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.