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The 10 Best Essay Collections of the Decade
Ever tried. ever failed. no matter..
Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.
So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the best debut novels , the best short story collections , the best poetry collections , and the best memoirs of the decade , and we have now reached the fifth list in our series: the best essay collections published in English between 2010 and 2019.
The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. As ever, free to add any of your own favorites that we’ve missed in the comments below.
The Top Ten
Oliver sacks, the mind’s eye (2010).
Toward the end of his life, maybe suspecting or sensing that it was coming to a close, Dr. Oliver Sacks tended to focus his efforts on sweeping intellectual projects like On the Move (a memoir), The River of Consciousness (a hybrid intellectual history), and Hallucinations (a book-length meditation on, what else, hallucinations). But in 2010, he gave us one more classic in the style that first made him famous, a form he revolutionized and brought into the contemporary literary canon: the medical case study as essay. In The Mind’s Eye , Sacks focuses on vision, expanding the notion to embrace not only how we see the world, but also how we map that world onto our brains when our eyes are closed and we’re communing with the deeper recesses of consciousness. Relaying histories of patients and public figures, as well as his own history of ocular cancer (the condition that would eventually spread and contribute to his death), Sacks uses vision as a lens through which to see all of what makes us human, what binds us together, and what keeps us painfully apart. The essays that make up this collection are quintessential Sacks: sensitive, searching, with an expertise that conveys scientific information and experimentation in terms we can not only comprehend, but which also expand how we see life carrying on around us. The case studies of “Stereo Sue,” of the concert pianist Lillian Kalir, and of Howard, the mystery novelist who can no longer read, are highlights of the collection, but each essay is a kind of gem, mined and polished by one of the great storytellers of our era. –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (2011)
The American essay was having a moment at the beginning of the decade, and Pulphead was smack in the middle. Without any hard data, I can tell you that this collection of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s magazine features—published primarily in GQ , but also in The Paris Review , and Harper’s —was the only full book of essays most of my literary friends had read since Slouching Towards Bethlehem , and probably one of the only full books of essays they had even heard of.
Well, we all picked a good one. Every essay in Pulphead is brilliant and entertaining, and illuminates some small corner of the American experience—even if it’s just one house, with Sullivan and an aging writer inside (“Mr. Lytle” is in fact a standout in a collection with no filler; fittingly, it won a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize). But what are they about? Oh, Axl Rose, Christian Rock festivals, living around the filming of One Tree Hill , the Tea Party movement, Michael Jackson, Bunny Wailer, the influence of animals, and by god, the Miz (of Real World/Road Rules Challenge fame).
But as Dan Kois has pointed out , what connects these essays, apart from their general tone and excellence, is “their author’s essential curiosity about the world, his eye for the perfect detail, and his great good humor in revealing both his subjects’ and his own foibles.” They are also extremely well written, drawing much from fictional techniques and sentence craft, their literary pleasures so acute and remarkable that James Wood began his review of the collection in The New Yorker with a quiz: “Are the following sentences the beginnings of essays or of short stories?” (It was not a hard quiz, considering the context.)
It’s hard not to feel, reading this collection, like someone reached into your brain, took out the half-baked stuff you talk about with your friends, researched it, lived it, and represented it to you smarter and better and more thoroughly than you ever could. So read it in awe if you must, but read it. –Emily Temple, Senior Editor
Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (2013)
Such is the sentence-level virtuosity of Aleksandar Hemon—the Bosnian-American writer, essayist, and critic—that throughout his career he has frequently been compared to the granddaddy of borrowed language prose stylists: Vladimir Nabokov. While it is, of course, objectively remarkable that anyone could write so beautifully in a language they learned in their twenties, what I admire most about Hemon’s work is the way in which he infuses every essay and story and novel with both a deep humanity and a controlled (but never subdued) fury. He can also be damn funny. Hemon grew up in Sarajevo and left in 1992 to study in Chicago, where he almost immediately found himself stranded, forced to watch from afar as his beloved home city was subjected to a relentless four-year bombardment, the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. This extraordinary memoir-in-essays is many things: it’s a love letter to both the family that raised him and the family he built in exile; it’s a rich, joyous, and complex portrait of a place the 90s made synonymous with war and devastation; and it’s an elegy for the wrenching loss of precious things. There’s an essay about coming of age in Sarajevo and another about why he can’t bring himself to leave Chicago. There are stories about relationships forged and maintained on the soccer pitch or over the chessboard, and stories about neighbors and mentors turned monstrous by ethnic prejudice. As a chorus they sing with insight, wry humor, and unimaginable sorrow. I am not exaggerating when I say that the collection’s devastating final piece, “The Aquarium”—which details his infant daughter’s brain tumor and the agonizing months which led up to her death—remains the most painful essay I have ever read. –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)
Of every essay in my relentlessly earmarked copy of Braiding Sweetgrass , Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s gorgeously rendered argument for why and how we should keep going, there’s one that especially hits home: her account of professor-turned-forester Franz Dolp. When Dolp, several decades ago, revisited the farm that he had once shared with his ex-wife, he found a scene of destruction: The farm’s new owners had razed the land where he had tried to build a life. “I sat among the stumps and the swirling red dust and I cried,” he wrote in his journal.
So many in my generation (and younger) feel this kind of helplessness–and considerable rage–at finding ourselves newly adult in a world where those in power seem determined to abandon or destroy everything that human bodies have always needed to survive: air, water, land. Asking any single book to speak to this helplessness feels unfair, somehow; yet, Braiding Sweetgrass does, by weaving descriptions of indigenous tradition with the environmental sciences in order to show what survival has looked like over the course of many millennia. Kimmerer’s essays describe her personal experience as a Potawotami woman, plant ecologist, and teacher alongside stories of the many ways that humans have lived in relationship to other species. Whether describing Dolp’s work–he left the stumps for a life of forest restoration on the Oregon coast–or the work of others in maple sugar harvesting, creating black ash baskets, or planting a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash, she brings hope. “In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship,” she writes of the Three Sisters, which all sustain one another as they grow. “This is how the world keeps going.” –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor
Hilton Als, White Girls (2013)
In a world where we are so often reduced to one essential self, Hilton Als’ breathtaking book of critical essays, White Girls , which meditates on the ways he and other subjects read, project and absorb parts of white femininity, is a radically liberating book. It’s one of the only works of critical thinking that doesn’t ask the reader, its author or anyone he writes about to stoop before the doorframe of complete legibility before entering. Something he also permitted the subjects and readers of his first book, the glorious book-length essay, The Women , a series of riffs and psychological portraits of Dorothy Dean, Owen Dodson, and the author’s own mother, among others. One of the shifts of that book, uncommon at the time, was how it acknowledges the way we inhabit bodies made up of variously gendered influences. To read White Girls now is to experience the utter freedom of this gift and to marvel at Als’ tremendous versatility and intelligence.
He is easily the most diversely talented American critic alive. He can write into genres like pop music and film where being part of an audience is a fantasy happening in the dark. He’s also wired enough to know how the art world builds reputations on the nod of rich white patrons, a significant collision in a time when Jean-Michel Basquiat is America’s most expensive modern artist. Als’ swerving and always moving grip on performance means he’s especially good on describing the effect of art which is volatile and unstable and built on the mingling of made-up concepts and the hard fact of their effect on behavior, such as race. Writing on Flannery O’Connor for instance he alone puts a finger on her “uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” From Eminem to Richard Pryor, André Leon Talley to Michael Jackson, Als enters the life and work of numerous artists here who turn the fascinations of race and with whiteness into fury and song and describes the complexity of their beauty like his life depended upon it. There are also brief memoirs here that will stop your heart. This is an essential work to understanding American culture. –John Freeman, Executive Editor
Eula Biss, On Immunity (2014)
We move through the world as if we can protect ourselves from its myriad dangers, exercising what little agency we have in an effort to keep at bay those fears that gather at the edges of any given life: of loss, illness, disaster, death. It is these fears—amplified by the birth of her first child—that Eula Biss confronts in her essential 2014 essay collection, On Immunity . As any great essayist does, Biss moves outward in concentric circles from her own very private view of the world to reveal wider truths, discovering as she does a culture consumed by anxiety at the pervasive toxicity of contemporary life. As Biss interrogates this culture—of privilege, of whiteness—she interrogates herself, questioning the flimsy ways in which we arm ourselves with science or superstition against the impurities of daily existence.
Five years on from its publication, it is dismaying that On Immunity feels as urgent (and necessary) a defense of basic science as ever. Vaccination, we learn, is derived from vacca —for cow—after the 17th-century discovery that a small application of cowpox was often enough to inoculate against the scourge of smallpox, an etymological digression that belies modern conspiratorial fears of Big Pharma and its vaccination agenda. But Biss never scolds or belittles the fears of others, and in her generosity and openness pulls off a neat (and important) trick: insofar as we are of the very world we fear, she seems to be suggesting, we ourselves are impure, have always been so, permeable, vulnerable, yet so much stronger than we think. –Jonny Diamond, Editor-in-Chief
Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (2016)
When Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” was published in 2008, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon unlike almost any other in recent memory, assigning language to a behavior that almost every woman has witnessed—mansplaining—and, in the course of identifying that behavior, spurring a movement, online and offline, to share the ways in which patriarchal arrogance has intersected all our lives. (It would also come to be the titular essay in her collection published in 2014.) The Mother of All Questions follows up on that work and takes it further in order to examine the nature of self-expression—who is afforded it and denied it, what institutions have been put in place to limit it, and what happens when it is employed by women. Solnit has a singular gift for describing and decoding the misogynistic dynamics that govern the world so universally that they can seem invisible and the gendered violence that is so common as to seem unremarkable; this naming is powerful, and it opens space for sharing the stories that shape our lives.
The Mother of All Questions, comprised of essays written between 2014 and 2016, in many ways armed us with some of the tools necessary to survive the gaslighting of the Trump years, in which many of us—and especially women—have continued to hear from those in power that the things we see and hear do not exist and never existed. Solnit also acknowledges that labels like “woman,” and other gendered labels, are identities that are fluid in reality; in reviewing the book for The New Yorker , Moira Donegan suggested that, “One useful working definition of a woman might be ‘someone who experiences misogyny.'” Whichever words we use, Solnit writes in the introduction to the book that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” This storytelling work has always been vital; it continues to be vital, and in this book, it is brilliantly done. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor
Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends (2017)
The newly minted MacArthur fellow Valeria Luiselli’s four-part (but really six-part) essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions was inspired by her time spent volunteering at the federal immigration court in New York City, working as an interpreter for undocumented, unaccompanied migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Written concurrently with her novel Lost Children Archive (a fictional exploration of the same topic), Luiselli’s essay offers a fascinating conceit, the fashioning of an argument from the questions on the government intake form given to these children to process their arrivals. (Aside from the fact that this essay is a heartbreaking masterpiece, this is such a good conceit—transforming a cold, reproducible administrative document into highly personal literature.) Luiselli interweaves a grounded discussion of the questionnaire with a narrative of the road trip Luiselli takes with her husband and family, across America, while they (both Mexican citizens) wait for their own Green Card applications to be processed. It is on this trip when Luiselli reflects on the thousands of migrant children mysteriously traveling across the border by themselves. But the real point of the essay is to actually delve into the real stories of some of these children, which are agonizing, as well as to gravely, clearly expose what literally happens, procedural, when they do arrive—from forms to courts, as they’re swallowed by a bureaucratic vortex. Amid all of this, Luiselli also takes on more, exploring the larger contextual relationship between the United States of America and Mexico (as well as other countries in Central America, more broadly) as it has evolved to our current, adverse moment. Tell Me How It Ends is so small, but it is so passionate and vigorous: it desperately accomplishes in its less-than-100-pages-of-prose what centuries and miles and endless records of federal bureaucracy have never been able, and have never cared, to do: reverse the dehumanization of Latin American immigrants that occurs once they set foot in this country. –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow
Zadie Smith, Feel Free (2018)
In the essay “Meet Justin Bieber!” in Feel Free , Zadie Smith writes that her interest in Justin Bieber is not an interest in the interiority of the singer himself, but in “the idea of the love object”. This essay—in which Smith imagines a meeting between Bieber and the late philosopher Martin Buber (“Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German surname,” she explains in one of many winning footnotes. “Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?”). Smith allows that this premise is a bit premise -y: “I know, I know.” Still, the resulting essay is a very funny, very smart, and un-tricky exploration of individuality and true “meeting,” with a dash of late capitalism thrown in for good measure. The melding of high and low culture is the bread and butter of pretty much every prestige publication on the internet these days (and certainly of the Twitter feeds of all “public intellectuals”), but the essays in Smith’s collection don’t feel familiar—perhaps because hers is, as we’ve long known, an uncommon skill. Though I believe Smith could probably write compellingly about anything, she chooses her subjects wisely. She writes with as much electricity about Brexit as the aforementioned Beliebers—and each essay is utterly engrossing. “She contains multitudes, but her point is we all do,” writes Hermione Hoby in her review of the collection in The New Republic . “At the same time, we are, in our endless difference, nobody but ourselves.” –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (2019)
Tressie McMillan Cottom is an academic who has transcended the ivory tower to become the sort of public intellectual who can easily appear on radio or television talk shows to discuss race, gender, and capitalism. Her collection of essays reflects this duality, blending scholarly work with memoir to create a collection on the black female experience in postmodern America that’s “intersectional analysis with a side of pop culture.” The essays range from an analysis of sexual violence, to populist politics, to social media, but in centering her own experiences throughout, the collection becomes something unlike other pieces of criticism of contemporary culture. In explaining the title, she reflects on what an editor had said about her work: “I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naïve to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It was too thick.” One of the most powerful essays in the book is “Dying to be Competent” which begins with her unpacking the idiocy of LinkedIn (and the myth of meritocracy) and ends with a description of her miscarriage, the mishandling of black woman’s pain, and a condemnation of healthcare bureaucracy. A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Thick confirms McMillan Cottom as one of our most fearless public intellectuals and one of the most vital. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor
The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.
Elif Batuman, The Possessed (2010)
In The Possessed Elif Batuman indulges her love of Russian literature and the result is hilarious and remarkable. Each essay of the collection chronicles some adventure or other that she had while in graduate school for Comparative Literature and each is more unpredictable than the next. There’s the time a “well-known 20th-centuryist” gave a graduate student the finger; and the time when Batuman ended up living in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for a summer; and the time that she convinced herself Tolstoy was murdered and spent the length of the Tolstoy Conference in Yasnaya Polyana considering clues and motives. Rich in historic detail about Russian authors and literature and thoughtfully constructed, each essay is an amalgam of critical analysis, cultural criticism, and serious contemplation of big ideas like that of identity, intellectual legacy, and authorship. With wit and a serpentine-like shape to her narratives, Batuman adopts a form reminiscent of a Socratic discourse, setting up questions at the beginning of her essays and then following digressions that more or less entreat the reader to synthesize the answer for herself. The digressions are always amusing and arguably the backbone of the collection, relaying absurd anecdotes with foreign scholars or awkward, surreal encounters with Eastern European strangers. Central also to the collection are Batuman’s intellectual asides where she entertains a theory—like the “problem of the person”: the inability to ever wholly capture one’s character—that ultimately layer the book’s themes. “You are certainly my most entertaining student,” a professor said to Batuman. But she is also curious and enthusiastic and reflective and so knowledgeable that she might even convince you (she has me!) that you too love Russian literature as much as she does. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)
Roxane Gay’s now-classic essay collection is a book that will make you laugh, think, cry, and then wonder, how can cultural criticism be this fun? My favorite essays in the book include Gay’s musings on competitive Scrabble, her stranded-in-academia dispatches, and her joyous film and television criticism, but given the breadth of topics Roxane Gay can discuss in an entertaining manner, there’s something for everyone in this one. This book is accessible because feminism itself should be accessible – Roxane Gay is as likely to draw inspiration from YA novels, or middle-brow shows about friendship, as she is to introduce concepts from the academic world, and if there’s anyone I trust to bridge the gap between high culture, low culture, and pop culture, it’s the Goddess of Twitter. I used to host a book club dedicated to radical reads, and this was one of the first picks for the club; a week after the book club met, I spied a few of the attendees meeting in the café of the bookstore, and found out that they had bonded so much over discussing Bad Feminist that they couldn’t wait for the next meeting of the book club to keep discussing politics and intersectionality, and that, in a nutshell, is the power of Roxane. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor
Rivka Galchen, Little Labors (2016)
Generally, I find stories about the trials and tribulations of child-having to be of limited appeal—useful, maybe, insofar as they offer validation that other people have also endured the bizarre realities of living with a tiny human, but otherwise liable to drift into the musings of parents thrilled at the simple fact of their own fecundity, as if they were the first ones to figure the process out (or not). But Little Labors is not simply an essay collection about motherhood, perhaps because Galchen initially “didn’t want to write about” her new baby—mostly, she writes, “because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact, those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” Like many new mothers, though, Galchen soon discovered her baby—which she refers to sometimes as “the puma”—to be a preoccupying thought, demanding to be written about. Galchen’s interest isn’t just in her own progeny, but in babies in literature (“Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions”), The Pillow Book , the eleventh-century collection of musings by Sei Shōnagon, and writers who are mothers. There are sections that made me laugh out loud, like when Galchen continually finds herself in an elevator with a neighbor who never fails to remark on the puma’s size. There are also deeper, darker musings, like the realization that the baby means “that it’s not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” It is a slim collection that I happened to read at the perfect time, and it remains one of my favorites of the decade. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor
Charlie Fox, This Young Monster (2017)
On social media as in his writing, British art critic Charlie Fox rejects lucidity for allusion and doesn’t quite answer the Twitter textbox’s persistent question: “What’s happening?” These days, it’s hard to tell. This Young Monster (2017), Fox’s first book,was published a few months after Donald Trump’s election, and at one point Fox takes a swipe at a man he judges “direct from a nightmare and just a repulsive fucking goon.” Fox doesn’t linger on politics, though, since most of the monsters he looks at “embody otherness and make it into art, ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of their own invention.”
If clichés are loathed because they conform to what philosopher Georges Bataille called “the common measure,” then monsters are rebellious non-sequiturs, comedic or horrific derailments from a classical ideal. Perverts in the most literal sense, monsters have gone astray from some “proper” course. The book’s nine chapters, which are about a specific monster or type of monster, are full of callbacks to familiar and lesser-known media. Fox cites visual art, film, songs, and books with the screwy buoyancy of a savant. Take one of his essays, “Spook House,” framed as a stage play with two principal characters, Klaus (“an intoxicated young skinhead vampire”) and Hermione (“a teen sorceress with green skin and jet-black hair” who looks more like The Wicked Witch than her namesake). The chorus is a troupe of trick-or-treaters. Using the filmmaker Cameron Jamie as a starting point, the rest is free association on gothic decadence and Detroit and L.A. as cities of the dead. All the while, Klaus quotes from Artforum , Dazed & Confused , and Time Out. It’s a technical feat that makes fictionalized dialogue a conveyor belt for cultural criticism.
In Fox’s imagination, David Bowie and the Hydra coexist alongside Peter Pan, Dennis Hopper, and the maenads. Fox’s book reaches for the monster’s mask, not really to peel it off but to feel and smell the rubber schnoz, to know how it’s made before making sure it’s still snugly set. With a stylistic blend of arthouse suavity and B-movie chic, This Young Monster considers how monsters in culture are made. Aren’t the scariest things made in post-production? Isn’t the creature just duplicity, like a looping choir or a dubbed scream? –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor
Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (2017)
Elena Passarello’s collection of essays Animals Strike Curious Poses picks out infamous animals and grants them the voice, narrative, and history they deserve. Not only is a collection like this relevant during the sixth extinction but it is an ambitious historical and anthropological undertaking, which Passarello has tackled with thorough research and a playful tone that rather than compromise her subject, complicates and humanizes it. Passarello’s intention is to investigate the role of animals across the span of human civilization and in doing so, to construct a timeline of humanity as told through people’s interactions with said animals. “Of all the images that make our world, animal images are particularly buried inside us,” Passarello writes in her first essay, to introduce us to the object of the book and also to the oldest of her chosen characters: Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2010. It was an occasion so remarkable and so unfathomable given the span of human civilization that Passarello says of Yuka: “Since language is epically younger than both thought and experience, ‘woolly mammoth’ means, to a human brain, something more like time.” The essay ends with a character placing a hand on a cave drawing of a woolly mammoth, accompanied by a phrase which encapsulates the author’s vision for the book: “And he becomes the mammoth so he can envision the mammoth.” In Passarello’s hands the imagined boundaries between the animal, natural, and human world disintegrate and what emerges is a cohesive if baffling integrated history of life. With the accuracy and tenacity of a journalist and the spirit of a storyteller, Elena Passarello has assembled a modern bestiary worthy of contemplation and awe. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow
Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019)
Esmé Weijun Wang’s collection of essays is a kaleidoscopic look at mental health and the lives affected by the schizophrenias. Each essay takes on a different aspect of the topic, but you’ll want to read them together for a holistic perspective. Esmé Weijun Wang generously begins The Collected Schizophrenias by acknowledging the stereotype, “Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy.” From there, she walks us through the technical language, breaks down the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ( DSM-5 )’s clinical definition. And then she gets very personal, telling us about how she came to her own diagnosis and the way it’s touched her daily life (her relationships, her ideas about motherhood). Esmé Weijun Wang is uniquely situated to write about this topic. As a former lab researcher at Stanford, she turns a precise, analytical eye to her experience while simultaneously unfolding everything with great patience for her reader. Throughout, she brilliantly dissects the language around mental health. (On saying “a person living with bipolar disorder” instead of using “bipolar” as the sole subject: “…we are not our diseases. We are instead individuals with disorders and malfunctions. Our conditions lie over us like smallpox blankets; we are one thing and the illness is another.”) She pinpoints the ways she arms herself against anticipated reactions to the schizophrenias: high fashion, having attended an Ivy League institution. In a particularly piercing essay, she traces mental illness back through her family tree. She also places her story within more mainstream cultural contexts, calling on groundbreaking exposés about the dangerous of institutionalization and depictions of mental illness in television and film (like the infamous Slender Man case, in which two young girls stab their best friend because an invented Internet figure told them to). At once intimate and far-reaching, The Collected Schizophrenias is an informative and important (and let’s not forget artful) work. I’ve never read a collection quite so beautifully-written and laid-bare as this. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor
Ross Gay, The Book of Delights (2019)
When Ross Gay began writing what would become The Book of Delights, he envisioned it as a project of daily essays, each focused on a moment or point of delight in his day. This plan quickly disintegrated; on day four, he skipped his self-imposed assignment and decided to “in honor and love, delight in blowing it off.” (Clearly, “blowing it off” is a relative term here, as he still produced the book.) Ross Gay is a generous teacher of how to live, and this moment of reveling in self-compassion is one lesson among many in The Book of Delights , which wanders from moments of connection with strangers to a shade of “red I don’t think I actually have words for,” a text from a friend reading “I love you breadfruit,” and “the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything .”
Gay does not linger on any one subject for long, creating the sense that delight is a product not of extenuating circumstances, but of our attention; his attunement to the possibilities of a single day, and awareness of all the small moments that produce delight, are a model for life amid the warring factions of the attention economy. These small moments range from the physical–hugging a stranger, transplanting fig cuttings–to the spiritual and philosophical, giving the impression of sitting beside Gay in his garden as he thinks out loud in real time. It’s a privilege to listen. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor
A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).
Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings (2010) · Joyce Carol Oates, In Rough Country (2010) · Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011) · Christopher Hitchens, Arguably (2011) · Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer, Between Parentheses (2011) · Dubravka Ugresic, tr. David Williams, Karaoke Culture (2011) · Tom Bissell, Magic Hours (2012) · Kevin Young, The Grey Album (2012) · William H. Gass, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012) · Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012) · Herta Müller, tr. Geoffrey Mulligan, Cristina and Her Double (2013) · Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014) · Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable (2014) · Daphne Merkin, The Fame Lunches (2014) · Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering (2015) · Wendy Walters, Multiply/Divide (2015) · Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop (2015) · Renee Gladman, Calamities (2016) · Jesmyn Ward, ed. The Fire This Time (2016) · Lindy West, Shrill (2016) · Mary Oliver, Upstream (2016) · Emily Witt, Future Sex (2016) · Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (2016) · Mark Greif, Against Everything (2016) · Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood (2017) · Sarah Gerard, Sunshine State (2017) · Jim Harrison, A Really Big Lunch (2017) · J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays: 2006-2017 (2017) · Melissa Febos, Abandon Me (2017) · Louise Glück, American Originality (2017) · Joan Didion, South and West (2017) · Tom McCarthy, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (2017) · Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until they Kill Us (2017) · Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) · Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (2017) · Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018) · Alice Bolin, Dead Girls (2018) · Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (2018) · Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done (2018) · Maggie O’Farrell, I Am I Am I Am (2018) · Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018) · Rachel Cusk, Coventry (2019) · Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror (2019) · Emily Bernard, Black is the Body (2019) · Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard (2019) · Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations (2019) · Rachel Munroe, Savage Appetites (2019) · Robert A. Caro, Working (2019) · Arundhati Roy, My Seditious Heart (2019).
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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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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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100 Must-Read Essay Collections
Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes
View All posts by Rebecca Hussey
Well, essays don’t have to be like the kind of thing you wrote in school. Essays can be anything, really. They can be personal, confessional, argumentative, informative, funny, sad, shocking, sexy, and all of the above. The best essayists can make any subject interesting. If I love an essayist, I’ll read whatever they write. I’ll follow their minds anywhere. Because that’s really what I want out of an essay — the sense that I’m spending time with an interesting mind. I want a companionable, challenging, smart, surprising voice in my head.
So below is my list, not of essay collections I think everybody “must read,” even if that’s what my title says, but collections I hope you will consider checking out if you want to.
If you have a favorite essay collection I’ve missed here, let me know in the comments!
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The Art of the Personal Essay Reader’s Guide
By phillip lopate.
Category: Essays & Literary Collections | Reference | Writing | Literary Criticism
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Introduction, questions and topics for discussion.
1) In his introduction, Lopate suggests that the personal essay implies a "certain unity to human experience." Does this principle of universality apply across different eras, different cultures? * How does a contemporary reader find meaning in such essays as Seneca’s "On Noise" and "Scipio’s Villa," Montaigne’s "Of Books," or even Orwell’s "Such, Such Were the Joys…"? Can you read your own concerns and experiences into the framework of these essays? * Choose an essay (or essays) from the "Other Cultures, Other Continents" section. To what extent does its theme have meaning for you despite the aspects of its content that may be alien to you?
2) Tanizaki’s "In Praise of Shadows" is a value-inverting essay, meaning that the writer takes something usually denigrated or despised and shows its worth–or takes something usually valued and cuts it down to size. Compare Tanizaki’s approach with other value-inverting essays: Montaigne’s "Of a Monstrous Child," Cowley’s "Of Greatness," Hazlitt’s "On the Pleasure of Hating," Stevenson’s "An Apology for Idlers," Chesterton’s "On Running After One’s Hat," Beerbohm’s "Going for a Walk," Lopate’s "Against Joie de Vivre." What elements and/or techniques seem common in this type of essay?
3) On page xxix of the introduction, Lopate probes some of the differences between autobiographies and personal essays. With these distinctions in mind, think about the pieces listed in the Contents by Form under "Memoir." How (other than in economy of space) do these pieces differ in focus from traditional memoir writing? When you tell a story from your own life, do you use similar techniques?
4) How do the authors of memoir essays (or any that take their own lives as their subjects) keep from sounding egotistical and self-absorbed? Do they ever seem self-indulgent to you?
5) In "Once More to the Lake," E.B. White presents a more or less idyllic picture of an American boyhood tinged with innocence. Compare to the boyhoods in Stevenson’s "The Lantern-Bearers," Orwell’s "Such, Such Were the Joys…," and Baldwin’s "Notes of a Native Son."
6) Many of these writers (quite self-consciously) use contradictory arguments to make their point. How do you see this technique used in Montaigne’s "On Some Verses of Virgil," Lamb’s "A Chapter on Ears," Stevenson’s "On Marriage," Tanizaki’s "In Praise of Shadows," and Hoagland’s "The Threshold and the Jolt of Pain"?
7) In a slight variation on the above technique, an essayist may adopt a tone that seems inappropriate to his or her subject, even perhaps to the point of undermining it. Consider Cowley’s sincerity in "Of Greatness," Edgeworth’s in "An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification," Hazlitt’s in "On the Pleasure of Hating," and Beerbohm’s in "Laughter." In each case, does the essay’s tone provide an implicit commentary on its content? What effect does this tactic have on you?
8) Compare White’s description of a spectacle in "The Ring of Time" with Hazlitt’s "The Fight" and Turgenev’s "The Execution of Tropmann."
9) Compare Didion’s way of handling a physical problem (discussed in "In Bed") to Lu Hsun’s illness, Fitzgerald’s crack-up, and Hoagland’s stuttering.
10) Examine the personas of one or more of these essayists. What sort of man does Montaigne strike you as being? How does Lamb present himself to the reader? (How about Thoreau or McCarthy?) List their traits and characteristics: Which of these does the author admit to and which do you deduce by reading between the lines? Do you find these personas sympathetic or unappealing?
11) In any given essay, how does what the author conveys to you about him or herself affect your reading? How important is it to you to find the author sympathetic?
12) "The enemy of the personal essay is self-righteousness," writes Lopate. How does the essayist put forth a strong opinion without falling back on this vice?
13) Compare Thoreau’s approach to nature in "Walking" with Hoagland’s in "The Courage of Turtles," Berry’s in "An Entrance to the Woods," and Dillard’s in "Seeing."
14) Lopate finds ample support for his description of the personal essayist’s "idler" persona in the many essays included in this anthology simply on the subject of walking. Compare the content and tone of these essays by Steele, Hazlitt, Stevenson, Beerbohm, Woolf, and Thoreau.
15) Unlike the more meandering tone of some of these essays, a number of them begin very suddenly, with a strong first line that grabs the reader’s attention immediately. Look at the beginnings of such essays as Seneca’s "On Noise," Mencken’s "On Being an American," Fitzgerald’s "The Crack-Up," and Sanders’s "Under the Influence." How might you read these differently from the other pieces in the anthology?
16) What other contemporary authors have you read whose writings might be called personal essays? What qualities do their pieces have in common with the essays in this anthology?
17) If you were to write a personal essay, what topics would you consider appropriate or interesting? Do you see it as a format for light, diverting commentary or for more weighty issues and assertions (or both)? What experiences of yours might you draw on to get your point across?
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Writing a strong essay can make a huge difference in job and college applications. Here are 15 online classes and books to learn how to do it.
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- Communicating ideas in a clear way is a crucial life skill no matter which field you work in.
- Writing personal essays can help perfect your storytelling and presentation skills.
- Below are 15 online classes, books, podcasts, and resources to start with.
Everyone has a story, but not everyone knows how to tell their story. One place to start is finding the perfect container for your experiences and insights. Enter: the personal essay.
Well-crafted essays mark the difference between a meandering group of paragraphs and a clear, resonant idea. Almost every occupation can benefit from stronger communication, research, and persuasion skills — all of which can be sharpened from essay writing classes.
Think about the application prompts you've muddled through or the chances for publication you've felt too intimidated to attempt. The confidence to explore a topic, land on a perspective, and express it effectively is universally valuable, whether you're writing a personal statement for college, crafting a cover letter for a new job, or giving a presentation at work.
The essay writing resources below range from 200-page books to eight-week online courses. Some require submitting original work to receive feedback, while others are prompts meant to inspire new ideas.
15 essay writing online courses, workshops, and books to strengthen your storytelling skills:
For the basics.
How to Write a Personal Essay (CreativeLive)
Joyce Maynard is a celebrated memoirist and personal essayist who knows what it takes to get an essay noticed for publication. In five hours of video instruction, students will learn how to identify ideas that could become pieces, how to build an outline, create an interesting character, and even end an essay to emphasize the final discovery. With a review rating of 100% from former students, this course is the perfect place to start your next essay.
How to Write an Essay (edX)
This UC Berkeley class hones in on the hidden mechanisms of essays. The five-week course is more academic than creative, but ideal for those hoping to write with immaculate grammar and rigorous self-editing habits. The course (which is free to audit) provides both instructional videos and readings, and students will produce one essay as a takeaway from the class.
Memoir and Personal Essay: Write About Yourself Specialization (Coursera)
Presented by Wesleyan University, this four-month specialization is instructed by four published essayists and memoirists. Through 16 writing assignments across four courses, students develop an approach to their own storytelling skills. And for those looking to take their writing out of the classroom, this course leaves you with a portfolio of work upon completion.
"The Situation and The Story" by Vivian Gornick
Drawing on her experience from teaching MFA programs, Vivian Gornick challenges the writer to step back and evaluate their role in relation to the work. Are they the same person as the narrator? What details matter to the story? It's an invitation to look below the surface of life as it unfolds and ask questions of larger significance. The book is short, but explores diverse greats of the genre, from Joan Didion to Oscar Wilde.
For coming up with ideas
Creative Writing for All: A 10-Day Journaling Challenge (Skillshare)
Seasoned journalist, novelist, and publisher Emily Gould only wants ten minutes of your time a day. In a 10-day course described as "perfect for writers and enthusiasts eager to rekindle creativity in a personal and artful way," she packs in countless creative prompts and revision tricks. It's great for writers who are crunched for time and looking to discover a new topic right under their nose.
The New York Times' Writing Prompts
This archive of questions inspired by the NYT's own stories is a perfect place to start, since jumping in can often feel like the hardest part. The Learning Network is targeted towards students, but the conversations following each prompt can be helpful for writers of all ages. After all, many essays begin as questions. Why not borrow some from the Times?
Personal Essay Independent Study: Generating Fresh Ideas for the Personal Essay (Catapult)
Writing from life can make it difficult to be objective. What's interesting? What could become a full length essay? Led by essayist and editor Lilly Dancyger , this independent study is the perfect place to start coming up with fresh ideas. Self-guided, with three separate lessons ranging in topics from perspective to conversation, is an ideal fit for new writers looking to demystify the craft of storytelling via essays.
"Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg
The best writers are always avid readers and this book is a great start. With over one million copies sold and translations in 12 languages, it's hard to deny the creative jumpstart writers find from "Writing Down the Bones." The tone of the book is conversational and approachable, and it's full of compelling personal narratives and prompts. Goldberg integrates tenets of Zen meditation with writing in order to create what she coins a "Writing Practice." The practice includes self-interrogation, creating a specific space, and carving out time to read.
For developing style
Creative Writing: Crafting Personal Essays with Impact (Skillshare)
Let The New York Times bestselling author and revered professor Roxane Gay inspire your writing to ask questions of deep resonance. Her one-hour masterclass is an insightful lesson on transforming your personal essay with cultural context. Learn how to take yourself (and your essay) seriously by expanding your story and connecting with the audience you want to reach. The class comes with a downloadable worksheet and links to additional resources.
David Sedaris Teaches Humor and Storytelling (MasterClass)
No one writes humor like David Sedaris . With 10 bestselling essay collections under his belt, there's hardly a more qualified teacher. In his MasterClass, he explores how to pull meaning out of the mundane, how humor helps us move through the dark subjects of our stories, and how everything depends on an attention-grabbing opening. Prepare to learn, laugh, and be charmed for over three hours of his beautifully shot video lessons.
Begin with the Body (Skillshare)
Chelsea Hodson's essays have been described as, " anchors for the themes — identity, sexuality, loss — we so often see reflected back at us ." In under 45 minutes, you'll be inspired to examine a strong starting point for any essay — your own body. Plus, Hodson's demonstration of her editing process in real time and analysis of other creative works leaves you with no excuse but to, as she says, "write without expectation." She also occasionally offers feedback on essays submitted through the class.
For practice and feedback
8-Week Personal Essay & Memoir Writing (Sackett Street Writers)
For writers with some experience or an essay ready to be workshopped, writing workshops like Sackett Street 's are an excellent option. This particular class is taught by published author Anna Qu , exploring the responsibility of nonfiction writing while learning literary techniques to create a compelling story. On top of Qu's guidance, the comradery with fellow students, even online, can lead to new perspectives and creative inspiration through in-class writing prompts.
"Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" by Anne Lamott
Few books reign supreme when it comes to authors' favorites "books on books" like "Bird by Bird." Lamott's down-to-earth, homespun advice on life and writing has sold over a million copies. Simultaneously practical and profound, the book leans on the basic tenet that the most important practice is sitting down every day and simply writing. As Lamott writes: "One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around."
Memoir Monday (Substack)
Every Monday, a collection of the best essays published the previous week on sites like Granta, Longreads, and Literary Hub are mailed directly to your inbox. A monthly reading series, plus interviews with notable authors provide a dose of inspiration and a curated look at up and coming work.
WMFA Podcast hosted by Courtney Balestier
" Writing can be lonely work ," and this podcast sees conversation as a combatant to that problem. Writers across all genres and walks of life are interviewed by writer Courtney Balestier , and talks range from craft practices to book recommendations. There's also a minisode (around five minutes) on a single topic, like paying attention or restraint, released every other week. The conversation continues in a monthly newsletter featuring links, news, and recommendations.
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3 Essential Books for Writing the Personal Statement
1. The Elements of Style, E.B. White and William Strunk, Jr.
We know what you’re thinking. “A grammar book? Who even reads this?!” But it’s a classic for anyone who wants to brush up on the rules of standard American usage. Plus, it’s super short and you’ll know exactly where to look for answers to your trickiest syntax questions.
2. On Writing the College Application Essay, Harry Bauld
This is the definitive book on the college essay – and believe it or not it’s actually a really entertaining read. Even though it was written in the 80s (literally before you were born) it offers amazing advice that is still applicable today. It’s also a great companion read for College Essay Academy , and will help you reinforce what you learn from each video lesson.
3. On Writing, Stephen King
Yes! You get to read a Stephen King book where no one gets murdered or haunted. Even though the book generally describes King’s approach to fiction, the writer of some of the world’s most riveting stories has some amazing advice about storytelling. (And some bold opinions on adverbs.) He also shares details about his life and personal anecdotes that might just inspire you in your own personal writing.
BONUS pick for parents: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni
Are you already freaking out? Don’t. Frank Bruni’s honest take on the value of a college education sheds new light on this stress-filled and high-pressure topic. You will be fine. You all will.
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Give College Essay Academy a Try.
Written by Thea Hogarth
Category: Essay Tips
Tags: advice , college admissions , college application , college essay , common application , elements of style , frank bruni , harry bauld , personal statement , recommended reading , Stephen King , strunk and white , tips , writing
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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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6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week
By Shreya Chattopadhyay Feb. 23, 2024
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Ready for your next book? Check out these newly released paperbacks, from Ralph Ellison’s selected letters to Emily Henry’s newest novel, a history of two abolitionist sisters and more.
Here are six paperbacks we recommend →
This novel, one of our Notable Books of 2023, follows a Korean American woman whose life is upended when she becomes obsessed with a K-pop band member. As Alexandra Jacobs wrote in her review, “Y/N” plumbs “the precarity of love, and how the modern self is forged less in community than mass consumption.”
In the 1800s, Angelina and Sarah Grimke left their slaveholding family in the South and gained fame as abolitionists. Outlining their lives and those of their Black relatives, this history takes the sisters “off their pedestal so that we understand them as pieces of a tapestry that could only be sewn in America,” our reviewer wrote.
Henry’s novel traces the stories we tell — both to others and to ourselves. Harriet and Wyn, along with their college friends, convene yearly for a vacation in Maine. This year’s no different, except for one thing: After a decade together, they’ve broken up — but can’t find the right way to let the group know.
The mind of the musician turned writer renowned for his classic novel “Invisible Man” is made visible in his own words in these collected letters, from notes to family in Oklahoma City to correspondences with writers like Richard Wright and Saul Bellow.
In mountainous rural Tennessee, Stella comes from a line of women who worship a monstrous cave-dwelling God. Her communions with him go deep, so deep that she must flee. Returning years later, Stella contends with both her past and her power in this work of gothic fiction that our former horror columnist called “a thing of beauty, brutal in the vein of Cormac McCarthy.”
Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt was a Louvre curator, a member of the anti-Nazi underground and an archaeologist who prevented the destruction of Egyptian artifacts while breaking into a male-dominated field. This Editors’ Choice pick animates her action-packed life.
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The Best Books About College Admissions
Posted: August 3, 2023 | Last updated: August 3, 2023
Lists and rankings, despite all of the recent controversy , may still prove popular and indispensable tools for narrowing down the best schools for prospective college students and their parents. But selecting where to apply is just the tip of the iceberg. Next comes the Herculean task of navigating the admissions process and actually getting into that dream school. What kind of essay will give you an edge? What do admissions officers really look for? How do bad apples like the Rick Singers and Lori Loughlins of the world affect everyone else? And, everyone's favorite: How do you pay for it ?
Fortunately there are a number of excellent books out there to help guide the way. Some provide insightful dives into the big business of getting into college while others offer useful advice, not only for surviving it all, but for ultimately finding the best match. Below, eight books about college admissions worth reading before you begin the application process.
1) On Writing the College Application Essay: The Key to Acceptance at the College of Your Choice
Harry Bauld was working part time in the admissions office of Columbia University and teaching English at Horace Mann, a New York City private school, when he wrote the first edition of On Writing the College Application Essay . It has since been revised several times and remains the gold standard of advice on how to craft an original and compelling personal essay.
2) The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make
An essential guide for any family about to navigate the complex process of paying for college. Ron Lieber, a personal finance columnist at the New York Times , offers practical advice on saving for education, applying for need-based assistance, negotiating for merit aid, and much more. He also provides rare and valuable insight into the cost and value of education at a wide variety of schools.
3) Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do about It
College ranking lists have become an unavoidable and increasingly controversial part of the admissions process. Colin Diver, who is the former president of Reed College as well as the former dean of University of Pennsylvania Law School, chronicles the rise in popularity of the lists and how they have affected students' choices, the admissions process, and the way colleges and universities do business. Breaking Ranks, however, is more than just an exposé: Diver also offers advice on how families can choose schools that are the best match for their aspiring student.
4) Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
Frank Bruni wrote Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be in 2015, long before the Varsity Blues scandal broke and the backlash against college rankings made the news. His examination of the lengths to which families will go to get into a top school and the many ways colleges weigh the scales in their own favor was prescient and, unfortunately, just as relevant today as when it was first published. But the most important lesson from the book is Bruni's sane and comforting description of how students find success, no matter where they end up at school.
5) The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
When Daniel Golden wrote The Price of Admission , his 2006 exposé on the ways wealthy families game college admissions, he intended the book to be a work of investigative journalism. In 2019, after the Varsity Blues scandal broke, he lamented that many had read it instead as "a 'how-to' guide." Nearly two decades after its first printing, Golden's book lays bare persistent flaws in a system that purports to reward academic merit.
6) Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions
Jeffrey Selingo, a journalist and former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education , offers a behind-the-scenes look at how colleges and universities decide to whom they offer admission. The book offers plenty of guidance on how and when families should apply, while also providing background and context on some of the more pressing admissions-related questions, such as what acceptance rates really mean and how schools court top academic performers.
7) Guilty Admissions: The Bribes, Favors, and Phonies behind the College Cheating Scandal
Nicole LaPorte's 2021 book provides both a riveting account of how college advisor Rick Singer created "side doors" into top colleges for his privileged clients as well as a nuanced portrait of the cultural and systemic forces that encourage members of wealthy communities to turn the college application process into a no-limits arms race. LaPorte, who writes frequently about education for Town & Country , spoke to hundreds of sources, including high school parents and administrators, and their accounts offer a map of pitfalls for families to avoid when beginning their own college search.
8) The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education
Long missing in the pantheon of how-to-apply, test-prep, and college-ranking books has been advice for parents and students on how to hash through difficult topics before applying to college. The College Conversation , written by a former education reporter at the New York Times and a former University of Pennsylvania admissions dean, offers timelines for when to discuss finances, aspirations, proclivity, and, gulp, post-collegiate careers.
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Savannah Guthrie reveals this was 'the hardest' topic to write about in her book on faith
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Savannah Guthrie’s new book on her intimate relationship with God required a leap of faith.
The “Today” show anchor, who has co-authored children’s books about a very capable royal named Princess Penelope Pineapple , battled doubts about her credentials and the significance of what she had to say.
“I actually told the publisher and the agent, ‘OK, let's try this, but everyone needs to know that at any time, I might just say I don't think I can do it or it doesn't feel right and everyone has to be OK with that,’ ” Guthrie, 52, says. “For a long time, I felt like maybe this is just God giving me a project to work on to bring us closer together.”
- "Mostly What God Does: Reflections on Seeking and Finding His Love Everywhere" at Amazon for $20
- "Mostly What God Does: Reflections on Seeking and Finding His Love Everywhere" at Bookshop.org for $28
Check out: USA TODAY's weekly Best-selling Booklist
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She quieted her fears by convincing herself that she should at least try. “I'm just going to put one foot in front of the other,” Guthrie says. “I feel something exciting here. This is something I'm so passionate about.”
From Guthrie’s faith bloomed “ Mostly What God Does: Reflections on Seeking and Finding His Love Everywhere .” The title comes from Ephesians 5:1-2 (The Message) which says, “Mostly what God does is love you.”
“This book is a series of reflections about faith, and it's from the heart,” Guthrie says. “It's really vulnerable and personal. And it's that way because in so many ways, this is the book that I need to read. … I need to be reminded, like we all do, that God loves us and is on our side and has an eternal promise to be present to us. It's not a promise that everything's going to work out our way, or on our timing, or that we're just going to crush life. It's simply a promise that I am here for you. And I'm here with you.”
Guthrie is clear to state in her book that it is not a memoir, in part because her career has been “mostly a blur” she writes. “And I can’t write about other things – things I do remember but I don’t want to talk about,” like the dissolution of her first marriage to journalist Mark Orchard. “There is no scandal here, just disappointment.”
But in her book, broken down into six parts that she’s identified as the essentials of faith – love, presence, praise, grace, hope and purpose – she writes openly of struggling with anxiety and being “utterly terrified” before her 2012 debut as “Today” host . In those moments, Guthrie turned to God.
“God is with me,” she writes. “He’s got me. I am not alone. Whatever happens, I will never be alone. He has brought me to this moment, and he is not about to abandon me now.”
In “Mostly What God Does,” Guthrie says that she and her sister referred to God as “the sixth member of our family” growing up. Faith is how she and Jenna Bush Hager , host of “Today with Hoda & Jenna,” first connected. Now, Guthrie is the godmother of Bush Hager’s son Henry “Hal,” 4, and Bush Hager is the godmother of Guthrie’s daughter Vale, 9.
“I just think of how much good (the book is) going to do,” says Bush Hager, who leads the Read with Jenna book club . “What we need right now, in our world, is more love, and that's basically the thesis of everything she's writing about.”
In addition to writing about God’s unfailing love, Guthrie also addresses the tough questions that people of faith may grapple with: Why would an all-powerful God allow suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people?
“Those were the hardest essays for me to write, but I felt I couldn't ignore them,” says Guthrie. “Spoiler alert: There is no answer. I'm not resolving those unanswerable questions. … I think what I've learned over the years that faith and doubt are not opposite. They are features, they are part and parcel. They go hand in hand. If you don't have doubts sometimes or questions, then I'm not sure you're thinking hard enough about everything, because this world invites doubt, and God invites our questions and is OK with those questions and is eager to engage.”
As for Heaven, Guthrie can’t be 100% sure it exists, but she hangs her hat and potentially her future angel wings on hope.
“I wrote I would rather be hopeful and wrong than hopeless and turn out to be right,” she says. “It's about how are we spending our present? How are we spending this life? What does that posture of hope produce in our own lives? Does anyone know for sure? No, by definition, they don't. No one lives to tell. But for me, the choice became quite simple. I don't need to have all the answers, but I do need to have hope.”
Jenna Bush Hager gets real about her book club, parenting and co-hosting 'Today' show
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