If I had to pick one genre of books to read and one only (please God, don’t make me pick!), I would choose essay collections. I love the terse, lyrical nature of the form. I love the variety – memoir, reflection, journalism, humor. And I love the way that the form is so wide open in terms of style and length and voice. Essays make me quite happy.
So today, here are my favorite 10 Essay Collections:
1.Season of the Body by Brenda Miller – To be fair, Brenda was one of my teachers, and I adore her. But even putting aside that bias, this collection is brilliant and beautiful and strong. Her creative use of point of view is inspiring, and the way the essays circle back to the body again and again . . . well, you’ll be breathless.
2. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin – Courage and beautifully brazen critique. . . absolutely some of the most powerful writing of the 20th century. Plus, Baldwin – oh his life just makes me both shout for joy and weep.
3. On Looking by Lia Purpura – When I want to read something that makes me see anew and also lifts my soul with the beauty of language, I read Lia’s work. Strong but soft, and she is a master of the lyric essay.
4. The Art of the Personal Essay. Edited by Philip Lopate – A sweeping collection that gives an overview of the essay form – from Montaigne to Dillard. Beautiful introduction by one of America’s great essayists, Philip Lopate. If you want a deep introduction to the essay form, this is the book for you.
5. Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver – I remember reading this book on a cold, snowy winter night by a woodstove, and it moved me so that I read much of it aloud. Lyric language put to political awareness. Lovely.
6. Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food by Wendell Berry – Wendell Berry! Perhaps the man I most aspire to be like in both my writing and my life. This is a wonderful collection of his writing about farming and food supply and the sincere joy of dining together.
7. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard – My favorite essay of all time – “The Fourth State of Matter” – is in this collection, but the whole book is amazing – full of description so rich that you feel as if you are there – both in body and mind – with the characters.
8. The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson – I have read this collection in small doses because Robinson’s thinking and prose are so rich, so dense that I have to walk away to take in what she has said. Not easy reading but well worth it.
9. My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
– This is another title where I know just where I was as I read it – on the CalTrain between Santa Clara and San Francisco. I felt Daum’s words echo much of what my life was in that younger time.
10. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard – If you are a writer (or if you are a person who writes who has yet to work up the courage to call yourself a “writer”) this book you need for your shelves. Wisdom and artistry and an honest that will make you pucker.
I have a whole slew of titles I still want to read Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith, and Mystery and Manners by Flanner O’Connor. Plus, I really need to get to the Braindead Microphone by George Saunders. I relish the expectation of these titles, new essays to add to my collection of this favorite form.
What do you think of essays as a genre? What are your favorite collections?
If you’d like to have more recommendations of essay collections, check out this list of 25 by Flavorwire.