There’s something about a shiny new collection of essays that makes my heart beat a little faster. If you feel the same way, can we be friends? If not, might I suggest that perhaps you just haven’t found the right collection yet? I don’t expect everyone to love the thought of sitting down with a nice, juicy personal essay, but I also think the genre gets a bad rap because people associate it with the kind of thing they had to write in school.
Well, essays don’t have to be like the kind of thing you wrote in school. Essays can be anything, really. They can be personal, confessional, argumentative, informative, funny, sad, shocking, sexy, and all of the above. The best essayists can make any subject interesting. If I love an essayist, I’ll read whatever they write. I’ll follow their minds anywhere. Because that’s really what I want out of an essay — the sense that I’m spending time with an interesting mind. I want a companionable, challenging, smart, surprising voice in my head.
So below is my list, not of essay collections I think everybody “must read,” even if that’s what my title says, but collections I hope you will consider checking out if you want to.
1. Against Interpretation — Susan Sontag
2. Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere — André Aciman
3. American Romances — Rebecca Brown
4. Art and 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
9. Book of Days — Emily Fox Gordon
10. The Boys of My Youth — Jo Ann Beard
11. The Braindead Megaphone — George Saunders
12. Broken Republic: Three Essays — Arundhati Roy
13. Changing My Mind — Zadie Smith
14. A Collection of Essays — George Orwell
15. The Common Reader — Virginia Woolf
16. Consider the Lobster — David Foster Wallace
17. The Crack-up — F. Scott Fitzgerald
18. Discontent and its Civilizations — Mohsin Hamid
19. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric — Claudia Rankine
20. Dreaming of Hitler — Daphne Merkin
21. Self-Reliance and Other Essays — Ralph Waldo Emerson
22. The Empathy Exams — Leslie Jameson
23. Essays After Eighty — Donald Hall
24. Essays in Idleness — Yoshida Kenko
25. The Essays of Elia— Charles Lamb
26. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader — Anne Fadiman
27. A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit
28. Findings — Kathleen Jamie
29. The Fire Next Time — James Baldwin
30. The Folded Clock — Heidi Julavits
31. Forty-One False Starts — Janet Malcolm
32. How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America — Kiese Laymon
33. I Feel Bad About My Neck — Nora Ephron
34. I Just Lately Started Buying Wings — Kim Dana Kupperman
35. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction — anthology, edited by Lee Gutkind
36. In Praise of Shadows — Junichiro Tanizaki
37. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens — Alice Walker
38. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? — Mindy Kaling
39. I Was Told There’d Be Cake — Sloane Crosley
40. Karaoke Culture — Dubravka Ugresic
41. Labyrinths — Jorge Luis Borges
42. Living, Thinking, Looking — Siri Hustvedt
43. Loitering — Charles D’Ambrosio
44. Lunch With a Bigot — Amitava Kumar
45. Madness, Rack, and Honey — Mary Ruefle
46. Magic Hours — Tom Bissell
47. Meatless Days — Sara Suleri
48. Meaty — Samantha Irby
49. Meditations from a Movable Chair — Andre Dubus
50. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood — Mary McCarthy
51. Me Talk Pretty One Day — David Sedaris
52. Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal — Wendy S. Walters
53. My 1980s and Other Essays — Wayne Koestenbaum
54. The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay, and The Making of the American Essay — anthologies, edited by John D’Agata
55. The Norton Book of Personal Essays — anthology, edited by Joseph Epstein
56. Notes from No Man’s Land — Eula Biss
57. Notes of a Native Son — James Baldwin
58. Not That Kind of Girl — Lena Dunham
59. On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry
60. Once I Was Cool — Megan Stielstra
61. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write — Sarah Ruhl
62. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored — Adam Phillips
63. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence — Adrienne Rich
64. The Opposite of Loneliness — Marina Keegan
65. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition — Geoff Dyer
66. Paris to the Moon — Adam Gopnik
67. Passions of the Mind — A.S. Byatt
68. The Pillow Book — Sei Shonagon
69. A Place to Live — Natalia Ginzburg
70. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination — Toni Morrison
71. Pulphead — John Jeremiah Sullivan
72. Selected Essays — Michel de Montaigne
73. Shadow and Act — Ralph Ellison
74. Sidewalks — Valeria Luiselli
75. Sister Outsider — Audre Lorde
76. The Size of Thoughts — Nicholson Baker
77. Slouching Towards Bethlehem — Joan Didion
78. The Souls of Black Folk — W. E. B. Du Bois
79. The Story About the Story — anthology, edited by J.C. Hallman
80. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — David Foster Wallace
81. Ten Years in the Tub — Nick Hornby
82. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man — Henry Louis Gates
83. This Is Running for Your Life — Michelle Orange
84. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage — Ann Patchett
85. Tiny Beautiful Things — Cheryl Strayed
86. Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture — Gerald Early
87. Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints — Joan Acocella
88. The Unspeakable — Meghan Daum
89. Vermeer in Bosnia — Lawrence Weschler
90. The Wave in the Mind — Ursula K. Le Guin
91. We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think— Shirley Hazzard
92. We Should All Be Feminists — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
93. What Are People For? — Wendell Berry
94. When I Was a Child I Read Books — Marilynne Robinson
95. The White Album — Joan Didion
96. White Girls — Hilton Als
97. The Woman Warrior — Maxine Hong Kinston
98. The Writing Life — Annie Dillard
99. Writing With Intent — Margaret Atwood
100. You Don’t Have to Like Me — Alida Nugent
If you have a favorite essay collection I’ve missed here, let me know in the comments!
News, new releases, and reading recommendations for nonfiction readers!
Remove the fanfare and most writing advice boils down to read more, write more, and get better feedback.
Let's talk about that first one. If writing is output, reading is often the most important input. You'll understand what makes Hemingway's writing exceptional (or overrated) by reading his books, not from taking his advice. Study your idols, as that is a much more rewarding and reliable strategy.
That said, there are a number of useful books on writing that can supplement your education. Here are five that I have always kept close:
1. Revising Prose by Richard Lanham
A book I recommend for its memorable examples. My favorite comes from Warren Buffet, who has a deep rooted respect for clear communication within companies. His own shareholder letters are so well written that they are often considered the gold standard for the medium.
Former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt was so fond of Buffet's prose that he asked him to write an introduction for the SEC's official Plain English Handbook, which seeks to eliminate the jargon from disclosure documents.
Levitt tells a story of how he once asked Buffett to translate a passage from a mutual fund prospectus into English spoken by real people. The original text was as follows:
Maturity and duration management decisions are made in the context of an intermediate maturity orientation. The maturity structure of the portfolio is adjusted in anticipation of cyclical interest rate changes. Such adjustments are not made in an effort to capture short term, day-to-day movements in the market, but instead are implemented in anticipation of the longer term secular shifts in the levels of interest rates. (i.e. shifts transcending and/or inherent in the business cycle.
We will try to profit by correctly predicting future interest rates. When we have no strong opinion, we will generally hold intermediate term bonds.
Shorter, clearer, and can be more readily understood by a larger audience. A perfect example of revising prose.
2. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost
The book you've all seen in passing, but haven't read.
Why? Because it is the source of this famous excerpt on writing:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals--sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader's ear. Don't just write words. Write music.
Good writing moves you effortlessly through the words. Reading suddenly becomes as quick as thought.
Part of mastering flow, this "music" in writing, is understanding the interplay between short and long sentences. Short sentences must be accompanied by expanded thinking, otherwise they slow things down to a snail's pace.
And then this. And then this. And then this. It gets old fast.
When used well a short sentence can bring clarity, heighten suspense, or place a magnifying glass on a point of interest. With the added power of spacing it can feel like it rests all alone; that it's too critical to be with anything else.
Although this example is a quote, I've always been fond of "Today You, Tomorrow Me," a story from Reddit that uses a short, memorable line to perfectly capture the intended message. The abridged summary is that a man was stranded on the side of the road and then graciously helped by a caring Mexican family. When he tried to give them money, this was the response:
He sees the $20 in my hand and [is] just shaking his head no, like he won't take it. All I can think to say is "Por Favor, Por Favor, Por Favor" with my hands out. He just smiles, shakes his head and with what looked like great concentration, tried his hardest to speak to me in English:
"Today you... tomorrow me."
Rolled up his window, drove away, his daughter waving to me in the rear view. I sat in my car eating the best f*cking tamale of all time and I just cried. It has been a rough year and nothing has broke my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn't deal.
In the 5 months since I have changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and, once, went 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won't accept money. Every time I tell them the same thing when we are through:
"Today you... tomorrow me."
That line is moving and stays with you. Damn good communication, in short. You'll learn quite a few things about how to accomplish this in your own writing by reading this book.
3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
As one reviewer put it, highlighting the best parts of this book is a fruitless endeavor as you'd be better off dipping the whole thing in yellow highlighter. No matter what style or medium, it is a book that every writer should read.
There are concerns that loom over every "new" writer that always seem foolish as time passes. Seeing a great writer's finished work is only seeing their highlight reel--their process is an enigma, and can create a sense that such talent came to them naturally, like dictation from God. Any final essay only reveals the smallest percentage of total effort: only those ideas which made the cut.
Anne Lamott's passage that owns up to the struggle of every first draft perfectly captures the importance of knowing that good writers become great through revision:
And often the right words do come, and you--well--"write" for a while; you put a lot of thoughts down on paper. But the bad news is that if you're at all like me, you'll probably read over what you've written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written, lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your first drafts are.
Ditch the belief that your first drafts should be good. Brainstorm horizontally, edit vertically.
Remember that blades and words becomes sharp by filing them down. Like carving a sculpture from marble, you need excess material to revise your way to "no words have been wasted."
4. On Writing by Stephen King
From fundamental truisms on the nature of the craft to down-to-earth advice on forming a consistent writing habit, this book is a classic--you all knew it would be here.
With no need to introduce it, I'm better off sharing some of my favorite passages. First, on approaching the blank page:
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair-the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world.
Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
On the nature of recognizing mediocrity, so that you might avoid it yourself:
We need to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them.
What is the job of the writer? The next time you hear someone struggle to capture a moment, a feeling, an idea, you'll know:
We've all heard someone say, "Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) ... I just can't describe it!" If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.
Such a book wouldn't be complete without mention of the struggle. King's take? Ask yourself how far you would go for focus:
If you're just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television's electric plug wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.
To get results other writers can't, do things other writers won't.
5. The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
As a Harvard psychologist with notable work in the world of linguistics, I was excited for this book. While wonderfully written, it suffers from being overly-descriptive and too long--a flaw the book suggests to avoid! Otherwise it is delightful.
Within you'll find some memorable passages on the common warning signs of prose gone bad, particularly relevant to smart people who are trying to transfer their knowledge:
The literary scholars Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas have identified the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt, and that is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.
That may sound obvious. But it's amazing how many of the bad habits of academese and legalese and so on come from flouting that model. Bad writers don't point to something in the world but are self-conscious about not seeming naïve about the pitfalls of their own enterprise. Their goal is not to show something to the reader but to prove that they are not a bad lawyer or a bad scientist or a bad academic.
And so bad writing is cluttered with apologies and hedges and "somewhats" and reviews of the past activity of people in the same line of work as the writer, as opposed to concentrating on something in the world that the writer is trying to get someone else to see with their own eyes.
When bloated writing is used to mask weak ideas, everyone loses.
Bonus: Closely kept favorite authors
Surround yourself with great work and it will inevitably rub off on you.
Visiting and revisiting the masters of the craft is the only way to accomplish this--books on writing can only go so far.
Levels of the Game is one such example for me. John McPhee may be one of the greatest living essayists. His work is complex, stylistically masterful, and will leave most writers with an existential crisis ("That's it, I give up!").
More seriously, studying the work of McPhee and other role models has changed my perspective, and it has certainly changed my writing--one can only hope for the better.
Find the authors that speak to you and let them serve as your companion on the quest to make every word matter.
Gregory Ciotti is the lead content strategist at Help Scout, the SaaS help desk for web businesses who insist on delivering outstanding customer support.
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