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Nonfiction Books » Essays
The best essays: the 2021 pen/diamonstein-spielvogel award, recommended by adam gopnik.
WINNER OF the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay
Had I Known: Collected Essays by Barbara Ehrenreich
Every year, the judges of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay search out the best book of essays written in the past year and draw attention to the author's entire body of work. Here, Adam Gopnik , writer, journalist and PEN essay prize judge, emphasizes the role of the essay in bearing witness and explains why the five collections that reached the 2021 shortlist are, in their different ways, so important.
Interview by Benedict King
Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader by Vivian Gornick
Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays by Robert Michael Pyle
Terroir: Love, Out of Place by Natasha Sajé
Maybe the People Would be the Times by Luc Sante
1 Had I Known: Collected Essays by Barbara Ehrenreich
2 unfinished business: notes of a chronic re-reader by vivian gornick, 3 nature matrix: new and selected essays by robert michael pyle, 4 terroir: love, out of place by natasha sajé, 5 maybe the people would be the times by luc sante.
We’re talking about the books shortlisted for the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay . As an essayist yourself, or as a reader of essays, what are you looking for? What’s the key to a good essay ?
I have very specific and, in some ways, old fashioned views on the essay—though I think that the books we chose tend to confirm the ‘relevance’, perhaps even the continuing urgency, of those views. I think that we always ought to distinguish the essay from a political editorial or polemic on the one hand, and from a straight memoir or confession on the other. The essay, for me, is always a form in which it’s significant—more than significant, it’s decisive—that it has some form of first-person address, a particular voice bearing witness at a particular time. An essay isn’t a common claim, it’s not an editorial ‘we’, it’s not a manifesto. It’s one writer, one voice, addressing readers as though face-to-face. At the same time, for me—and I think this sense was shared by the other judges, as an intuition about the essay—it isn’t simply What Happened to Me. It’s not an autobiographical memoir, or a piece taken from an autobiographical memoir, wonderful though those can be (I say, as one who writes those, too).
It’s a personal address that points to a larger theme. You’ve got to recognize the person on the page, as we do with Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, Max Beerbohm, Clive James and countless others. But we also want it to have a certain critical conscience, we want it to be more than an outpouring of emotion. I don’t think of Anaïs Nin, for instance, as an essayist in that sense. She’s a wonderful confessional writer, a wonderful memoirist and diarist—but we don’t think of Anaïs Nin as an essayist in quite the same way that we think of Virginia Woolf or Joan Didion as an essayist.
Let’s turn to the books that made the shortlist of the 2021 PEN Award for the Art of the Essay. The winning book was Had I Known: Collected Essays by Barbara Ehrenreich , whose books have been recommended a number of times on Five Books. Tell me more.
One of the criteria for this particular prize is that it should be not just for a single book, but for a body of work. One of the things we wanted to honour about Barbara Ehrenreich is that she has produced a remarkable body of work. Although it’s offered in a more specifically political register than some essayists, or that a great many past prize winners have practised, the quiddity of her work is that it remains rooted in personal experience, in the act of bearing witness. She has a passionate political point to make, certainly, a series of them, many seeming all the more relevant now than when she began writing. Nonetheless, her writing still always depends on the intimacy of first-hand knowledge, what people in post-incarceration work call ‘lived experience’ (a term with a distinguished philosophical history). Her book Nickel and Dimed is the classic example of that. She never writes from a distance about working-class life in America. She bears witness to the nature and real texture of working-class life in America.
“One point of giving awards…is to keep passing the small torches of literary tradition”
We wanted to honor this lifelong commitment to serving the cause of reform: egalitarian measures, rights for working people and, above all, that great American tradition of listening to those who don’t get listened to, hearing and seeing people who don’t often get to speak or be seen—a tradition that extends back to Lewis Hine, Upton Sinclair and countless others. She seems to have both embodied that tradition and renewed it. What makes her work exceptional is that it comes to us both as a personal witness of a very moving kind, and as part of a broader political project of an admirably consistent sort.
Next up of the books on the 2021 PEN essay prize shortlist is Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader by Vivian Gornick.
Vivian Gornick is a writer who’s been around for a very long time. Although longevity is not in itself a criterion for excellence—or for this prize, or in the writing life generally—persistence and perseverance are. Writers who keep coming back at us, again and again, with a consistent vision, are surely to be saluted. For her admirers, her appetite to re-read things already read is one of the most attractive parts of her oeuvre , if I can call it that; her appetite not just to read but to read deeply and personally. One of the things that people who love her work love about it is that her readings are never academic, or touched by scholarly hobbyhorsing. They’re readings that involve the fullness of her experience, then applied to literature. Although she reads as a critic, she reads as an essayist reads, rather than as a reviewer reads. And I think that was one of the things that was there to honour in her body of work, as well.
Is she a novelist or journalist, as well?
She wrote a well-known book on what she called ‘ The Romance of American Communism’ , about the personal entanglements of American leftists during the long Stalinist nightmare, and she’s written novels, but I think that the core of her activity has been exactly this kind of extended critical essay, the classic form of the essay, where a personal exploration of experience is married to and meets an equally classic form of critical reading. And that’s a very rich American tradition. Hers is obviously a body of work that’s been highly influential on later generations of writers—not just on women writers, of course, but particularly on women writers. Her admirers find in her mix of deep reading and self-inspection, a template for engaged work, and they value, too, the acid and self-confident candour of her judgements.
Let’s move on to the next book which made the 2021 PEN essay shortlist. This is Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays by Robert Michael Pyle.
I have a special reason for liking this book in particular, and that is that it corresponds to one of the richest and oldest of American genres, now often overlooked, and that’s the naturalist essay. You can track it back to Henry David Thoreau , if not to Ralph Waldo Emerson , this American engagement with nature , the wilderness, not from a narrowly scientific point of view, nor from a purely ecological or environmental point of view—though those things are part of it—but again, from the point of view of lived experience, of personal testimony.
It seems to me that that’s been one of the richest of American genres, and largely overlooked in recent years. Pyle is a writer who has spent his entire life, all of his writerly activity, writing that kind of easily neglected and overlooked essay—including a wonderful study of the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, that marked my first acquaintance with his mind. It’s not the kind of thing you’re going to find in New York Magazine or, for that matter, often in The New Yorker anymore, but is a vital part of a long, golden thread of American work. So honoring his work was a way both of honoring that tradition and the leading living American practitioner of that tradition. It was a way both of honoring the career of a remarkable but somewhat overlooked writer and also of reminding us that on the spectrum of the American essay, along with the political essays, it is just as important to pay attention to the non-political essay, the essay of natural life—which, of course, as with Thoreau so with Pyle, suggests a politics of its own.
Let’s look at the next book on the shortlist of the 2021 PEN Awards, which is Terroir: Love, Out of Place by Natasha Sajé. Why did these essays appeal?
One of the things that was appealing about this book is that’s it very much about, in every sense, the issues of the day: the idea of place, of where we are, how we are located on any map as individuals by ethnic identity, class, gender—all of those things. But rather than being carried forward in a narrowly argumentative way, again, in the classic manner of the essay, Sajé’s work is ruminative. It walks around these issues from the point of view of someone who’s an expatriate, someone who’s an émigré, someone who’s a world citizen, but who’s also concerned with the idea of ‘terroir’, the one place in the world where we belong. And I think the dialogue in her work between a kind of cosmopolitanism that she has along with her self-critical examination of the problem of localism and where we sit on the world, was inspiring to us.
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It’s a reminder—and I think this is generally true about the books in this sequence—that the special contribution the essayist makes to public debate is not to sharpen the arguments, nor necessarily to broaden the field of evidence as a social scientist might do, but to give us the intense particularism of individual witness on the issues that everyone is talking about. Nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation—she writes about them, not from a distance, but from an exquisite and micro-accented point of view.
Last of the books on the shortlist for the 2021 Pen essay award is Maybe the People Would Be the Times by Luc Sante.
Again, here’s a writer who’s had a distinguished generalised career, writing about lots of places and about lots of subjects. In the past, he’s made his special preoccupation what he calls ‘low life’, but I think more broadly can be called the marginalized or the repressed and abject. He’s also written acute introductions to the literature of ‘low life’, the works of Asbury and David Maurer, for instance.
But I think one of the things that was appealing about what he’s done is the sheer range of his enterprise. He writes about countless subjects. He can write about A-sides and B-sides of popular records—singles—then go on to write about Jacques Rivette’s cinema. He writes from a kind of private inspection of public experience. He has a lovely piece about tabloid headlines and their evolution. And I think that omnivorous range of enthusiasms and passions is a stirring reminder in a time of specialization and compartmentalization of the essayist’s freedom to roam. If Pyle is in the tradition of Thoreau, I suspect Luc Sante would be proud to be put in the tradition of Baudelaire—the flaneur who walks the streets, sees everything, broods on it all and writes about it well.
One point of giving awards, with all their built-in absurdity and inevitable injustice, is to keep alive, or at least to keep passing, the small torches of literary tradition. And just as much as we’re honoring the great tradition of the naturalist essay in the one case, I think we’re honoring the tradition of the Baudelairean flaneur in this one.
April 18, 2021
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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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Adam Gopnik on The Best Essays: the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.'”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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The Best Reviewed Essay Collections of 2022
Featuring bob dylan, elena ferrante, zora neale hurston, jhumpa lahiri, melissa febos, and more.
We’ve come to the end of another bountiful literary year, and for all of us review rabbits here at Book Marks, that can mean only one thing: basic math, and lots of it.
Yes, using reviews drawn from more than 150 publications, over the next two weeks we’ll be calculating and revealing the most critically-acclaimed books of 2022, in the categories of (deep breath): Fiction ; Nonfiction ; Memoir and Biography ; Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror ; Short Story Collections ; Essay Collections; Poetry; Mystery and Crime ; Graphic Literature ; and Literature in Translation .
Today’s installment: Essay Collections .
Brought to you by Book Marks , Lit Hub’s “Rotten Tomatoes for books.”
1. In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing by Elena Ferrante (Europa)
12 Rave • 12 Positive • 4 Mixed
“The lucid, well-formed essays that make up In the Margins are written in an equally captivating voice … Although a slim collection, there is more than enough meat here to nourish both the common reader and the Ferrante aficionado … Every essay here is a blend of deep thought, rigorous analysis and graceful prose. We occasionally get the odd glimpse of the author…but mainly the focus is on the nuts and bolts of writing and Ferrante’s practice of her craft. The essays are at their most rewarding when Ferrante discusses the origins of her books, in particular the celebrated Neapolitan Novels, and the multifaceted heroines that power them … These essays might not bring us any closer to finding out who Ferrante really is. Instead, though, they provide valuable insight into how she developed as a writer and how she works her magic.”
–Malcolm Forbes ( The Star Tribune )
2. Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri (Princeton University Press)
8 Rave • 14 Positive • 1 Mixed
“Lahiri mixes detailed explorations of craft with broader reflections on her own artistic life, as well as the ‘essential aesthetic and political mission’ of translation. She is excellent in all three modes—so excellent, in fact, that I, a translator myself, could barely read this book. I kept putting it aside, compelled by Lahiri’s writing to go sit at my desk and translate … One of Lahiri’s great gifts as an essayist is her ability to braid multiple ways of thinking together, often in startling ways … a reminder, no matter your relationship to translation, of how alive language itself can be. In her essays as in her fiction, Lahiri is a writer of great, quiet elegance; her sentences seem simple even when they’re complex. Their beauty and clarity alone would be enough to wake readers up. ‘Look,’ her essays seem to say: Look how much there is for us to wake up to.”
–Lily Meyer ( NPR )
3. The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster)
10 Rave • 15 Positive • 7 Mixed • 4 Pan
“It is filled with songs and hyperbole and views on love and lust even darker than Blood on the Tracks … There are 66 songs discussed here … Only four are by women, which is ridiculous, but he never asked us … Nothing is proved, but everything is experienced—one really weird and brilliant person’s experience, someone who changed the world many times … Part of the pleasure of the book, even exceeding the delectable Chronicles: Volume One , is that you feel liberated from Being Bob Dylan. He’s not telling you what you got wrong about him. The prose is so vivid and fecund, it was useless to underline, because I just would have underlined the whole book. Dylan’s pulpy, noir imagination is not always for the squeamish. If your idea of art is affirmation of acceptable values, Bob Dylan doesn’t need you … The writing here is at turns vivid, hilarious, and will awaken you to songs you thought you knew … The prose brims everywhere you turn. It is almost disturbing. Bob Dylan got his Nobel and all the other accolades, and now he’s doing my job, and he’s so damn good at it.”
–David Yaffe ( AirMail )
4. Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos (Catapult)
13 Rave • 2 Positive • 2 Mixed Read an excerpt from Body Work here
“In her new book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative , memoirist Melissa Febos handily recuperates the art of writing the self from some of the most common biases against it: that the memoir is a lesser form than the novel. That trauma narratives should somehow be over—we’ve had our fill … Febos rejects these belittlements with eloquence … In its hybridity, this book formalizes one of Febos’s central tenets within it: that there is no disentangling craft from the personal, just as there is no disentangling the personal from the political. It’s a memoir of a life indelibly changed by literary practice and the rigorous integrity demanded of it …
Febos is an essayist of grace and terrific precision, her sentences meticulously sculpted, her paragraphs shapely and compressed … what’s fresh, of course, is Febos herself, remapping this terrain through her context, her life and writing, her unusual combinations of sources (William H. Gass meets Elissa Washuta, for example), her painstaking exactitude and unflappable sureness—and the new readers she will reach with all of this.”
–Megan Milks ( 4Columns )
5. You Don’t Know Us Negroes by Zora Neale Hurston (Amistad)
12 Rave • 3 Positive • 1 Mixed
“… a dazzling collection of her work … You Don’t Know Us Negroes reveals Hurston at the top of her game as an essayist, cultural critic, anthropologist and beat reporter … Hurston is, by turn, provocative, funny, bawdy, informative and outrageous … Hurston will make you laugh but also make you remember the bitter divide in Black America around performance, language, education and class … But the surprising page turner is at the back of the book, a compilation of Hurston’s coverage of the Ruby McCollom murder trial …
Some of Hurston’s writing is sensationalistic, to be sure, but it’s also a riveting take of gender and race relations at the time … Gates and West have put together a comprehensive collection that lets Hurston shine as a writer, a storyteller and an American iconoclast.”
–Lisa Page ( The Washington Post )
6. Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us by Rachel Aviv (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
11 Rave • 4 Positive • 2 Mixed Listen to an interview with Rachel Aviv here
“… written with an astonishing amount of attention and care … Aviv’s triumphs in relating these journeys are many: her unerring narrative instinct, the breadth of context brought to each story, her meticulous reporting. Chief among these is her empathy, which never gives way to pity or sentimentality. She respects her subjects, and so centers their dignity without indulging in the geeky, condescending tone of fascination that can characterize psychologists’ accounts of their patients’ troubles. Though deeply curious about each subject, Aviv doesn’t treat them as anomalous or strange … Aviv’s daunted respect for uncertainty is what makes Strangers to Ourselves distinctive. She is hyperaware of just how sensitive the scale of the self can be.”
–Charlotte Shane ( Bookforum )
7. A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast by Dorthe Nors (Graywolf)
11 Rave • 1 Positive Read an excerpt from A Line in the World here
“Nors, known primarily as a fiction writer, here embarks on a languorous and evocative tour of her native Denmark … The dramas of the past are evoked not so much through individual characters as through their traces—buildings, ruins, shipwrecks—and this westerly Denmark is less the land of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and sleek Georg Jensen designs than a place of ancient landscapes steeped in myth … People aren’t wholly incidental to the narrative. Nors introduces us to a variety of colorful characters, and shares vivid memories of her family’s time in a cabin on the coast south of Thyborøn. But in a way that recalls the work of Barry Lopez, nature is at the heart of this beautiful book, framed in essay-like chapters, superbly translated by Caroline Waight.”
–Claire Messud ( Harper’s )
8. Raising Raffi: The First Five Years by Keith Gessen (Viking)
4 Rave • 10 Positive • 1 Mixed Read an excerpt from Raising Raffi here
“A wise, mild and enviably lucid book about a chaotic scene … Is it OK to out your kid like this? … Still, this memoir will seem like a better idea if, a few decades from now, Raffi is happy and healthy and can read it aloud to his own kids while chuckling at what a little miscreant he was … Gessen is a wily parser of children’s literature … He is just as good on parenting manuals … Raising Raffi offers glimpses of what it’s like to eke out literary lives at the intersection of the Trump and Biden administrations … Needing money for one’s children, throughout history, has made parents do desperate things — even write revealing parenthood memoirs … Gessen’s short book is absorbing not because it delivers answers … It’s absorbing because Gessen is a calm and observant writer…who raises, and struggles with, the right questions about himself and the world.”
–Dwight Garner ( The New York Times )
9. The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser (Doubleday)
8 Rave • 4 Positive • 2 Mixed • 1 Pan Watch an interview with CJ Hauser here
“17 brilliant pieces … This tumbling, in and out of love, structures the collection … Calling Hauser ‘honest’ and ‘vulnerable’ feels inadequate. She embraces and even celebrates her flaws, and she revels in being a provocateur … It is an irony that Hauser, a strong, smart, capable woman, relates to the crane wife’s contortions. She felt helpless in her own romantic relationship. I don’t have one female friend who has not felt some version of this, but putting it into words is risky … this collection is not about neat, happy endings. It’s a constant search for self-discovery … Much has been written on the themes Hauser excavates here, yet her perspective is singular, startlingly so. Many narratives still position finding the perfect match as a measure of whether we’ve led successful lives. The Crane Wife dispenses with that. For that reason, Hauser’s worldview feels fresh and even radical.”
–Hope Reese ( Oprah Daily )
10. How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo (Viking)
8 Rave • 2 Positive • 1 Mixed Read an excerpt from How to Read Now here
“Elaine Castillo’s How to Read Now begins with a section called ‘Author’s Note, or a Virgo Clarifies Things.’ The title is a neat encapsulation of the book’s style: rigorous but still chatty, intellectual but not precious or academic about it … How to Read Now proceeds at a breakneck pace. Each of the book’s eight essays burns bright and hot from start to finish … How to Read Now is not for everybody, but if it is for you, it is clarifying and bracing. Castillo offers a full-throated critique of some of the literary world’s most insipid and self-serving ideas …
So how should we read now? Castillo offers suggestions but no resolution. She is less interested in capital-A Answers…and more excited by the opportunity to restore a multitude of voices and perspectives to the conversation … A book is nothing without a reader; this one is co-created by its recipients, re-created every time the page is turned anew. How to Read Now offers its audience the opportunity to look past the simplicity we’re all too often spoon-fed into order to restore ourselves to chaos and complexity—a way of seeing and reading that demands so much more of us but offers even more in return.”
–Zan Romanoff ( The Los Angeles Times )
RAVE = 5 points • POSITIVE = 3 points • MIXED = 1 point • PAN = -5 points
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The Best Essay Collections Of All-Time
“What are the best Essay Collections of all-time?” We looked at 681 of the top Essay Collections, aggregating and ranking them so we could answer that very question!
With nearly enough books to read one a day for two years, there is bound to be something here to pique your interest! The top 25 essay collects, all appearing on 3 or more of the lists we aggregated from, appear below with images, links, and descriptions. The remaining 600 plus titles, as well as the articles we used, are alphabetically listed at the bottom of the page.
Top 25 Essay Collections
25 .) bad feminist by roxane gay.
Lists It Appears On:
- Flavorwire 2
“In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman (Sweet Valley High) of color (The Help) while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years (Girls, Django in Chains) and commenting on the state of feminism today (abortion, Chris Brown). The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture. Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better.”
Purchase / Learn More
24 .) A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
In this exuberantly praised book – a collection of seven pieces on subjects ranging from television to tennis, from the Illinois State Fair to the films of David Lynch, from postmodern literary theory to the supposed fun of traveling aboard a Caribbean luxury cruiseliner
23 .) Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
- Library Thing
“Here, he supplies fresh perceptions of such figures as varied as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Rebecca West, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, and Philip Larkin are matched in brilliance by his pungent discussions and intrepid observations, gathered from a lifetime of traveling and reporting from such destinations as Iran, China, and Pakistan. Hitchens’s directness, elegance, lightly carried erudition, critical and psychological insight, humor, and sympathy-applied as they are here to a dazzling variety of subjects-all set a standard for the essayist that has rarely been matched in our time. What emerges from this indispensable volume is an intellectual self-portrait of a writer with an exemplary steadiness of purpose and a love affair with the delights and seductions of the English language, a man anchored in a profound and humane vision of the human longing for reason and justice. “
22 .) Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
- The Daily Beast
“Anne Fadiman is–by her own admission–the sort of person who learned about sex from her father’s copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice. This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father’s 22-volume set of Trollope (“”My Ancestral Castles””) and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections (“”Marrying Libraries””), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony–Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners. Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.”
21 .) I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
“With her disarming, intimate, completely accessible voice, and dry sense of humor, Nora Ephron shares with us her ups and downs in I Feel Bad About My Neck, a candid, hilarious look at women who are getting older and dealing with the tribulations of maintenance, menopause, empty nests, and life itself. Ephron chronicles her life as an obsessed cook, passionate city dweller, and hapless parent. But mostly she speaks frankly and uproariously about life as a woman of a certain age. Utterly courageous, uproariously funny, and unexpectedly moving in its truth telling, I Feel Bad About My Neck is a scrumptious, irresistible treat of a book, full of truths, laugh out loud moments that will appeal to readers of all ages.”
20 .) I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections by Nora Ephron
- Better World Books
- Vox Magazine
“Nora Ephron returns with her first book since the astounding success of I Feel Bad About My Neck, taking a hilarious look at the past, the present, and the future, bemoaning the vicissitudes of modern life, and recalling with her signature clarity and wisdom everything she hasn’t (yet) forgotten. Filled with insights and observations that instantly ring true—and could have come only from Nora Ephron—I Remember Nothing is pure joy.”
19 .) Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
A recent transplant to Paris, humorist David Sedaris, bestselling author of “Naked”, presents a collection of his strongest work yet, including the title story about his hilarious attempt to learn French. A number one national bestseller now in paperback.
18 .) Naked by David Sedaris
Welcome to the hilarious, strange, elegiac, outrageous world of David Sedaris. In Naked, Sedaris turns the mania for memoir on its ear, mining the exceedingly rich terrain of his life, his family, and his unique worldview-a sensibility at once take-no-prisoners sharp and deeply charitable. A tart-tongued mother does dead-on imitations of her young son’s nervous tics, to the great amusement of his teachers; a stint of Kerouackian wandering is undertaken (of course!) with a quadriplegic companion; a family gathers for a wedding in the face of imminent death. Through it all is Sedaris’s unmistakable voice, without doubt one of the freshest in American writing.
17 .) Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
“Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays begins with a series of lynchings and ends with a series of apologies. Eula Biss explores race in America and her response to the topic is informed by the experiences chronicled in these essays — teaching in a Harlem school on the morning of 9/11, reporting for an African American newspaper in San Diego, watching the aftermath of Katrina from a college town in Iowa, and settling in Chicago’s most diverse neighborhood. As Biss moves across the country from New York to California to the Midwest, her essays move across time from biblical Babylon to the freedman’s schools of Reconstruction to a Jim Crow mining town to post-war white flight. She brings an eclectic education to the page, drawing variously on the Eagles, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Baldwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Joan Didion, religious pamphlets, and reality television shows.”
16 .) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
- Flashlight Worthy
Presenting the essential writings of black lesbian poet and feminist writer Audre Lorde, SISTER OUTSIDER celebrates an influential voice in twentieth-century literature. In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. Her prose is incisive, unflinching, and lyrical, reflecting struggle but ultimately offering messages of hope. This commemorative edition includes a new foreword by Lorde scholar and poet Cheryl Clarke, who celebrates the ways in which Lorde’s philosophies resonate more than twenty years after they were first published.
15 .) The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb
14 .) The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document. It consists of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism.
13 .) The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
“The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by double Hugo Award-winning essayist and fantasy novelist Kameron Hurley. The book collects dozens of Hurley’s essays on feminism, geek culture, and her experiences and insights as a genre writer, including “”We Have Always Fought,”” which won the 2013 Hugo for Best Related Work. The Geek Feminist Revolution will also feature several entirely new essays written specifically for this volume.”
12 .) The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
“Marina Keegan’s star was on the rise when she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at The New Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash. Marina left behind a rich, deeply expansive trove of writing that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty, and possibility of her generation. Her short story “Cold Pastoral” was published on NewYorker.com. Her essay “Even Artichokes Have Doubts” was excerpted in the Financial Times, and her book was the focus of a Nicholas Kristof column in The New York Times. Millions of her contemporaries have responded to her work on social media. “
11 .) A Collection of Essays by George Orwell
One of the most thought-provoking and vivid essayists of the twentieth century, George Orwell fought the injustices of his time with singular vigor through pen and paper. In this selection of essays, he ranges from reflections on his boyhood schooling and the profession of writing to his views on the Spanish Civil War and British imperialism. The pieces collected here include the relatively unfamiliar and the more celebrated, making it an ideal compilation for both new and dedicated readers of Orwell’s work.
10 .) Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
Against Interpretation was Susan Sontag’s first collection of essays and is a modern classic. Originally published in 1966, it has never gone out of print and has influenced generations of readers all over the world. It includes the famous essays “Notes on Camp” and “Against Interpretation,” as well as her impassioned discussions of Sartre, Camus, Simone Weil, Godard, Beckett, Levi-Strauss, sceince-fiction movies, psychoanalysis, and contemporary religious thought.
9 .) Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
Split into five sections–Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling, and Remembering–Changing My Mind finds Zadie Smith casting an acute eye over material both personal and cultural. This engaging collection of essays, some published here for the first time, reveals Smith as a passionate and precise essayist, equally at home in the world of great books and bad movies, family and philosophy, British comedians and Italian divas. Whether writing on Katherine Hepburn, Kafka, Anna Magnani, or Zora Neale Hurston, she brings deft care to the art of criticism with a style both sympathetic and insightful. Changing My Mind is journalism at its most expansive, intelligent, and funny–a gift to readers and writers both.
8 .) Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
- The Telegraph
“In Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan takes us on an exhilarating tour of our popular, unpopular, and at times completely forgotten culture. Simultaneously channeling the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion, Sullivan shows us―with a laidback, erudite Southern charm that’s all his own―how we really (no, really) live now. In his native Kentucky, Sullivan introduces us to Constantine Rafinesque, a nineteenth-century polymath genius who concocted a dense, fantastical prehistory of the New World. Back in modern times, Sullivan takes us to the Ozarks for a Christian rock festival; to Florida to meet the alumni and straggling refugees of MTV’s Real World, who’ve generated their own self-perpetuating economy of minor celebrity; and all across the South on the trail of the blues. He takes us to Indiana to investigate the formative years of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose and then to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina―and back again as its residents confront the BP oil spill.”
7 .) The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s first and most popular volume of essays. This collection has more than twenty-five selections, including such important statements as “Modern Fiction” and “The Modern Essay.”
6 .) I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
- Book Browse
From despoiling an exhibit at the Natural History Museum to provoking the ire of her first boss to siccing the cops on her mysterious neighbor, Crosley can do no right despite the best of intentions — or perhaps because of them. Together, these essays create a startlingly funny and revealing portrait of a complex and utterly recognizable character who aims for the stars but hits the ceiling, and the inimitable city that has helped shape who she is. I Was Told There’d Be Cake introduces a strikingly original voice, chronicling the struggles and unexpected beauty of modern urban life.
5 .) Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
“In an age of Black Lives Matter, James Baldwin’s essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written. With documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro bringing renewed interest to Baldwin’s life and work, Notes of a Native Son serves as a valuable introduction. Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in Notes of a Native Son capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in “The Harlem Ghetto” to a sobering “Journey to Atlanta.” “
4 .) The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders
George Saunders’s first foray into nonfiction is comprised of essays on literature, travel, and politics. At the core of this unique collection are Saunders’s travel essays based on his trips to seek out the mysteries of the “Buddha Boy” of Nepal; to attempt to indulge in the extravagant pleasures of Dubai; and to join the exploits of the minutemen at the Mexican border. Saunders expertly navigates the works of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Esther Forbes, and leads the reader across the rocky political landscape of modern America. Emblazoned with his trademark wit and singular vision, Saunders’s endeavor into the art of the essay is testament to his exceptional range and ability as a writer and thinker.
3 .) The White Album by Joan Didion
- Publishers Weekly
First published in 1979, The White Album records indelibly the upheavals and aftermaths of the 1960s. Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era―including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall―through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of American autobiography.
2 .) Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Do lobsters feel pain? Did Franz Kafka have a funny bone? What is John Updike’s deal, anyway? And what happens when adult video starlets meet their fans in person? David Foster Wallace answers these questions and more in essays that are also enthralling narrative adventures. Whether covering the three-ring circus of a vicious presidential race, plunging into the wars between dictionary writers, or confronting the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker at the annual Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace projects a quality of thought that is uniquely his and a voice as powerful and distinct as any in American letters.
1 .) Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The first nonfiction work by one of the most distinctive prose stylists of our era, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains, decades after its first publication, the essential portrait of America―particularly California―in the sixties. It focuses on such subjects as John Wayne and Howard Hughes, growing up a girl in California, ruminating on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room, and, especially, the essence of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the counterculture.
The Additional Best Essay Collection Books
20 best essay collection sources/lists, related posts.
The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Books of 2022 (A Year-End List Aggregation)
The Best Graphic Novels And Comic Books of 2022 (A Year-End List Aggregation)
- BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS
The Best Essay Collections to Add to Your TBR List
Discover big ideas in small doses.
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
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
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.”
Want more great books? Sign up for the Early Bird Books newsletter and get the best daily ebook deals delivered straight to your inbox.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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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While We’re On the Subject: 10 of the Best Essay Collections
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
View All posts by Liberty Hardy
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!
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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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
Men Explain Things to Me
Rebecca Solnit | 5.00
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...
Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris | 4.96
Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates | 4.94
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)
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)
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Joan Didion | 4.94
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)
We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | 4.92
Roxane Gay | 4.88
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)
Reflections on Self-Delusion
Jia Tolentino | 4.86
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)
Consider the Lobster
And Other Essays
David Foster Wallace | 4.85
A Room of One's Own
Virginia Woolf | 4.75
Dress Your Family in Corduroy & Denim
David Sedaris | 4.73
Adam Kay @penceyprepmemes How about David Sedaris, for starters - "Dress your family in corduroy and denim" is an amazing book. (Source)
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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)
When You Are Engulfed in Flames
David Sedaris | 4.67
David Sedaris | 4.63
David Blaine It’s hilarious. (Source)
The White Album
Joan Didion | 4.62
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)
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
Essays and Arguments
David Foster Wallace | 4.61
Tressie McMillan Cottom | 4.60
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)
David Sedaris and Hachette Audi | 4.60
Essays and Speeches
Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke | 4.60
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)
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)
Notes from a Loud Woman
Lindy West | 4.56
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)
The Collected Schizophrenias
Esmé Weijun Wang | 4.52
Tiny Beautiful Things
Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Cheryl Strayed | 4.49
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)
We Were Eight Years in Power
An American Tragedy
Ta-Nehisi Coates | 4.47
The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
Albert Camu | 4.47
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)
The Penguin Essays Of George Orwell
George Orwell, Bernard Crick | 4.46
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)
The Opposite of Loneliness
Essays and Stories
Marina Keegan, Anne Fadiman | 4.46
Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | 4.45
The Tipping Point
How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Malcolm Gladwell | 4.45
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)
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)
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)
Mary Oliver | 4.44
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.
Samantha Irby | 4.44
Michel de Montaigne, Charles Cotton | 4.42
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)
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)
Mindy Kaling | 4.42
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)
Not That Bad
Dispatches from Rape Culture
Roxane Gay, Brandon Taylor, et al | 4.40
Henry David Thoreau | 4.40
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)
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)
Confessions of a Common Reader
Anne Fadiman | 4.40
I Feel Bad About My Neck
And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
Nora Ephron | 4.39
Holidays on Ice
David Sedaris | 4.37
An American Lyric
Claudia Rankine | 4.36
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)
Christopher Hitchens | 4.36
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)
Notes of a Native Son
James Baldwin | 4.35
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales
Oliver Sacks | 4.34
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)
The Empathy Exams
Leslie Jamison | 4.33
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
Ann Patchett | 4.31
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)
Bird By Bird
Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anne Lamott | 4.29
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)
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)
What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures
Malcolm Gladwell | 4.28
Sam Freedman @mrianleslie (Also I agree What the Dog Saw is his best book). (Source)
The Witches Are Coming
Lindy West | 4.27
Against Interpretation and Other Essays
Susan Sontag | 4.25
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)
Changing My Mind
Zadie Smith | 4.25
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)
The Fire This Time
A New Generation Speaks About Race
Jesmyn Ward | 4.24
Why Not Me?
Mindy Kaling | 4.24
The View from the Cheap Seats
Neil Gaiman | 4.24
I Was Told There'd Be Cake
Sloane Crosley | 4.24
The Intelligent Investor
The Classic Text on Value Investing
Benjamin Graham | 4.23
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)
John Kay The idea is that you look at the underlying value of the company’s activities instead of relying on market gossip. (Source)
Tell Me How It Ends
An Essay in Forty Questions
Valeria Luiselli | 4.23
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)
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us
Hanif Abdurraqib, Dr. Eve L. Ewing | 4.22
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)
This Is Water
Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
David Foster Wallace | 4.21
John Jeremiah Sullivan | 4.21
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)
The Mother of All Questions
Rebecca Solnit | 4.20
The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Sarah Vowell, Katherine Streeter | 4.20
Essays of E.B. White
E. B. White | 4.19
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)
A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Rebecca Solnit | 4.19
A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut | 4.18
No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters
Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler | 4.17
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard | 4.16
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)
Maggie Nelson | 4.14
A Funny Book About Horrible Things
Jenny Lawson | 4.13
Women & Power
Mary Beard | 4.13
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Timothy Snyder | 4.12
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)
Barbara Kingsolver | 4.11
The Source of Self-Regard
Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Toni Morrison | 4.11
Hyperbole and a Half
Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
Allie Brosh | 4.11
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)
Samantha Irby | 4.10
Both Flesh and Not
David Foster Wallace | 4.10
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)
So Sad Today
Melissa Broder | 4.10
Hope in the Dark
Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
Rebecca Solnit | 4.09
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)
The Faraway Nearby
How to Be Alone
Jonathan Franzen | 4.08
Regarding the Pain of Others
Susan Sontag | 4.08
The Essays of Warren Buffett
Lessons for Corporate America, Fifth Edition
Lawrence A. Cunningham and Warren E. Buffett | 4.08
One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter
Scaachi Koul | 4.07
Amy Poehler | 4.06
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)
In Praise of Shadows
Jun'ichiro Tanizaki | 4.05
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)
Ways of Seeing
John Berger | 4.04
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)
Tackling the Texas Essays
Efficient Preparation for the Texas Bar Exam
Catherine Martin Christopher | 4.04
The Book of Delights
Ross Gay | 4.04
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)
I Remember Nothing
and Other Reflections
Nora Ephron | 4.04
Susan Sontag | 4.03
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)
Notes from No Man's Land
Eula Biss | 4.03
The Doors of Perception
Heaven and Hell (Thinking Classics)
Aldous Huxley, Robbie McCallum | 4.03
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)
The Geek Feminist Revolution
Kameron Hurley | 4.02
Wow, No Thank You.
Samantha Irby | 4.01
A Modest Proposal
Jonathan Swift | 4.01
At Large and at Small
Anne Fadiman | 4.00
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Last updated on May 31, 2022
The 40 Best Books About Writing: A Reading List for Authors
For this post, we’ve scoured the web (so you don’t have to) and asked our community of writers for recommendations on some indispensable books about writing. We've filled this list with dozens of amazing titles, all of which are great — but this list might seem intimidating. So for starters, here are our top 10 books about writing:
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig
- Dreyer’s Englis h by Benjamin Dreyer
- The Elements of Style by Strunk, White, and Kalman
- The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
- A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison
- How to Market a Book by Ricardo Fayet
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
But if you're ready to get into the weeds, here are 40 of our favorite writing books.
Books about becoming a writer
1. on writing by stephen king.
Perhaps the most-cited book on this list, On Writing is part-memoir, part-masterclass from one of America’s leading authors. Come for the vivid accounts of his childhood and youth — including his extended "lost weekend" spent on alcohol and drugs in the 1980s. Stay for the actionable advice on how to use your emotions and experiences to kickstart your writing, hone your skills, and become an author. Among the many craft-based tips are King’s expert takes on plot, story, character, and more.
From the book: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
2. The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig
If you haven’t checked out Wendig’s personal blog, head over there now and bookmark it. Unfiltered, profane, and almost always right, Wendig’s become a leading voice among online writing communities in the past few years. In The Kick-Ass Writer , he offers over 1,000 pearls of wisdom for authors, ranging from express writing tips to guidance on getting published. Written to be read in short bursts, we’re sure he’d agree that this is the perfect bathroom book for writers.
From the book: “I have been writing professionally for a lucky-despite-the-number 13 years. Not once — seriously, not once ever — has anyone ever asked me where I got my writing degree… Nobody gives two ferrets fornicating in a filth-caked gym sock whether or not you have a degree… The only thing that matters is, Can you write well? ”
3. Find Your Voice by Angie Thomas
Taking advice from famous authors is not about imitation, but about finding your own voice . Take it from someone who knows: Thomas is the New York Times #1 Bestselling author of The Hate U Give , On the Come Up , and Concrete Rose . While she’s found her calling in YA literature , she has plenty of insight into finding your own voice in your genre of choice. Written in the form of a guided journal, this volume comes with step-by-step instructions, writing prompts, and exercises especially aimed at helping younger creatives develop the strength and skills to realize their vision.
From the book: “Write fearlessly. Write what is true and real to you.”
4. The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Since its publication in 2000, The Forest for the Trees has remained an essential resource for authors at various stages in their careers. As an editor, Lerner gives advice not only on producing quality content, but also on how to build your career as an author and develop a winning routine — like how writers can be more productive in their creative process, how to get published , and how to publish well .
From the book: “The world doesn't fully make sense until the writer has secured his version of it on the page. And the act of writing is strangely more lifelike than life.”
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5. How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen
From the book: “Great writers can be inhibiting, and maybe after one has read a Scott Fitzgerald or Henry James one can’t escape imitating them; but more often such writers are inspiring.”
6. Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith
Smith is well-known for her fiction, but she is also a prolific essay writer. In Feel Free , she has gathered several essays on recent cultural and political developments and combined them with experiences from her own life and career. In “The I Who Is Not Me”, she explores how her own lived experience comes into play in her fiction writing, and how she manages to extrapolate that to comment on contemporary social contexts, discussing race, class, and ethnicity.
From the book: “Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two.”
Books about language and style
7. dreyer’s english by benjamin dreyer.
A staple book about writing well, Dreyer’s English serves as a one-stop guide to proper English, based on the knowledge that Dreyer — a senior copy editor at Random House — has accumulated throughout his career. From punctuation to tricky homophones, passive voice, and commas, the goal of these tools should be to facilitate effective communication of ideas and thoughts. Dreyer delivers this and then some, but not without its due dosage of humor and informative examples.
From the book: “A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.”
8. The Elements of Style (Illustrated) by William Strunk, Jr., E. B. White, and Maira Kalman
A perfect resource for visual learners, this illustrated edition of The Elements of Style has taken the classic style manual to a new, more accessible level but kept its main tenet intact: make every word tell. The written content by Strunk and White has long been referred to as an outline of the basic principles of style. Maira Kalman’s illustrations elevate the experience and make it a feast for both the mind and the eye.
From the book: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
9. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
If you’re looking to bring a bit of spunk into your writing, copy editor Constance Hale may hold the key . Whether you’re writing a work-related email or the next rap anthem, she has one goal: to make creative communication available to everyone by dispelling old writing myths and making every word count. Peppered with writing prompts and challenges, this book will have you itching to put pen to paper.
From the book: “Verbose is not a synonym for literary.”
10. The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
Combining entertainment with intellectual pursuit, Pinker, a cognitive scientist and dictionary consultant, explores and rethinks language usage in the 21st century . With illustrative examples of both great and not-so-great linguistic constructions, Pinker breaks down the art of writing and gives a gentle but firm nudge in the right direction, towards coherent yet stylish prose. This is not a polemic on the decay of the English language, nor a recitation of pet peeves, but a thoughtful, challenging, and practical take on the science of communication.
From the book: “Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing—and why should we care?”
11. Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
From the book: “A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. "Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder. "I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up." The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
Books about story structure
12. save the cat by blake snyder.
Best known as a screenwriting manual, Save the Cat! is just as often named by authors as one of their most influential books about writing. The title comes from the tried-and-true trope of the protagonist doing something heroic in the first act (such as saving a cat) in order to win over the audience. Yes, it might sound trite to some — but others swear by its bulletproof beat sheet. More recently, there has been Save the Cat! Writes a Novel , which tailors its principles specifically to the literary crowd. (For a concise breakdown of the beat sheet, check this post out!)
From the book: “Because liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.”
13. The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
Shawn Coyne is a veteran editor with over 25 years of publishing experience, and he knows exactly what works and what doesn’t in a story — indeed, he’s pretty much got it down to a science. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know outlines Coyne’s original “Story Grid” evaluation technique, which both writers and editors can use to appraise, revise, and ultimately improve their writing (in order to get it ready for publication). Coyne and his friend Tim Grahl also co-host the acclaimed Story Grid podcast , another great resource for aspiring writers.
From the book: “The Story Grid is a tool with many applications. It pinpoints problems but does not emotionally abuse the writer… it is a tool to re-envision and resuscitate a seemingly irredeemable pile of paper stuck in an attack drawer, and it can inspire an original creation.”
14. Story Structure Architect by Victoria Schmidt
For those who find the idea of improvising utterly terrifying and prefer the security of structures, this book breaks down just about every kind of story structure you’ve ever heard of. Victoria Schmidt offers no less than fifty-five different creative paths for your story to follow — some of which are more unconventional, or outright outlandish than others. The level of detail here is pretty staggering: Schmidt goes into the various conflicts, subplots, and resolutions these different story structures entail — with plenty of concrete examples! Suffice to say that no matter what kind of story you’re writing, you’ll find a blueprint for it in Story Structure Architect .
From the book: “When you grow up in a Westernized culture, the traditional plot structure becomes so embedded in your subconscious that you may have to work hard to create a plot structure that deviates from it… Understand this and keep your mind open when reading [this book]. Just because a piece doesn’t conform to the model you are used to, does not make it bad or wrong.”
15. The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler
Moving on, we hone in on the mythic structure. Vogler’s book, originally published in 1992, is now a modern classic of writing advice; though intended as a screenwriting textbook, its contents apply to any story of mythic proportions. In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers , Vogler takes a page (literally) from Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces to ruminate upon the most essential narrative structures and character archetypes of the writing craft. So if you’re thinking of drawing up an epic fantasy series full of those tropes we all know and love, this guide should be right up your alley.
From the book: “The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design… It’s difficult to avoid the sensation that the Hero’s Journey exists somewhere, somehow, as an external reality, a Platonic ideal form, a divine model. From this model, infinite and highly varied copies can be produced, each resonating with the essential spirit of the form.”
16. Story Genius by Lisa Cron
From the book: “We don't turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.”
17. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
More than just a New York Times bestseller and the winner of the Booker Prize, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a distillation of the MFA class on Russian short stories that Saunders has been teaching. Breaking down narrative functions and why we become immersed in a story, this is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand and nurture our continued need for fiction.
From the book: “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?”
Books about overcoming obstacles as a writer
18. bird by bird by anne lamott .
Like Stephen King’s book about writing craft, this work from acclaimed novelist and nonfiction writer Anne Lamott also fuses elements of a memoir with invaluable advice on the writer’s journey. Particularly known for popularizing the concept of “shitty first drafts”, Bird by Bird was recently recommended by editor Jennifer Hartmann in her Reedsy Live webinar for its outlook take on book writing. She said, “This book does exactly what it says it will do: it teaches you to become a better writer. [Lamott] is funny and witty and very knowledgeable.”
From the book: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
19. Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker
From the book: “When it comes to the eternal quandary of pantsing or plotting, you can keep a foot in each camp. But if your goals will require you to write with speed and confidence, an effective outline will be your best friend.”
20. Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith
And for those who eschew structure altogether, we’ll now refer you to this title from profile science fiction author Dean Wesley Smith . Having authored a number of official Star Trek novels, he definitely knows what he’s talking about when he encourages writers to go boldly into the unknown with an approach to writing books that doesn’t necessarily involve an elaborate plan. It might not be your action plan, but it can be a fresh perspective to get out of the occasional writer’s block .
From the book: “Imagine if every novel you picked up had a detailed outline of the entire plot… Would you read the novel after reading the outline? Chances are, no. What would be the point? You already know the journey the writer is going to take you on. So, as a writer, why do an outline and then have to spend all that time creating a book you already know?”
21. No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty
If you’re procrastinating to the point where you haven’t even started your novel yet, NaNo founder Chris Baty is your guy! No Plot, No Problem is a “low-stress, high-velocity” guide to writing a novel in just 30 days (yup, it’s great prep for the NaNoWriMo challenge ). You’ll get tons of tips on how to survive this rigorous process, from taking advantage of your initial momentum to persisting through moments of doubt . Whether you’re participating in everyone’s favorite November write-a-thon or you just want to bang out a novel that’s been in your head forever, Baty will help you cross that elusive finish line.
From the book: “A rough draft is best written in the steam-cooker of an already busy life. If you have a million things to do, adding item number 1,000,001 is not such a big deal.”
22. The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt
And for those who think 30 days is a bit too steam cooker-esque, there’s always Alan Watt’s more laid-back option. In The 90-Day Novel , Watt provides a unique three-part process to assist you with your writing. The first part provides assistance in developing your story’s premise, the second part helps you work through obstacles to execute it, and the third part is full of writing exercises to unlock the “primal forces” of your story — aka the energy that will invigorate your work and incite readers to devour it like popcorn at the movies.
From the book: “Why we write is as important as what we write. Grammar, punctuation, and syntax are fairly irrelevant in the first draft. Get the story down… fast. Get out of your head, so you can surprise yourself on the page.”
23. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
If you feel like you’re constantly in the trenches of your “inner creative battle,” The War of Art is the book for you. Pressfield emphasizes the importance of breaking down creative barriers — what he calls “Resistance” — in order to defeat your demons (i.e. procrastination, self-doubt, etc.) and fulfill your potential. Though some of his opinions are no doubt controversial (he makes repeated claims that almost anything can be procrastination, including going to the doctor), this book is the perfect remedy for prevaricating writers who need a little bit of tough love.
From the book: “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
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Books about writing as a lifestyle and career
24. steal like an artist by austin kleon.
As Kleon notes in the first section of Steal Like an Artist , this title obviously doesn’t refer to plagiarism. Rather, it acknowledges that art cannot be created in a vacuum, and encourages writers (and all other artists) to be open and receptive to all sources of inspiration. By “stealing like an artist,” writers can construct stories that already have a baseline of familiarity for readers, but with new twists that keep them fresh and exciting .
From the book: “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”
25. Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison
From the book: “A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”
26. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
No matter what stage you’re at in your writing career, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones will help you write more skillfully and creatively. With suggestions, encouragement, and valuable advice on the many aspects of the writing craft, Goldberg doesn’t shy away from making the crucial connection between writing and adding value to your life. Covering a range of topics including taking notes of your initial thoughts, listening, overcoming doubt, choosing where to write, and the selection of your verbs, this guide has plenty to say about the minute details of writing, but excels at exploring the author life.
From the book: “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”
27. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
What does it take to become a great author? According to the beloved writer Ray Bradbury , it takes zest, gusto, curiosity, as well as a spirit of adventure. Sharing his wisdom and experiences as one of the most prolific writers in America, Bradbury gives plenty of practical tips and tricks on how to develop ideas, find your voice, and create your own style in this thoughtful volume. In addition to that, this is also an insight into the life and mind of this prolific writer, and a celebration of the act of writing.
From the book: “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a land mine. The land mine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces back together. Now, it's your turn. Jump!”
28. The Kite and the String by Alice Mattison
One of the most common dilemmas an author faces is the struggle between spontaneity and control. Literary endeavors need those unexpected light-bulb moments, but a book will never be finished if you rely solely on inspiration. In The Kite and the String , Mattison has heard your cry for help and developed a guide for balancing these elements throughout the different stages of writing a novel or a memoir. Sure, there may be language and grammar rules that govern the way you write, but letting a bit of playfulness breathe life into your writing will see it take off to a whole new level. On the other hand, your writing routine, solitude, audience, and goal-setting will act as the strings that keep you from floating too far away.
From the book: "Don’t make yourself miserable wishing for a kind of success that you wouldn’t enjoy if you had it."
29. How to Become a Successful Indie Author by Craig Martelle
This one’s for all the indie authors out there! Even if you’ve already self-published a book , you can still learn a lot from this guide by Craig Martelle , who has dozens of indie books — “over two and a half million words,” as he puts it — under his belt. With patience and expertise, Martelle walks you through everything you need to know: from developing your premise to perfecting your writing routine, to finally getting your work to the top of the Amazon charts.
From the book: “No matter where you are on your author journey, there’s always a new level you can reach. Roll up your sleeves, because it’s time to get to work.”
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30. How to Market a Book by Ricardo Fayet
From the book: “Here’s the thing: authors don’t find readers; readers find books . [...] Marketing is not about selling your book to readers. It’s about getting readers to find it.”
31. Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
The full title of Handley’s all-inclusive book on writing is actually Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content — which should tell you something about its broad appeal. Not only does Handley have some great ideas on how to plan and produce a great story, but she also provides tips on general content writing, which comes in handy when it’s time to build your author platform or a mailing list to promote your book. As such, Everybody Writes is nothing like your other books on novel writing — it’ll make you see writing in a whole new light.
From the book: “In our world, many hold a notion that the ability to write, or write well, is a gift bestowed on a chosen few. That leaves us thinking there are two kinds of people: the writing haves — and the hapless, for whom writing well is a hopeless struggle, like trying to carve marble with a butter knife. But I don’t believe that, and neither should you.”
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Books on writing poetry
32. madness, rack, and honey by mary ruefle.
With a long history of crafting and lecturing about poetry, Ruefle invites the reader of Madness, Rack, and Honey to immerse themselves into its beauty and magic. In a powerful combination of lectures and musings, she expertly explores the mind and craft of writers while excavating the magical potential of poetry. Often a struggle between giving and taking, poetry is, according to Ruefle, a unique art form that reveals the innermost workings of the human heart.
From the book: “In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again”
33. Threads by Sandeep Parmar, Nisha Ramayya, and Bhanu Kapil
If you’re looking for something that explores the philosophical aspects of writing, Threads asks big questions about writing and the position of the writer in an industry that has largely excluded marginalized voices. Where does the writer exist in relation to its text and, particularly in the case of poetry, who is the “I”? Examining the common white, British, male lens, this collection of short essays will make it hard for you not to critically consider your own perceptions and how they affect your writing process.
From the book: “It is impossible to consider the lyric without fully interrogating its inherent promise of universality, its coded whiteness.”
34. The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
Despite its eye-catching title, this short essay is actually a defense of poetry . Lerner begins with his own hatred of the art form, and then moves on to explore this love-hate dichotomy that actually doesn’t seem to be contradictory. Rather, such a multitude of emotions might be one of the reasons that writers and readers alike turn to it. With its ability to evoke feelings and responses through word-play and meter, poetry has often been misconceived as inaccessible and elitist; this is a call to change that perception.
From the book: “All I ask the haters — and I, too, am one — is that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bringing it to bear on poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.”
35. Poemcrazy by Susan G. Wooldridge
If you’ve ever felt that the mysterious workings of poetry are out of your reach and expressly not for you, Wooldridge is here to tell you that anyone who wants to can write poetry . An experienced workshop leader, she will help you find your inner voice and to express it through the written word. Giving you advice on how to think, use your senses, and practice your writing, Wooldrige will have you putting down rhyme schemes before you know it.
From the book: “Writing a poem is a form of listening, helping me discover what's wrong or frightening in my world as well as what delights me.”
36. Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison
From the book: “Don't be afraid to write crap — it makes the best fertilizer. The more of it you write, the better your chances are of growing something wonderful.”
Books about writing nonfiction
37. on writing well by william zinsser.
Going strong with its 30th-anniversary edition, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction is an evergreen resource for nonfiction writers which breaks down the fundamental principles of written communication. As a bonus, the insights and guidelines in this book can certainly be applied to most forms of writing, from interviewing to camp-fire storytelling. Beyond giving tips on how to stay consistent in your writing and voice, how to edit, and how to avoid common pitfalls, Zinsser can also help you grow as a professional writer, strengthening your career and taking steps in a new direction.
From the book: “Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.”
38. Essays by Lydia Davis
Ironically enough, this rather lengthy book is a celebration of brevity. As one of the leading American voices in flash-fiction and short-form writing, Davis traces her literary roots and inspirations in essays on everything, ranging from the mastodonic work of Proust to minimalism. In both her translations and her own writing, she celebrates experimental writing that stretches the boundaries of language. Playing with the contrast between what is said and what is not, this collection of essays is another tool to the writing shed to help you feel and use the power of every word you write.
From the book: “Free yourself of your device, for at least certain hours of the day — or at the very least one hour. Learn to be alone, all alone, without people, and without a device that is turned on. Learn to experience the purity of that kind of concentration. Develop focus, learn to focus intently on one thing, uninterrupted, for a long time.”
39. Essayism by Brian Dillon
In this volume, Dillon explores the often overlooked genre of essay writing and its place in literature’s past, present, and future. He argues that essays are an “experiment in attention” but also highlights how and why certain essays have directly impacted the development of the cultural and political landscape, from the end of the Middle Ages until the present day. At its heart, despite its many forms, subject areas, and purposes, essayism has its root in self-exploration. Dip in and out of Dillon’s short texts to find inspiration for your own nonfiction writing.
From the book: “What exactly do I mean, even, by 'style'? Perhaps it is nothing but an urge, an aspiration, a clumsy access of admiration, a crush.”
40. Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara
From the book: “Write it down. Whatever it is, write it down. Chip it into marble. Type it into Microsoft Word. Spell it out in seaweeds on the shore. We are each of us an endangered species, delicate as unicorns.”
With a few of these books in your arsenal, you’ll be penning perfect plots in no time! And if you’re interested in learning more about the editing process, check these books on editing out as well!
11/03/2019 – 19:46
I'm familiar with several of these books. But for new authors, I urge you caution. It is very tempting to read so many books about writing that you never get around to writing. (I did this successfully for many years!) So I will suggest paring it down to just two books: Stephen King on Writing and Blake Snyder Save the Cat. Snyder's book is mostly about screenwriting, so you could also consider Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Best of luck!
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10 Best Books on Essay Writing (You Should Read Today)
You can improve your essay writing skills with practice, repetition, and perusing books on essay writing, which are full of useful examples.
While simply living life, observing your surroundings, and diving into classic essays can naturally hone your writing skills, sometimes a trusty guidebook can give you that extra edge. Interested in mastering the craft of essay writing? Dive into some of the best essay-writing manuals out there. If you dream of becoming a professional essay writer , it’s essential to grasp the nuances of structure, tone, and format. Not all gifted writers can craft an exemplary essay, after all. Recognizing the significance of essays, especially in college admissions, can elevate your approach. If you’re gearing up to write a compelling college admission essay , I’d recommend perusing my guide on crafting an outstanding essay .
“I hate writing, I love having written.” – Dorothy Parker
Here are 10 Books That Will Help You With Essay Writing:
1. a professor’s guide to writing essays: the no-nonsense plan for better writing by dr. jacob neumann.
This is the highest-rated book on the subject available on the market right now. It’s written for students at any level of education. The author uses an unorthodox approach, claiming that breaking essays down into different formats is unnecessary. It doesn’t matter if it’s a persuasive or a narrative essay – the difference is not in how you write, but rather in how you build your case . Length: 118 pages Published: 2016
2. College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay – by Ethan Sawyer
Every year, millions of high-schoolers scramble to achieve above-average GPAs and score well on the SAT , or in some cases, the ACT , or both. They also have to write a 650-word essay and find their way to their dream college. If you’re one of them, then make sure you read this concise book . Ethan Sawyer (The College Essay Guy), breaks the whole essay-writing process down into simple steps and shows you the way around the most common mistakes college applicants usually make. Length: 256 pages Published: 2016
3. The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment by Susan Thurman
The institution of a grammar school is defunct, but it doesn’t mean you can ignore the basic rules that govern your language. If you’re writing an essay or a college paper , you better keep your grammar tight. Otherwise, your grades will drop dramatically because professors abhor simple grammar mistakes. By reading this little book , you’ll make sure your writing is pristine. Length: 192 pages Published: 2003
4. Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Narrative College Application Essays by Janine W. Robinson
A well-written essay has immense power. Not only that, it is the prerequisite to getting admitted to colleges and universities, but you also have to tackle a few essay questions in most, if not all exams you will ever take for career or academic advancement. For instance, when taking the LSAT to qualify for law school , the MCAT to get into med school , the DAT to pursue a degree in dentistry, or even the GRE or GMAT as the first step in earning a master’s degree. That is why this book is highly recommended to anyone navigating through the sea of higher learning. In this amusing book, Janine Robinson focuses mostly on writing narrative essays . She’s been helping college-bound students to tell unique stories for over a decade and you’ll benefit from her expert advice. The book contains 10 easy steps that you can follow as a blueprint for writing the best “slice of life” story ever told. Length: 76 pages Published: 2013
5. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present by Phillip Lopate
This large volume is a necessary diversion from the subject of formal, highly constrained types of writing. It focuses only on the genre of the personal essay which is much more free-spirited, creative, and tongue-and-cheek-like. Phillip Lopate, himself an acclaimed essayist, gathers seventy of the best essays of this type and lets you draw timeless lessons from them. Length: 777 pages Published: 1995
6. The Best American Essays of the Century by Joyce Carol Oates
The art of the modern essay starts with Voltaire at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Since then, many a writer attempted to share their personal stories and philosophical musings in this free-flowing form. Americans are no different. In this anthology, Joyce Carol Oates shares some fantastic reads that you need to absorb if you want to become a highly skilled polemicist. Length: 624 pages Published: 2001
7. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
On Writing Well is a classic writing guide that will open your eyes to the art of producing clear-cut copy. Zinsser approached the subject of writing with a warm, cheerful attitude that seeps through the pages of his masterpiece. Whether you want to describe places, communicate with editors, self-edit your copy, or avoid verbosity, this book will have the right answer for you. Length: 336 pages Published: 2016 (reprint edition)
8. How To Write Any High School Essay: The Essential Guide by Jesse Liebman
The previous titles I mentioned were mostly for “grown-up” writers, but the list wouldn’t be complete without a book for ambitious high-school students. Its length is appropriate, making it possible even for the most ADHD among us to get through it. It contains expert advice, easy-to-implement essay outlines , and tips on finding the best topics and supporting them with strong arguments. Length: 124 pages Published: 2017
9. Essential Writing Skills for College and Beyond by C.M. Gill
On average, after finishing high school or college, Americans read only around twelve books per year. This is a pity because books contain a wealth of information. People at the top of the socio-economic ladder read between forty and sixty books per year – and you should too! But reading is just one skill that gets neglected after college. Writing is the other one. By reading the “Essential Writing Skills” you’ll be able to crush all of your college writing assignments and use them throughout your life to sharpen your prose. Length: 250 Published: 2014
10. The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing by Margot Livesey
If you want to write, you first need to read some of the best essays ever written . Developing your style results from conversing with great minds and then borrowing from them to create something new. All great artists are inspired by someone. In Hidden Machinery, Margot Livesey shares her essays on what makes good fiction and a strong narrative. It’s a must-read for all aspiring writers. Length: 224 Published: 2017 How did you like this article? Are you going to read any of the books listed above? Can you recommend any other book that I should add to this list?
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A Political Convert in the Long Shadow of the Civil War
In “Longstreet,” Elizabeth R. Varon dissects the life and legacy of a Confederate general who became a devoted supporter of Reconstruction.
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Brenda Wineapple is currently a fellow of the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. Her book on the 1925 Scopes trial, “Keeping the Faith,” will be published next year.
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LONGSTREET: The Confederate General Who Defied the South , by Elizabeth R. Varon
“Bad as was being shot,” the former Confederate general James Longstreet said years after he took a bullet in the neck from a fellow soldier in 1864, “being shot at, since the war, by many officers, was worse.” In the decades after being hit by friendly fire at the Battle of the Wilderness, Longstreet was pilloried and hounded by unreconstructed white Southerners who said it was a shame the wound he received during the war hadn’t been mortal.
Shockingly, this indefatigable fighter, Robert E. Lee’s second-in-command — Lee called Longstreet his “old war horse” — had accepted the Confederacy’s defeat; after Appomattox the war was essentially over, the South lost, there was no longer a Confederacy. Longstreet celebrated the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed Black men the right to vote and helped form a multiracial Louisiana State Militia.
In word and deed, then, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet refused to perpetuate the romantic myth of the “Lost Cause,” the idea that the way of life the South was fighting to preserve, a way of life that included chattel slavery, was genteel, humane and noble and would someday be vindicated.
All this seemed an incredible turnaround for the soldier who once warned his troops that the Yankees were hellbent on making “the negro your equal.” Such a man could only be a traitor — a “Confederate Judas” — as the historian Elizabeth R. Varon points out in “Longstreet,” her impassioned biography, arguing that the arc of Longstreet’s life embodies “American culture’s unfolding contest over the Civil War’s legacies.”
Truly, his is a fascinating, but not altogether explicable, life. Born in 1821 in South Carolina to slave-owning planters, Longstreet was sent to Augusta, Ga., as a young boy to live with his uncle Augustus, a prominent jurist and ferocious disunionist who implored fellow Southerners to ban “polluted” Northern books, avoid Northern schools and cultivate their own pro-slavery books and institutions that would “elevate and purify the education of the South.”
Augustus also made sure that young Longstreet would attend West Point, where he distinguished himself by finishing near the bottom of his class. He also met the fellow cadet Ulysses S. Grant, a lifelong friend who married Longstreet’s distant cousin and whom Longstreet later called “the man who was to eclipse all.”
After the battle of Fort Sumter in 1861, Longstreet resigned from the United States Army and joined the Confederacy, first as a brigade commander and then as a major general, leading his own division. He crushed Union soldiers at the Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chickamauga.
But at Gettysburg, he disagreed with Lee about the wisdom of a frontal offensive and suggested a maneuver that would force the Federal troops to attack first. “The enemy is here,” Lee replied, “and if we do not whip him, he will whip us.”
Longstreet obeyed but, years later, to some observers and angry commentators, he seemed deliberately to have dawdled and cost the Confederates a knockout victory. In retrospect, this was the beginning of what Varon calls a “struggle over Civil War memory,” in which Longstreet became an easy scapegoat.
By the end of the 1860s, he was endorsing Black suffrage and imploring fellow Southerners to abandon “ideas that are obsolete” in order to recreate and rebuild the devastated South. Varon suggests that Grant’s liberal terms of surrender at Appomattox and his message of reconciliation motivated Longstreet’s political conversion. Perhaps; Grant helped secure his old West Point friend amnesty from Congress and got him a plum job as surveyor of customs for New Orleans. From that point on, Longstreet was in the employ of the country he’d so fiercely fought.
In 1870, the Republican governor of Louisiana appointed Longstreet to the command of the state’s multiracial militia. The apostate Longstreet led and supported Brig. Gen. Alexander E. Barber, a Black Army veteran and state senator, as a brigade commander, and under Longstreet’s leadership, all militia members had to pledge that they would “accept the civil and political equality of all men.” His stature nose-dived among former Confederates.
Varon does a nice job of combing through the tangled web of Louisiana’s postwar politics. Longstreet’s strong commitment to racial inclusion meant he would have to battle many of the men who had once fought under him. Intending to topple the Republican government in Louisiana, Confederate veterans and white supremacists were forming paramilitary groups, called White Leagues, to massacre white Republicans and Black citizens.
In September 1874, the Crescent City White League opened fire on the multiracial police force and broke their line. Reinforcements arrived too late. Federal troops eventually restored the besieged government, but Longstreet’s militia had been humiliated.
Longstreet and his family moved back to Georgia, and as a loyal Republican, he served as deputy collector of internal revenue and then as postmaster. President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him minister to Turkey in 1880, which, though not a prestigious posting, afforded Longstreet an opportunity to improve diplomatic relations. This, Varon notes, was also part of Longstreet’s political conversion: To him, Republicans could improve domestic and international trade by expanding markets, which would eventually help the beleaguered South.
Predictably, the appointment was controversial and Longstreet was caricatured as the unfit tool of the Republicans, who were rebuked for rewarding a traitor. Still, he performed as well as he could, given that the U.S. government, as Varon explains, had no real influence over the Ottoman Empire.
Soon called home in 1881 when President James A. Garfield appointed him U.S. marshal in Georgia, Longstreet attempted to bolster the local Republican Party in the face of vigilante violence and internal wrangling. And though many Black Republicans distrusted Longstreet, they respected his willingness to fight for Black voting rights and to make interracial alliances. During the McKinley administration, with the assistance of several Black Republicans in Georgia, Longstreet was appointed U.S. railroad commissioner. By now, though, Civil War veterans, Federal and Confederate, were being “swept up,” Varon writes, “in the burgeoning cult of sectional reunion.” The purpose of this reunion, she implies, was to paper over the real cause of the war — slavery, and its pernicious legacy — so that both sides “could share the moral high ground in American memory.”
Though Longstreet continued to refute the myth of the Lost Cause in articles and interviews, he gave up on Reconstruction. Once again, Varon notes, Longstreet managed a “political balancing act.” In the 1890s, he broadly condemned white supremacist violence, but he compared lynching, which he considered deplorable, to the labor strikes and disorder in the North — an echo of the comparison trotted out by the advocates of slavery before the war to justify the peculiar institution. In this new equivocal spirit of comity and negligence, North and South, radical and conservative, could thus join hands presumably to bury the bloody past and ignore the present.
While Varon brilliantly creates the wider context for Longstreet’s career, she leans, alas, far more toward historiography than biography. Quoting extensively from the 19th-century press and modern historians, Varon contends that Longstreet’s recent biographers depict him as politically inept and ignore the complexity of a brave man whose very “legacy would prove to be a battlefield of its own.”
Her book, then, is not so much about Longstreet’s character or his motivations or even how he came to possess the “courage to change,” as she poignantly observes, but about a symbolic Longstreet who embodies incompatible postwar narratives.
Caught in the snares of propaganda that still echoes today, when the meaning and legacy of slavery are being vigorously debated, the iconoclastic, fallible and human Longstreet, Varon acutely concludes, is more tabula rasa than marble man. Marble monuments enshrine the Lost Cause, which General Longstreet, whoever he was, valiantly knew to be a cause well lost.
LONGSTREET : The Confederate General Who Defied the South | By Elizabeth R. Varon | Simon & Schuster | 441 pp. | $35
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The New York Public Library: Best Books of 2023
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NPR's Books We Love 2023 launches today
Books We Love 2023 launches Monday. Book of the Day host Andrew Limbong talks about our annual, interactive guide to the years' best books.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's the most wonderful time of the year. Yeah, family, food and holidays - but really, I'm talking about the moment NPR launches our annual Books We Love guide. Whether you are adding to your own to-be-read stack or looking for gifts to give, we have more than 350 book recommendations. You can view them all online starting today. And to guide us through this massive pile, NPR's Andrew Limbong is here. He's part of our culture team and host of the NPR Book Of The Day podcast. Hey, Andrew.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: This is so much more than a top 10 list, but it's not exactly an exhaustive list. So what is it?
LIMBONG: Yeah. It's just - you know, to put it bluntly, it's a collection of all our favorite reads. You know, early in the autumn, we sent out a call out to all of our reporters and critics and stuff like that, and we just compiled this massive list of all of their different tastes and all of their, you know, best reads. And what it is - it's like a democratic approach to the best-of list. You know, like you said, it's 350 books. That's a massive list. We've got these filters to help you winnow it down, and I think it's a pretty good guarantee that you'll find the right book for either you or your loved one.
SHAPIRO: It's great because it's not just capital-I important books. There's children's books. There's cookbooks. There's romance...
SHAPIRO: ...And science fiction. Like, tell us how these filters work.
LIMBONG: All right. And so let's see. Like, for me personally - let's just do a live demo here - I like seriously great writing. I like that tag because it's one where the authors really, like, flex their chops and stuff like that. Another popular tag is staff picks. So we got those two going together. And then let's do for history lovers. And so, you know, with that we get a couple different options. One looks like a nonfiction book called "There Will Be Fire" by Rory Carroll, which is about the attempts to assassinate Margaret Thatcher during the Troubles. But another is actually Justin Torres' "Blackouts," which you wrote about, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Oh, yes, my pick.
LIMBONG: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And he just won the National Book Award for fiction. So yeah.
LIMBONG: Shout-out to Justin Torres. Yeah.
SHAPIRO: Yes. It was a book that I wanted to read again as soon as I finished reading it the first time. OK. So when you look over this full list, are there any major trends that jumped out to you?
LIMBONG: Yeah, there's a really interesting - there's some really interesting books looking at the culture that we consume and really, like, poking at some questions, including, like, the one about, like, representation. So there's a book called "Broadway Bodies" by Ryan Donovan, which is an examination of, you know, literally the types of body shapes and sizes and abilities that get cast in theater. The other one I want to shout out is - was recommended by Pop Culture Happy Hour co-host Glen Weldon. It's called "Hi Honey, I'm Homo!" by Matt Baume, and it uses, like, the TV sitcom to examine current-day queer politics and history.
SHAPIRO: What about books on the kids list?
LIMBONG: Yeah. There's two I want to shout out here, one being "Big" by Vashti Harrison. It's this beautifully illustrated book about size and acceptance. And there's another really fun one titled "Mexikid." It's a graphic novel by Pedro Martin. It's about a Mexican American boy who goes on, like, this family road trip to Mexico to pick up his grandfather. And, you know, as adults, we can point to it, being like, oh, it's a tender look at family and immigration and roots and all that. But, you know, there's enough, like, potty humor (laughter) for kids to really get into it.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Andrew Limbong just scratching the surface of Books We Love. You can explore the whole list at npr.org. Thanks, Andrew.
LIMBONG: Thanks, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOS DESTELLOS' "PASION ORIENTAL")
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