List Of Best Essayists

“What are the best Essay Collections of all-time?” We looked at 681 of the top Essay Collections, aggregating and ranking them so we could answer that very question!

With nearly enough books to read one a day for two years, there is bound to be something here to pique your interest! The top 25 essay collects, all appearing on 3 or more of the lists we aggregated from, appear below with images, links, and descriptions. The remaining 600 plus titles, as well as the articles we used, are alphabetically listed at the bottom of the page.

Happy Scrolling!



Top 25 Essay Collections



25 .) Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Lists It Appears On:

  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot
  • Flavorwire 2

“In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman (Sweet Valley High) of color (The Help) while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years (Girls, Django in Chains) and commenting on the state of feminism today (abortion, Chris Brown). The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture.

Bad Feminist is a sharp, funny, and spot-on look at the ways in which the culture we consume becomes who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better.”

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

Lists It Appears On:

  • Wikipedia
  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot

In this exuberantly praised book – a collection of seven pieces on subjects ranging from television to tennis, from the Illinois State Fair to the films of David Lynch, from postmodern literary theory to the supposed fun of traveling aboard a Caribbean luxury cruiseliner

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23 .) Arguably by Christopher Hitchens

Lists It Appears On:

  • Wikipedia
  • Flavorwire 2
  • Library Thing

“Here, he supplies fresh perceptions of such figures as varied as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Rebecca West, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, and Philip Larkin are matched in brilliance by his pungent discussions and intrepid observations, gathered from a lifetime of traveling and reporting from such destinations as Iran, China, and Pakistan.

Hitchens’s directness, elegance, lightly carried erudition, critical and psychological insight, humor, and sympathy-applied as they are here to a dazzling variety of subjects-all set a standard for the essayist that has rarely been matched in our time. What emerges from this indispensable volume is an intellectual self-portrait of a writer with an exemplary steadiness of purpose and a love affair with the delights and seductions of the English language, a man anchored in a profound and humane vision of the human longing for reason and justice. “

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22 .) Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Lists It Appears On:

  • The Daily Beast
  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot

“Anne Fadiman is–by her own admission–the sort of person who learned about sex from her father’s copy of Fanny Hill, whose husband buys her 19 pounds of dusty books for her birthday, and who once found herself poring over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only written material in the apartment that she had not read at least twice.

This witty collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story. Writing with remarkable grace, she revives the tradition of the well-crafted personal essay, moving easily from anecdotes about Coleridge and Orwell to tales of her own pathologically literary family. As someone who played at blocks with her father’s 22-volume set of Trollope (“”My Ancestral Castles””) and who only really considered herself married when she and her husband had merged collections (“”Marrying Libraries””), she is exquisitely well equipped to expand upon the art of inscriptions, the perverse pleasures of compulsive proof-reading, the allure of long words, and the satisfactions of reading out loud. There is even a foray into pure literary gluttony–Charles Lamb liked buttered muffin crumbs between the leaves, and Fadiman knows of more than one reader who literally consumes page corners. Perfectly balanced between humor and erudition, Ex Libris establishes Fadiman as one of our finest contemporary essayists.”

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21 .) I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

Lists It Appears On:

  • Library Thing
  • Book Riot
  • Goodreads

“With her disarming, intimate, completely accessible voice, and dry sense of humor, Nora Ephron shares with us her ups and downs in I Feel Bad About My Neck, a candid, hilarious look at women who are getting older and dealing with the tribulations of maintenance, menopause, empty nests, and life itself.

Ephron chronicles her life as an obsessed cook, passionate city dweller, and hapless parent. But mostly she speaks frankly and uproariously about life as a woman of a certain age. Utterly courageous, uproariously funny, and unexpectedly moving in its truth telling, I Feel Bad About My Neck is a scrumptious, irresistible treat of a book, full of truths, laugh out loud moments that will appeal to readers of all ages.”

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20 .) I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections by Nora Ephron

Lists It Appears On:

  • Flavorwire 2
  • Better World Books
  • Vox Magazine

“Nora Ephron returns with her first book since the astounding success of I Feel Bad About My Neck, taking a hilarious look at the past, the present, and the future, bemoaning the vicissitudes of modern life, and recalling with her signature clarity and wisdom everything she hasn’t (yet) forgotten.

Filled with insights and observations that instantly ring true—and could have come only from Nora Ephron—I Remember Nothing is pure joy.”

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19 .) Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Lists It Appears On:

  • Goodreads
  • Wikipedia
  • Goodreads

A recent transplant to Paris, humorist David Sedaris, bestselling author of “Naked”, presents a collection of his strongest work yet, including the title story about his hilarious attempt to learn French. A number one national bestseller now in paperback.

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18 .) Naked by David Sedaris

Lists It Appears On:

  • Book Riot
  • Goodreads
  • Flavorwire 2

Welcome to the hilarious, strange, elegiac, outrageous world of David Sedaris. In Naked, Sedaris turns the mania for memoir on its ear, mining the exceedingly rich terrain of his life, his family, and his unique worldview-a sensibility at once take-no-prisoners sharp and deeply charitable. A tart-tongued mother does dead-on imitations of her young son’s nervous tics, to the great amusement of his teachers; a stint of Kerouackian wandering is undertaken (of course!) with a quadriplegic companion; a family gathers for a wedding in the face of imminent death. Through it all is Sedaris’s unmistakable voice, without doubt one of the freshest in American writing.

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17 .) Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss

Lists It Appears On:

  • Better World Books
  • Wikipedia
  • Goodreads

“Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays begins with a series of lynchings and ends with a series of apologies. Eula Biss explores race in America and her response to the topic is informed by the experiences chronicled in these essays — teaching in a Harlem school on the morning of 9/11, reporting for an African American newspaper in San Diego, watching the aftermath of Katrina from a college town in Iowa, and settling in Chicago’s most diverse neighborhood.

As Biss moves across the country from New York to California to the Midwest, her essays move across time from biblical Babylon to the freedman’s schools of Reconstruction to a Jim Crow mining town to post-war white flight. She brings an eclectic education to the page, drawing variously on the Eagles, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Baldwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Joan Didion, religious pamphlets, and reality television shows.”

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16 .) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

Lists It Appears On:

  • Book Riot
  • Book Riot
  • Flashlight Worthy

Presenting the essential writings of black lesbian poet and feminist writer Audre Lorde, SISTER OUTSIDER celebrates an influential voice in twentieth-century literature. In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. Her prose is incisive, unflinching, and lyrical, reflecting struggle but ultimately offering messages of hope. This commemorative edition includes a new foreword by Lorde scholar and poet Cheryl Clarke, who celebrates the ways in which Lorde’s philosophies resonate more than twenty years after they were first published.

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15 .) The Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb

Lists It Appears On:

  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot
  • Library Thing

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14 .) The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Lists It Appears On:

  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot
  • Wikipedia

A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document. It consists of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism.

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13 .) The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

Lists It Appears On:

“The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by double Hugo Award-winning essayist and fantasy novelist Kameron Hurley.

The book collects dozens of Hurley’s essays on feminism, geek culture, and her experiences and insights as a genre writer, including “”We Have Always Fought,”” which won the 2013 Hugo for Best Related Work. The Geek Feminist Revolution will also feature several entirely new essays written specifically for this volume.”

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12 .) The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Lists It Appears On:

  • Vox Magazine
  • Book Riot
  • Goodreads

“Marina Keegan’s star was on the rise when she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at The New Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash.

Marina left behind a rich, deeply expansive trove of writing that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty, and possibility of her generation. Her short story “Cold Pastoral” was published on NewYorker.com. Her essay “Even Artichokes Have Doubts” was excerpted in the Financial Times, and her book was the focus of a Nicholas Kristof column in The New York Times. Millions of her contemporaries have responded to her work on social media.

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11 .) A Collection of Essays by George Orwell

Lists It Appears On:

  • Book Riot
  • Library Thing
  • Wikipedia
  • Book Riot

One of the most thought-provoking and vivid essayists of the twentieth century, George Orwell fought the injustices of his time with singular vigor through pen and paper. In this selection of essays, he ranges from reflections on his boyhood schooling and the profession of writing to his views on the Spanish Civil War and British imperialism. The pieces collected here include the relatively unfamiliar and the more celebrated, making it an ideal compilation for both new and dedicated readers of Orwell’s work.

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10 .) Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag

Lists It Appears On:

  • Flavorwire 2
  • Goodreads
  • Vox Magazine
  • Wikipedia

Against Interpretation was Susan Sontag’s first collection of essays and is a modern classic. Originally published in 1966, it has never gone out of print and has influenced generations of readers all over the world. It includes the famous essays “Notes on Camp” and “Against Interpretation,” as well as her impassioned discussions of Sartre, Camus, Simone Weil, Godard, Beckett, Levi-Strauss, sceince-fiction movies, psychoanalysis, and contemporary religious thought.

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9 .) Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

Lists It Appears On:

  • Better World Books
  • Goodreads
  • The Daily Beast
  • Wikipedia

Split into five sections–Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling, and Remembering–Changing My Mind finds Zadie Smith casting an acute eye over material both personal and cultural. This engaging collection of essays, some published here for the first time, reveals Smith as a passionate and precise essayist, equally at home in the world of great books and bad movies, family and philosophy, British comedians and Italian divas. Whether writing on Katherine Hepburn, Kafka, Anna Magnani, or Zora Neale Hurston, she brings deft care to the art of criticism with a style both sympathetic and insightful. Changing My Mind is journalism at its most expansive, intelligent, and funny–a gift to readers and writers both.

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8 .) Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Lists It Appears On:

  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot
  • Flavorwire 2
  • The Telegraph

“In Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan takes us on an exhilarating tour of our popular, unpopular, and at times completely forgotten culture. Simultaneously channeling the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion, Sullivan shows us―with a laidback, erudite Southern charm that’s all his own―how we really (no, really) live now.

In his native Kentucky, Sullivan introduces us to Constantine Rafinesque, a nineteenth-century polymath genius who concocted a dense, fantastical prehistory of the New World. Back in modern times, Sullivan takes us to the Ozarks for a Christian rock festival; to Florida to meet the alumni and straggling refugees of MTV’s Real World, who’ve generated their own self-perpetuating economy of minor celebrity; and all across the South on the trail of the blues. He takes us to Indiana to investigate the formative years of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose and then to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina―and back again as its residents confront the BP oil spill.”

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7 .) The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

Lists It Appears On:

  • Five Books
  • Book Riot
  • Flavorwire 2
  • Better World Books

Woolf’s first and most popular volume of essays. This collection has more than twenty-five selections, including such important statements as “Modern Fiction” and “The Modern Essay.”

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6 .) I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

Lists It Appears On:

  • Vox Magazine
  • Wikipedia
  • Book Browse
  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot

From despoiling an exhibit at the Natural History Museum to provoking the ire of her first boss to siccing the cops on her mysterious neighbor, Crosley can do no right despite the best of intentions — or perhaps because of them. Together, these essays create a startlingly funny and revealing portrait of a complex and utterly recognizable character who aims for the stars but hits the ceiling, and the inimitable city that has helped shape who she is. I Was Told There’d Be Cake introduces a strikingly original voice, chronicling the struggles and unexpected beauty of modern urban life.

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5 .) Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Lists It Appears On:

  • Buzzfeed
  • Book Riot
  • Flavorwire 2
  • Library Thing
  • Better World Books

“In an age of Black Lives Matter, James Baldwin’s essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written. With documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro bringing renewed interest to Baldwin’s life and work, Notes of a Native Son serves as a valuable introduction.

Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in Notes of a Native Son capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in “The Harlem Ghetto” to a sobering “Journey to Atlanta.” “

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4 .) The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders

Lists It Appears On:

  • Wikipedia
  • Buzzfeed
  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot
  • Flavorwire 2

George Saunders’s first foray into nonfiction is comprised of essays on literature, travel, and politics. At the core of this unique collection are Saunders’s travel essays based on his trips to seek out the mysteries of the “Buddha Boy” of Nepal; to attempt to indulge in the extravagant pleasures of Dubai; and to join the exploits of the minutemen at the Mexican border. Saunders expertly navigates the works of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Esther Forbes, and leads the reader across the rocky political landscape of modern America. Emblazoned with his trademark wit and singular vision, Saunders’s endeavor into the art of the essay is testament to his exceptional range and ability as a writer and thinker.

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3 .) The White Album by Joan Didion

Lists It Appears On:

  • Publishers Weekly
  • Buzzfeed
  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot
  • Flavorwire 2

First published in 1979, The White Album records indelibly the upheavals and aftermaths of the 1960s. Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era―including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall―through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of American autobiography.

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2 .) Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

Lists It Appears On:

  • Wikipedia
  • Book Riot
  • Flavorwire
  • Flavorwire 2
  • Tin House
  • Goodreads

Do lobsters feel pain? Did Franz Kafka have a funny bone? What is John Updike’s deal, anyway? And what happens when adult video starlets meet their fans in person? David Foster Wallace answers these questions and more in essays that are also enthralling narrative adventures. Whether covering the three-ring circus of a vicious presidential race, plunging into the wars between dictionary writers, or confronting the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker at the annual Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace projects a quality of thought that is uniquely his and a voice as powerful and distinct as any in American letters.

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1 .) Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Lists It Appears On:

  • Flavorwire
  • The Daily Beast
  • Goodreads
  • Book Riot
  • Flavorwire 2
  • Better World Books

The first nonfiction work by one of the most distinctive prose stylists of our era, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains, decades after its first publication, the essential portrait of America―particularly California―in the sixties. It focuses on such subjects as John Wayne and Howard Hughes, growing up a girl in California, ruminating on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room, and, especially, the essence of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the counterculture.

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The Additional Best Essay Collection Books



 

#BookAuthorLists
(Book Appears On 2 Lists Each)
26A Field Guide to Getting LostRebecca SolnitGoodreads
Book Riot
27Art and ArdorCynthia OzickBook Riot
Flavorwire 2
28BossypantsTina FeyGoodreads
Better World Books
29Both Flesh and NotDavid Foster WallaceWikipedia
Goodreads
30Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the ArtsClive JamesWikipedia
Flavorwire 2
31Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, PlacesUrsula K. Le GuinWikipedia
Library Thing
32Dress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDavid SedarisThe Daily Beast
Goodreads
33Forty-One False StartsJanet MalcolmSalon
Book Riot
34Housekeeping vs. the DirtNick HornbyWikipedia
Goodreads
35How to Be AloneJonathan FranzenGoodreads
Wikipedia
36Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?Mindy KalingGoodreads
Book Riot
37LabyrinthsJorge Luis BorgesWikipedia
Book Riot
38Let’s Explore Diabetes with OwlsDavid SedarisGoodreads
Salon
39Madness, Rack, and HoneyMary RuefleBook Riot
Goodreads
40Meditations From A Movable ChairAndre DubusBook Browse
Book Riot
41My Misspent YouthMeghan DaumFlavorwire 2
Goodreads
42Not That Kind of GirlLena DunhamBook Riot
Goodreads
43On Lies, Secrets, and SilenceAdrienne RichBook Riot
Flashlight Worthy
44Otherwise Known as the Human ConditionGeoff DyerBook Riot
Flavorwire 2
45Paris to the MoonAdam GopnikWikipedia
Book Riot
46Self-RelianceRalph Waldo EmersonBuzzfeed
Book Riot
47Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture ManifestoChuck KlostermanWikipedia
Goodreads
48Shadow and ActRalph EllisonWikipedia
Book Riot
49Small WonderBarbara KingsolverBook Browse
Library Thing
50State by StateSean Wilsey, Matt WeilandBook Browse
Wikipedia
51The Boys of My YouthJo Ann BeardBook Riot
Flavorwire 2
52The Crack-upF. Scott FitzgeraldWikipedia
Book Riot
53The Death of the MothVirginia WoolfBuzzfeed
Verso
54The Empathy ExamsLeslie JamesonBook Riot
Goodreads
55The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science FictionUrsula K. Le GuinWikipedia
Library Thing
56The Myth of Sisyphus and Other EssaysAlbert CamusGoodreads
Library Thing
57The Souls of Black FolkW. E. B. Du BoisWikipedia
Book Riot
58The UnspeakableMeghan DaumBook Riot
Goodreads
59The Wave in the MindUrsula K. Le GuinBook Riot
Tor
60Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black ManHenry Louis GatesBook Riot
Flavorwire 2
61This Angel on My ChestLeslie PietrzykBook Browse
Book Browse
62This Is the Story of a Happy MarriageAnn PratchettThe Missouri Review
Book Riot
63Tiny Beautiful ThingsCheryl StrayedBook Riot
Goodreads
64Under the Sign of Saturn: EssaysSusan SontagWikipedia
Verso
65We Should All Be FeministsChimamanda Ngozi AdichieGoodreads
Book Riot
66When I Was a Child I Read BooksMarilynne RobinsonThe Missouri Review
Book Riot
(Books Appear On 1 List Each)
67(Not That You Asked) Rants, Exploits and ObsessionsWikipedia
68100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to WriteSarah RuhlBook Riot
69A Better Angel : StoriesChris AdrianBook Browse
70A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and PostmodernityStanley HauerwasLibrary Thing
71A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You : StoriesAmy BloomBook Browse
72A Book of PrefacesWikipedia
73A Brief History of The FloodJean HarfenistBook Browse
74A Causa das CoisasWikipedia
75A Certain WorldWikipedia
76A Devil’s ChaplainWikipedia
77A Few Words About BreastsNora EphronBuzzfeed
78A Man Without a CountryWikipedia
79A Massive SwellingWikipedia
80A Modern Proposal and Other WritingsJonathan SwiftBetter World Books
81A Moving TargetWikipedia
82A New Literary History of AmericaWikipedia
83A Night Without ArmorJewel KilcherBook Browse
84A Perfect Stranger : And other storiesRoxana RobinsonBook Browse
85A Place in the CountryWikipedia
86A Place to LiveNatalia GinzburgBook Riot
87A Place to Read: Life and BooksMichael CohenThe Missouri Review
88A Power Governments Cannot SuppressHoward ZinnLibrary Thing
89A Restricted CountryJoan NestleFlashlight Worthy
90A Reverie for Mister RayWikipedia
91A Room of One’s OwnVirginia WoolfGoodreads
92A Sad Heart At The SupermarketRandall JarrellFive Books
93A User’s Guide to the MillenniumWikipedia
94A Voice from the AtticWikipedia
95A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform PapersWikipedia
96A Year from MondayWikipedia
97A’ Cleachdadh na GàidhligWikipedia
98Acquainted with the Night (book)Wikipedia
99Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy CultureYtasha L. WomackTor
100Against Joie de VivrePhillip LopateFlavorwire 2
101Against the Current: Essays in the History of IdeasWikipedia
102Agamemnon’s Daughter : A Novella and StoriesIsmail KadareBook Browse
103Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science FictionDavid G. HartwellTor
104Alibis: Essays on ElsewhereAndré AcimanBook Riot
105All Aunt Hagar’s Children : StoriesEdward P. JonesBook Browse
106All I Really Need to Know I Learned in KindergartenWikipedia
107Alone With You : StoriesMarisa SilverBook Browse
108Alpha and Omega (Harrison)Wikipedia
109Alphabet of the ImaginationWikipedia
110Always Happy Hour : StoriesMary MillerBook Browse
111America and AmericansWikipedia
112American RomancesRebecca BrownBook Riot
113An Anthropologist on MarsWikipedia
114An Unfinished JourneyWikipedia
115An Unrestored WomanShobha RaoBook Browse
116An Urchin in the StormWikipedia
117Ancestor Stones : A NovelAminatta FornaBook Browse
118And Even NowMax BeerbohmFive Books
119And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A LifeCharles J. ShieldsTor
120Anglo-English AttitudesGeoff DyerThe Telegraph
121Annie Dillard,Total EclipsePublishers Weekly
122Any Small Thing Can Save You : A BestiaryChristina AdamBook Browse
123Apparition & Late Fictions : A Novella and StoriesThomas LynchBook Browse
124Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, ChelseaWikipedia
125Aspects of Scientific Explanation and other Essays in the Philosophy of ScienceWikipedia
126Bagombo Snuff Box : Uncollected Short FictionKurt VonnegutBook Browse
127Barbara the Slut and Other PeopleLauren HolmesBook Browse
128Bark : StoriesLorrie MooreBook Browse
129Barrel FeverWikipedia
130Battleborn : StoriesClaire Vaye WatkinsBook Browse
131Before the Mortgage: Real Stories of Brazen Loves, Broken Leases, and the Perplexing Pursuit of AdulthoodChristina AminiLibrary Thing
132Beirut 39 : New Writing from the Arab WorldSamuel ShimonBook Browse
133Beowulf : A New Verse TranslationSeamus HeaneyBook Browse
134Best Essays NorthwestWikipedia
135Best European Fiction 2010Aleksandar HemonBook Browse
136Betrayal of the LeftWikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the essay here.

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

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

Read the essay here.

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

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

Read the essay here (subscription required).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the essay here.

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

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

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

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

Read the essay here.

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

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

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

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

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