Today marks the release of celebrated novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson’s newest collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books . We’ve been excited about this book for a while now, so if you’ve been reading our books coverage with any regularity you probably already know we think it’s something worth picking up. Great as it is, Robinson’s collection only whet our appetites for more essays by contemporary writers, so in case it does the same for you, we’ve put together a list of contemporary essayists we think everyone should be reading right now (or, you know, whenever you finish watching Downton Abbey). We’ve tried to stick to authors who are still alive — so David Foster Wallace and Christopher Hitchens are off the table, though they both would have made this list with flying colors were they still with us — and limited ourselves to American writers, but even with those caveats, there is enough in these writers’ oeuvres to keep you up and thinking for weeks on end. Click through to read our list, and please do add your own suggestions for top-notch essayists we should all be reading in the comments.
Though Robinson is much lauded for her fiction (she won the Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, Gilead), she is equally adored for her incisive essays, which often take hard looks at Americanism and the social political system writ both large and very small. Dorris Lessing called her 1998 collection, The Death of Adam, “a useful antidote to the increasingly crude and slogan-loving culture we inhabit,” and we’re comfortable expanding that statement to Robinson’s work at large — always challenging, always thought provoking, always making us want to be better.
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Sullivan’s recent collection, Pulphead , has had everyone raving since it hit shelves in October — and with good reason. With exacting, witty prose, Sullivan tackles pop culture and history with equal ability, writing about everything from Real World alumni to Christian rock festivals in the Ozarks to Constantine Rafinesque, a nineteenth-century genius struggling for a foothold. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder about modern existence — and what else are essays for?
Though David Foster Wallace was disqualified from this list, he lives on in Ozick, whom he listed (alongside Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo) as one of the country’s best living fiction writers. From the king of the contemporary essay, that’s a ringing endorsement. Not that she really needs it, however — Ozick has no less than seven essay collections to her name, alongside a host of novels and short fiction, and writes on almost every subject, though she tends to favor the Jewish American lens. Her prose is perfectly self-conscious, sharp and crystal clear, she is witty and definitely smarter than you. Which is really never bad.
D’Agata, already a celebrated essayist, has been in the news recently due to the release of The Lifespan of a Fact , a years-long conversation between D’Agata and his fact checker about the very nature of essay-writing. The book must itself, of course, be a semi-fiction, proving its own point, in a way — but that just makes the whole thing all the more interesting. But if for no other reason, you should read D’Agata because he’s tackling questions that have long stumped both readers and writers, and will probably continue to for some time. Better get acquainted.
An important social equality activist and scholar, bell hooks’ writings are must-reads for anyone. Incredibly prolific both in the academic and essay format (and in many other types of media as well), hooks writes about race, gender, feminism, class, art, and the world at large, often through a postmodern lens. She is fiery and unabashed about her beliefs, as every intelligent woman should be, and though this has of course caused some to criticize her, it has caused many more to love her. Obviously, we’re in the latter camp.
The author of six nonfiction books on American history and culture as well as many essays, Vowell is practiced at cultural criticism. A frequent contributor to This American Life, where many of her essays get their starts, she comes at the contemporary social world with a supreme understanding of our country’s past. After all, she does write a lot about assassinated presidents. Fun fact: she’s also a voice actor, best known for her portrayal as Violet Parr in The Incredibles. Though she doesn’t really need it, we admit that makes us like her more.
Elif Batuman’s first collection of essays, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them , published last year, reveals her to be a complete nerd — in the best of ways, of course. Unpretentiously in love with literature and blessed with a relentlessly charming voice, almost everything we read by Batuman sends us scrambling back to our bookshelves for that novel she’s reminded us we’re dying to dive into. And that, friends, is always a good thing.
Touré sort of has a hand in everything — he writes essays and short stories, has a novel under his belt, is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and hosts hip-hop shows on Fuse. Constant through all his mediums, however, are his insightful, intimate — and often hilarious — observations about race, class, and the wild and crazy world of pop culture. In his most recent book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now , he explores race as “a completely liquid shape-shifter that can take any form” and aims “to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing blackness.” Provocative and brilliant, we think this is a guy who’ll keep changing the cultural landscape for years to come.
Like D’Agata, Shields is concerned with probing the edges of what makes an essay an essay — or if we should even have terms like “essay” at all. In his 2010 book Reality Hunger , Shields argues that the “lyric essay” is contemporary culture’s premier literary form — but that such terms don’t really matter, as all of culture is in the midst of getting mixed up in a huge intellectual blender. While we had our issues with the book, he makes some fascinating points, all worth reading in this age of mash-ups and DIY and shifting intellectual property rights.
Crosley’s hilarious personal essays are smart and observant and relentlessly sly. Like a lady Sedaris, she wins you over with self-deprecating humor and indignant reactions to the weirdness of the everyday world. Though her essays are no intellectual slog, they will make you smile, commiserate, and perhaps enjoy your day just a little bit more.