Essay Collections

It’s been a pretty good year for essay collections for me. I’ve read seven so far. I didn’t love all of them, but some will stand out as being really great. There were two collections about the essay as a genre, including Carl Klaus’s book Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, which included excerpts of pieces that try to define the genre or sum up its value and its history. It’s a great book if you want to get a better sense of what exactly an essay is. Not that anyone really agrees on the definition, but there are a lot of definitions on offer here. Then there was David Lazar’s edited collection Truth in Nonfiction: Essays, which takes up the question of what truth in nonfiction writing means — a vexed question that many people have been asking lately. Again, there are a variety of answers on offer here, or, more accurately, there are often no answers, just more complicated questions, which is as it should be. The essays are often from a personal perspective, which makes them entertaining reading, as well as being philosophically interesting. I’ll admit that I skipped a few essays toward the end of the book because they were more straightforward essays rather than meditations on truth in nonfiction, and I wasn’t in the mood for them. This is probably a collection that’s better to read around in rather than plow straight through.

But one can only do so much reading about a genre before it becomes high time to read the genre itself, and by far the best collection of essays I’ve read this year is Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, which was captivating the whole way through, no matter what Smith’s subject was. The next two collections, ranked in terms of how much I liked them, were John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours. If the mark of a truly great essayist is that she or he makes any subject interesting, no matter what it is, then these two writers aren’t quite up to the level of Smith, but are still pretty solid. They both have interesting, engaging essayistic voices, and both have good things to say about literature and culture. I found Sullivan more consistently enjoyable than Bissell, but both have some great moments. The pieces in Bissell were just a little more disjointed, a little less universally interesting. Still, an essayist to watch.

I also read the 2011 Best American Essays collection, which was mixed, as it always is, but with plenty of good essays. Favorites were by Victor LaValle (on obesity), Charlie DeDuff (on Detroit), and Bridget Potter (on getting an abortion in 1962). You never know what you’re going to find in these collections, and it’s fun to be surprised. The last collection I read this year was The Professor, by Terry Castle, which certainly had some essays I liked, but for the most part, I didn’t care much for her voice. There was something harsh about it that didn’t appeal to me.

That’s not a bad record for a year that’s not over. Anybody have any recommendations of collections I should turn to next?

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Essay Collections

  1. I can’t help I’m afraid as I always come to you for suggestions as to which essay collections to read. Unless that is you haven’t seen Hermione Lee’s collection, ‘Body Parts’ which is about writing biographically. I have enjoyed that.

  2. I definitely take essay recommendations from you–I don’t think I’ve read more than one or two from magazines this year. I like the sound of reading essays–then I could become conversant in a wide variety of topics, but I somehow never seem to get around to reading them. I like the sound of the Zadie Smith collection and will have to try and get my hands on it.

    • The Smith book is the best I’ve come along in a while. I can’t say I read essays in order to learn things, although that sounds like a great goal! I just like the mix of personal and argumentative material that you get and also the feeling of a personal voice speaking to you directly. I guess this is why I prefer personal essays to more formal argumentative or journalistic ones, although essays that mix the two are great.

  3. I am so happy to read this post! And even more so as I own Zadie Smith’s collection and have been wanting to get around to it. I’ve also dipped in and out of the Truth in Non-Fiction collection, enjoying several that I’ve read (and like you, preferring not to read in strict order).One collection I’ve read reasonably recently and enjoyed was Inventing The Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser. These were actually talks in the first place, but I quite liked the voice that resulted, which was often chatty and direct and amusing. I will have to look out for the Sullivan and the Bissell, I think!

    • Thanks for the recommendation! That’s one I don’t have, and I’m very happy to know it’s good. I’m glad to hear it has a good voice, which is what matters most of all, I think — well, in this case, after the quality of the ideas. I hope you enjoy the Smith!

  4. I’ve been slowly reading When I Was a Child I Read Books. Robinson is a very good and thoughtful essayist and many of them include philosophical and religious approaches.

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