fisher – The Flaw (1943) Vladimir Nabokov – Speak, Memory (1951, revised 1966) Mary McCarthy – Artists in Uniform: A Story (1953) E.B. White – Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street (1957) Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) Joseph Mitchell – Joe Gould’s Secret (1964) Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation (1966) Edward Hoagland – The Courage of Turtles (1970) Annie Dillard – Seeing (from  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek ) (1974) Maxine Hong Kingston – No Name Woman (from The Woman Warrior ) (1976) Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1982) Annie Dillard – Living Like Weasels (1982) Gloria E. Anzaldúa – How to Tame a Wild Tongue (1987) Italo Calvino – Exactitude (1988) Richard Rodriguez – Late Victorians (1990) David Wojnarowicz – Being Queer in America: A Journal of Disintegration (1991) Seymour Krim – To My Brothers & Sisters in the Failure Business (1991) Anne Carson – The Anthropology of Water (1995) Susan Sontag – Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) Etel Adnan – In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (2005) Paul LaFarge – Destroy All Monsters (2006) Brian Doyle – Joyas Voladoras (2012)

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  1. The 10 Best Essay Collections of the Decade ‹ Literary Hub

    We began with the best debut novels, the best short story collections, the best poetry collections, and the best memoirs of the decade, and we have now reached the fifth list in our series: the best essay collections published in English between 2010 and 2019. The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by ...

  2. The 25 Greatest Essay Collections of All Time

    Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace. This one's another "duh" moment, at least if you're a fan of the literary essay. One of the most brilliant essayists of all time, Wallace pushes ...

  3. 100 Must-Read Essay Collections

    Art & Ardor — Cynthia Ozick. 5. The Art of the Personal Essay — anthology, edited by Phillip Lopate. 6. Bad Feminist — Roxane Gay. 7. The Best American Essays of the Century — anthology, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. 8. The Best American Essays series — published every year, series edited by Robert Atwan.

  4. 50 Must-Read Contemporary Essay Collections

    Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes. "Bill Hayes came to New York City in 2009 with a one-way ticket and only the vaguest idea of how he would get by. But, at forty-eight years old, having spent decades in San Francisco, he craved change.

  5. While We're On the Subject: 10 of the Best Essay Collections

    An essay is a short piece of writing about a specific subject. That's all. And just like all other writing, the subject possibilities are endless! There are so many amazing collections of essays to choose from. That's why we're helping you find a few great ones with this list of ten of the best essay collections.

  6. 20 Brilliant Essay Collections

    Men Explain Things To Me is a slim little essay collection with a provocative title and a brilliant premise. Rebecca Solnit writes about the lived experience of women in the patriarchy in seven essays (or nine, if you get a later edition) from the last twenty years. She addresses violence against women, marriage equality, the influence of ...

  7. The decade's best essay collections, from Zadie Smith to Jia Tolentino

    The New Yorker staff writer fires on all cylinders in a collection of essays more about reading as a way of life than the idiosyncrasies of The Idiot. 'The Possessed' by Elif Batuman All About ...

  8. The Best Essay Collections to Add to Your TBR List

    In this new collection of essays, she tackles some of the most pressing issues that affect our present moment, from the Black Lives Matter movement to Palestine and beyond, calling upon us all to imagine a better world - and do the important work required to make it possible. Amazon. Apple Books. Barnes & Noble.

  9. 100 Best Essays Books of All Time (Updated for 2021)

    A Room of One's Own. Virginia Woolf | 4.75. A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published on the 24th of October, 1929, the essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928.

  10. Pieces of Mind: 30 Great New Essay Collections

    Essay collections offer a unique kind of reader experience, one that can be rewarding in a different way from novels or even other types of nonfiction. Essays often provide multiple angles of attack on a certain theme, providing a kind of literary 3-D effect. Sometimes they work as little first-person short stories. And sometimes they're just ...

  11. Favourite Essay Collections

    1 And Even Now by Max Beerbohm. 2 The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf. 3 Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White. 4 A Sad Heart At The Supermarket by Randall Jarrell. 5 Visions Before Midnight by Clive James. B efore we get into the books, I wanted to ask you about essays generally. In your introduction to The Best American Essays of 2008 you have a ...

  12. 40 Best Essays of All Time (Including Links & Writing Tips)

    1. David Sedaris - Laugh, Kookaburra. A great family drama takes place against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness. And the Kookaburra laughs…. This is one of the top essays of the lot. It's a great mixture of family reminiscences, travel writing, and advice on what's most important in life.

  13. The Greatest "Essays" Books of All Time

    6. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag. This book is a collection of essays that challenge the traditional methods of interpretation and criticism of art and culture. The author argues that in our attempt to interpret and find deeper meaning, we often overlook the sensory experience of the work itself.

  14. Best Essays of All Time

    A reader suggested I create a meta-list of the best essays of all time, so I did. I found over 12 best essays lists and several essay anthologies and combined the essays into one meta-list. The meta-list below includes every essay that was on at least two of the original source lists. They are organized chronologically, by date of publication.

  15. The Top 10 Essays Since 1950

    The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.

  16. Best Essayists

    Some of the most famous literary works are essays, written by great authors and writers. Essays span a variety of genres, including comedy, non-fiction, history, and current events. Some essays are published as a stand-alone piece in a magazine, while others are grouped into collections. Who are the best essayists of all time?

  17. The Best Essay Collections of All-Time

    20. I Was Told There'd Be Cake (Sloane Crosley) 21. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. 22. The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders. 23. The White Album (Joan Didion) 24.

  18. Poetry Foundation

    All the Shiny Knives. From Poetry Off the Shelf March 2024. Monica Rico on cooking, grunt work, and the heat at General Motors. Submit poetry and letters to the editors of Poetry magazine. Poems, readings, poetry news and the entire 110-year archive of POETRY magazine.

  19. What I've Learned From My Students' College Essays

    May 14, 2024. Most high school seniors approach the college essay with dread. Either their upbringing hasn't supplied them with several hundred words of adversity, or worse, they're afraid ...

  20. Suggest Me Some Really Great Essay Collections : r/suggestmeabook

    Suggest Me Some Really Great Essay Collections. Thoughtful, thought-provoking, playful, or poignant. Previous I've enjoyed A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace and Places I've Taken My Body by Molly McCully Brown. Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan.

  21. Kenny G Greatest Hits 2024 Collection Top 10 Hits Playlist Of All Time

    Kenny G Greatest Hits 2024 Collection - Top 10 Hits Playlist Of All TimeTRACKLIST: ️ ️ ️[00:04:20] - 1.H̲̲ow C̲̲ou̲̲l̲d̲ a̲n̲̲ A̲ng̲e̲̲l Br̲eak̲̲ My̲̲ H̲e̲ar...

  22. Best Essays of All Time

    A reader suggested I create a meta-list of the best essays of all time, so I did. I found over 12 best essays lists and several essay anthologies and combined the essays into one meta-list. The meta-list below includes every essay that was on at least two of the original source lists. They are organized…

  23. In pictures: Auroras light the sky during rare solar storm

    Increased solar activity causes auroras that dance around Earth's poles, known as the northern lights, or aurora borealis, and southern lights, or aurora australis. When the energized particles ...

  24. PDF 40 Best Essays of All Time (With Links)

    You can mixt your personal story with the zeitgeist or the ethos of the time. 7. Roger Ebert - Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Probably the greatest film critic of all time, Roger Ebert, tells us not to rage against the dying of the light. This essay is full of courage, erudition, and humanism.