best essay book in english

The 25 Greatest Essay Collections of All Time

Today marks the release of Aleksandar Hemon’s excellent book of personal essays, The Book of My Lives , which we loved, and which we’re convinced deserves a place in the literary canon. To that end, we were inspired to put together our list of the greatest essay collections of all time, from the classic to the contemporary, from the personal to the critical. In making our choices, we’ve steered away from posthumous omnibuses (Michel de Montaigne’s Complete Essays , the collected Orwell, etc.) and multi-author compilations, and given what might be undue weight to our favorite writers (as one does). After the jump, our picks for the 25 greatest essay collections of all time. Feel free to disagree with us, praise our intellect, or create an entirely new list in the comments.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.”

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.”

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.'”

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.”

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

best essay book in english

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.

  • Search Results

The best essay collections to read now

From advice on friendship and understanding modern life to getting a grasp on coronavirus, these books offer insight on life. 

The best essay collections including Zadie Smith's Intimations, James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son and Nora Ephron's The Most of Nora Ephron.

What better way to get into the work of a writer than through a collection of their essays? 

These seven collections, from novelists and critics alike, address a myriad of subjects from friendship to how colleges are dealing with sexual assaults on campus to race and racism. 

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (2019)

As a staff writer at The New Yorker , Jia Tolentino has explored everything from a rise in youth vaping to the ongoing cultural reckoning about sexual assault. Her first book Trick Mirror takes some of those pieces for The New Yorker as well as new work to form what is one of the sharpest collections of cultural criticism today.

Using herself and her own coming of age as a lens for many of the essays, Tolentino turns her pen and her eye to everything from her generation’s obsession with extravagant weddings to how college campuses deal with sexual assault.

If you’re looking for an insight into millennial life, then Trick Mirror should be on your to-read list.

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker (1983)

Sometimes essays collected from a sprawling period of a successful writer’s life can feel like a hasty addition to a bibliography; a smash-and-grab of notebook flotsam. Not so In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens , from which one can truly understand the sheer range of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s range of study and activism. From Walker’s first published piece of non-fiction (for which she won a prize, and spent her winnings on cut peonies) to more elegiac pieces about her heritage, Walker’s thoughts on feminism (which she terms “womanism”) and the Civil Rights Movement remain grippingly pertinent 50 years on.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (2000)

That David Sedaris’s ascent to literary stardom happened later in his life – his breakthrough collection of humour essays was released when he was 44 – suited the author’s writing style perfectly. Me Talk Pretty One Day is both a painfully funny account of his childhood and an enduring snapshot of mid-forties malaise. First story ‘Go Carolina’, about his attempt to transcend a childhood lisp, is told from a perfect distance and with all the worldliness necessary to milk every drop of tragic, cringeworthy humour from his childhood. It never falters from there: by the book’s second half, in which Sedaris is living in France, he’s firmly established his niche, writing about the ways that even snobs experience utter humiliation ­– and Me Talk Pretty One Day is all the more human for it. 

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Nonfiction Books » Essays

Adam gopnik on his favourite essay collections.

In Mid-Air: Points of View from over a Decade by Adam Gopnik

In Mid-Air: Points of View from over a Decade by Adam Gopnik

What makes a great essayist? Who had it, who didn’t? And whose work left the biggest mark on the New Yorker ? Longtime writer for the magazine, Adam Gopnik , picks out five masters of the craft

In Mid-Air: Points of View from over a Decade by Adam Gopnik

And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White

Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - A Sad Heart At The Supermarket by Randall Jarrell

A Sad Heart At The Supermarket by Randall Jarrell

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - Visions Before Midnight by Clive James

Visions Before Midnight by Clive James

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections - And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

1 And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

2 the common reader by virginia woolf, 3 essays of e.b. white by e.b. white, 4 a sad heart at the supermarket by randall jarrell, 5 visions before midnight by clive james.

B efore we get into the books, I wanted to ask you about essays generally. In your introduction to The Best American Essays of 2008 you have a rather nice phrase: “The essay is a classical form for short-winded Romantics.” What do you mean by that?

There are certain kinds of criticism that I think of as essentially essays – Clive James or Randall Jarrell’s criticism, for instance – whereas there are other critics whom I admire just as much – say [William] Empson and [WH] Auden – but whom I don’t think of as essayists. They’re superior literary critics.

Is the distinction to do with the presence of the “I” in their work?

The “I” need not appear in the piece, but it’s always implicit in the essay. Empson and Auden want to win you round to their point of view, Jarrell and James want to make their experience persuasive. Of course, one of the best ways of winning you round to a point of view is to make your experience persuasive, and one of the best ways to make your experience persuasive is to win you round to a point of view!

There are no absolute lines in this. But there does seem to me a real difference between the things Empson – who is an absolutely wonderful writer and an amazing companion – is trying to do in his critical articles and the things Jarrell is trying to do in his. Jarrell conceives of criticism poetically. That is, that it should have some of the surprise and delight of personal revelation: “ I felt this then, and I passed through the prism of a work of writing” rather than “this is a general truth of literature”.

With essayists, we feel we’re reading their first names rather than their honorifics. We’re reading Clive and Virginia and Randall rather than James and Woolf and Jarrell, in a way we never feel we’re reading William and Wystan rather than Empson and Auden.

You have written that the essay has an implicit politics to it, and that the job of the essay is “to drain the melodrama from overwrought debate and replace it with common sense and comedy”.

Did I say that? When you think [of essays] historically, beginning with Montaigne, one of the things Montaigne does – at a time of violent and feverish religious debate – is he makes the case for both and at once, for either and or, for the division within oneself. That there is no pure or certain state which we can be in in our mental lives.

Even someone as seemingly non-political as Max Beerbohm is placed at the intersection of all kinds of political passions – Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw’s socialism, Rudyard Kipling’s imperialism and so on – and he makes fun of them all. That’s one of the things that makes Beerbohm attractive. In a very decorous and mischievous way, he mocks that kind of ideological passion.

You mentioned Beerbohm. Let’s begin with his book And Even Now . You said his approach was to parody and make light of things. He was also a caricaturist. Do you see a link between his illustrations and his essays?

Yes, absolutely. He was a caricaturist with remarkable insight and relatively little malice in his parodies and cartoons. He found the pomposities of over-zealous ideology absurd. He also had a lovely vein of affection. One of my favourite of his picture-books is called Rossetti and H is Circle . It’s basically imaginary pictures of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites in their very complicated domestic life. The implicit theme of the whole book is that behind the Pre-Raphaelite dream of the perfect Botticelli nymph and the medieval romantic life is this very funny, furtive domestic life in Chelsea [London]. Constantly referring dream-life back to reality is another way Beerbohm works.

He’s an essayist who isn’t so widely read these days. Why do you think that is?

For me, Beerbohm has an almost dangerously perfect tone – a mixture of benign serenity and quiet intellectual authority that I think is the tone every essayist searches for. It’s not accidental that Beerbohm was influential on the first generation of The New Yorker writers, people like Wolcott Gibbs.

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One of the dangers of that tone, though, is that it can seem unduly complacent or self-satisfied. I suspect that the note of complacency in Beerbohm’s writing is kind of out of kilter with the times. It’s a note that was so hugely popular for 50 or 60 years that I guess it came to seem old-fashioned. If you ever read old collections of light editorials from The  London Times , they all strive for the Beerbohm sound. Inevitably, when a sound gets imitated for too long it becomes a little empty.

Beerbohm is also not a writer of fanatic passion or political certainty. You can’t consult him directly for the quote you might need about the topic of the day. For those reasons, he’s gone a bit out of fashion. But he remains a wonderful writer, and for me the best witness of that period – the end of the Victorian age and the beginning of the modern age.

What do you think he writes best about?

Literature. My favourite of his essays are ones like “A Clergyman”, which is a very close, loving analysis of an obscure passage of [James] Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson . A clergyman, identified in no other way, squeaks out a little objection to something Dr Johnson has said, and Johnson crushes him with his rejoinder. Beerbohm reflects on the lost and hidden life of this clergyman, who made one brief bid for literary immortality and whose name even Boswell couldn’t recall.

Let’s go on to another English essayist, Virginia Woolf . She wrote a great deal of non-fiction. Why does her writing in The Common Reader qualify as essays rather than what they strictly appear to be – reviews or criticism?

Exactly because we read Woolf for her tone – her equanimity, her ability to weave together a detached and usually very severe critical judgement with a tone of ruminative engagement. That’s a tone, as much as Beerbohm’s is in another way, which seems to me particularly enviable.

Is it, along with Beerbohm, a particularly English tone? The next three essayists we’re going to talk about are American or Australian.

I think that’s true. There’s a sense in which both Woolf and Beerbohm come after the age of Victorian literary industry. They both take for granted this common pool of Dickens , [George] Eliot and Trollope – writers of huge industry, enormous achievement and vast social observation – and they both make a quiet case for the miniature, for the perfectly wrought. So there’s a kind of running commentary on Victorian fiction in both of their work.

I also think, without having illusions about the nature of the societies in which they worked, that there is a strong lure of a stable and secure literary society in their work. They both feel themselves to be at home with literature, not out of place in any way. Their tone – unlike certain American essayists – does not give a sense of having an uncertain or anxious relationship to literature.

That sense is certainly something you get from the title essay of Jarrell’s collection.

Next, you have gone with a collection of EB White ’s essays. He is one of the most iconic New Yorker writers.

White, for me, is the great maker of the New Yorker style. Though it seems self-serving for me to say it, I think that style was the next step in the creation of the essay tone. One of the things White does is use a lot of the habits of the American newspaper in his essays. He is a genuinely simple, spare, understated writer. In the presence of White, even writers as inspired as Woolf and Beerbohm suddenly look stuffy and literary. White has an amazing ability, which I still marvel at, to come very close to a faux-naïve simplicity that’s excessive and then pull it back.

I’m just picking up one of his collections. I’m going to open it up at random and look for a sentence that captures White. Here’s one from a piece called “The Trailer Park”:

“Before sitting down to draft a preamble to the constitution of a world federations of democracies uniting free people under one banner, I decided I would mosey over to the trailer park at the edge of town and ask some of the campers whether they favoured any such idea of this union.”

The virtue of White’s kind of writing is to start with something that sounds pompous and editorial and then use a verb like “mosey over” to make it work. He cleans up the prose of the essay. Both Beerbohm and Woolf are belle-lettrist sort of writers and they connect to that leisurely tradition. White is a much more urbane and American writer.

What is the key “if you haven’t read any White, read this essay” essay for you?

Next up is A Sad Heart At The Supermarket . Randall Jarrell is best known as a poet, rather than an essayist. Why are his essays worth reading?

Jarrell, for me, is the absolute master of what I like to think of as “cabaret criticism”. The man has endless wit. I think his novel Pictures From an Institution is the single wittiest book of the last century, even though I’ve read it 10 times and can never recall the story! He’s a very poor storyteller but an amazingly witty writer.

Jarrell is a comedian of a kind. He always finds something not just witty in a literary way but outright funny to say about extremely serious subjects – about Auden, [Robert] Graves, Laura Riding or Wallace Stevens. I admire that ability to turn straight, old-fashioned literary criticism into a constant performance in the best sense – into a form of entertainment in itself. He supplied a new tone of enormous, wonderful excitability. That’s one of the things I love about Jarrell, and one of the things I struggle to infuse my own work with – a sense of excitement and pleasure even in the driest texts. Most of all he’s just a wonderful joker.

Do you have any favourite lines of his?

Again, let me open the book and take a sentence at random. Here’s one. He’s writing about [Walt] Whitman:

“The interesting thing about Whitman’s worst language (for, just as few poets have ever written better, few poets have written worse) is how unusually absurd, how really ingeniously bad, such language is.”

It’s that tone of hyperbolic excitability in the presence of literature, which is a constant antidote to the solemnity and false seriousness of most literary study.

You mention that Jarrell is a model you seek to emulate. But in terms of taste, at least, you’re a very different kind of writer. In the title essay of A Sad Heart at the Supermarket Jarrell is very wary of popular culture, whereas in last week’s New Yorker you compare the Book of Revelations to Transformers. Love of popular culture runs through your work.

That’s very true. I think all the interesting writers of my generation drew the high brow-low brow line in a very different way to Jarrell’s generation. We all came of age – I’m thinking of Louis Menand or Martin Amis or Clive James – when there seemed to be more genuine artistic energy in popular culture, movies and rock music in particular, than there was in high culture. The experience of The Beatles or Fellini or the Godfather films illuminated our understanding of high culture, rather than the other way around. I think that is a true fault line in the history of modern writing – you’re either on one side of it or the other.

Do you think for Jarrell and his contemporaries it was a lack of genuinely great pop culture in their time that put them off? Or was it a generational thing where they couldn’t get on board with the idea that pop culture, even if very good, is something you can consider seriously alongside high culture?

A little of both. Jarrell writes wonderfully about race cars and American football . He was no snob. But as far as I remember he never references jazz – which is a kind of in-between form of pop culture, more culture than pop in lots of ways. You have to remember too that for Jarrell’s generation, the GI generation, they were in the process of recognising and discovering what we now think of as high culture.

My own father was one of that generation. For him, each piece of high culture he achieved, understood, enjoyed – whether it was Bach or Milton – was part of a mountain climbed. We all, in a sense, started too easily – somewhere up on the mountain – because of their work, and therefore had a different view of it.

Do you have a favourite Jarrell essay?

Your last choice is Visions Before Midnight by Clive James. How did you come across his work? He’s well known in Britain, especially for his TV career, but not so much in America.

In 1980, Knopf did an anthology of his essays called First Reactions . In a curious way it was an advantage to read him flat-out as a writer. All of my friends in England read him as an entanglement of personal presence and prose style. I read him simply as prose style, without any knowledge of what his personal presence was like.

What was it you liked about his writing?

He has some of Jarrell’s excitability in the presence of creative energy. He has the ability to bring you into his writing, even when he’s writing about things that are in some ways utterly trivial and often completely forgotten, like British TV of the 1970s. He has a way of turning each of those subjects into a wonderful essay – an exercise in cabaret criticism – about values.

Values, I think, are his real subject. The overriding lesson of his work is that categories – high art, low art, television, theatre – are misleading guides to value. That even runs at a deeper, moral level in James’s work about the larger categories – provincial and metropolitan, for instance. He’s a provincial guy who comes to the city, but his provincial experience is in lots of ways richer than his metropolitan experience. It’s the rejection of categories in place of values that is the Montaigne-like takeaway in all his work.

Did he have an influence on your writing, or were you far enough in your writing career to find him as a friend and ally rather than a mentor figure?

Whereas Jarrell, Beerbohm and White were in different ways direct elements in the long-simmering braise that produced my prose style, for whatever it’s worth, Clive came along when I was already, in some sense, a formed writer.

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But I did learn one very specific thing from his writing. He’s a very linear writer. His essays are always organised around sharp, direct and forward-pushing sentences. Whereas with Virginia Woolf your first response to one of her paragraphs, in the best way, is to read it again. Your first response to a Clive James piece is to keep on reading. I learned a great deal about how to make a piece propulsive from reading him.

And can you pick a favourite Clive James essay?

As with Woolf, the joy is cumulative – it’s the pleasure of reading all of his work. But here’s a good one. It’s a television column from December 3rd 1972 which goes from an argument between the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire, to a documentary on “Bomber” Harris and the morality of area bombing, to a production of Oedipus Rex , to a new David Mercer play. In the midst of it, this comes up:

“Why, then, with all this talent [in the production of Oedipus], including a sumptuous lighting design that covers the décor with spiced gloom, does the production have so little sting? The answer, I think, is that there’s not much point in trying to supply a binding image to a play whose author was so intent on leaving imagery out. It’s difficult to think of Sophocles looking with favour on any attempt to pin his universalised theme to mere political instability.”

That’s a deep and original thought, perfectly expressed, which rises out of the normal eddies of TV journalism. That combination of range, ease and aphoristic subtlety is what I love in Clive’s work.

March 7, 2012

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©Brigitte Lacombe

Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1986. His many books include A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism . He is a three time winner of the National Magazine Award for Essays & Criticism, and in 2021 was made a chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur by the French Republic.

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100 Best Essays Books of All Time

We've researched and ranked the best essays books in the world, based on recommendations from world experts, sales data, and millions of reader ratings. Learn more

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Men Explain Things to Me

Rebecca Solnit | 5.00

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Chelsea Handler Goes deep with statistics, personal stories, and others’ accounts of how brutal this world can be for women, the history of how we've been treated, and what it will take to change the conversation: MEN. We need them to be as outraged as we are and join our fight. (Source)

See more recommendations for this book...

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Me Talk Pretty One Day

David Sedaris | 4.96

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Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates | 4.94

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Barack Obama The president also released a list of his summer favorites back in 2015: All That Is, James Salter The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (Source)

Jack Dorsey Q: What are the books that had a major influence on you? Or simply the ones you like the most. : Tao te Ching, score takes care of itself, between the world and me, the four agreements, the old man and the sea...I love reading! (Source)

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Doug McMillon Here are some of my favorite reads from 2017. Lots of friends and colleagues send me book suggestions and it's impossible to squeeze them all in. I continue to be super curious about how digital and tech are enabling people to transform our lives but I try to read a good mix of books that apply to a variety of areas and stretch my thinking more broadly. (Source)

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion | 4.94

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Peter Hessler I like Didion for her writing style and her control over her material, but also for the way in which she captures a historical moment. (Source)

Liz Lambert I love [this book] so much. (Source)

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We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | 4.92

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Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay | 4.88

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Irina Nica It’s hard to pick an all-time favorite because, as time goes by and I grow older, my reading list becomes more “mature” and I find myself interested in new things. I probably have a personal favorite book for each stage of my life. Right now I’m absolutely blown away by everything Roxane Gay wrote, especially Bad Feminist. (Source)

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Trick Mirror

Reflections on Self-Delusion

Jia Tolentino | 4.86

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Lydia Polgreen This book is amazing and you should read it. (Source)

Maryanne Hobbs ⁦@jiatolentino⁩ hello Jia :) finding your perspectives in the new book fascinating and so resonant.. thank you 🌹 m/a..x (Source)

Yashar Ali . @jiatolentino’s fabulous book is one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2019 (Source)

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Consider the Lobster

And Other Essays

David Foster Wallace | 4.85

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A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf | 4.75

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Dress Your Family in Corduroy & Denim

David Sedaris | 4.73

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Adam Kay @penceyprepmemes How about David Sedaris, for starters - "Dress your family in corduroy and denim" is an amazing book. (Source)

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The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin | 4.69

Barack Obama Fact or fiction, the president knows that reading keeps the mind sharp. He also delved into these non-fiction reads: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Evan Osnos Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman Moral Man And Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr A Kind And Just Parent, William Ayers The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria Lessons in Disaster, Gordon Goldstein Sapiens: A Brief History of... (Source)

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When You Are Engulfed in Flames

David Sedaris | 4.67

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David Sedaris | 4.63

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David Blaine It’s hilarious. (Source)

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The White Album

Joan Didion | 4.62

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Dan Richards I feel Joan Didion is the patron saint of a maelstrom of culture and environment of a particular time. She is the great American road-trip writer, to my mind. She has that great widescreen filmic quality to her work. (Source)

Steven Amsterdam With her gaze on California of the late 60s and early 70s, Didion gives us the Black Panthers, Janis Joplin, Nancy Reagan, and the Manson follower Linda Kasabian. (Source)

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A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Essays and Arguments

David Foster Wallace | 4.61

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Tressie McMillan Cottom | 4.60

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Melissa Moore The best book I read this year was Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom. I read it twice and both times found it challenging and revelatory. (Source)

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David Sedaris and Hachette Audi | 4.60

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Sister Outsider

Essays and Speeches

Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke | 4.60

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Bianca Belair For #BHM  I will be sharing some of my favorite books by Black Authors 26th Book: Sister Outsider By: Audre Lorde My first time reading anything by Audre Lorde. I am now really looking forward to reading more of her poems/writings. What she writes is important & timeless. (Source)

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Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

David Sedaris | 4.58

Austin Kleon I read this one, then I read his collected diaries, Theft By Finding, and then I read the visual compendium, which might have even been the most interesting of the three books, but I’m listing this one because it’s hilarious, although with the interstitial fiction bits, it’s sort of like one of those classic 90s hip-hop albums where you skip the “skit” tracks. (Source)

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Notes from a Loud Woman

Lindy West | 4.56

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Matt Mcgorry "Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman" by Lindy West @TheLindyWest # Lovvvvveeedddd, loved, loved, loved this book!!!  West is a truly remarkable writer and her stories are beautifully poignant while dosed with her… (Source)

Shannon Coulter @JennLHaglund @tomi_adeyemi I love that feeling! Just finished the audiobook version of Shrill by Lindy West after _years_ of meaning to read it and that's the exact feeling it gave me. Give me your book recommendations! (Source)

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The Collected Schizophrenias

Esmé Weijun Wang | 4.52

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Tiny Beautiful Things

Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Cheryl Strayed | 4.49

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Ryan Holiday It was wonderful to read these two provocative books of essays by two incredibly wise and compassionate women. Cheryl Strayed, also the author of Wild, was the anonymous columnist behind the online column, Dear Sugar and boy, are we better off for it. This is not a random smattering of advice. This book contains some of the most cogent insights on life, pain, loss, love, success, youth that I... (Source)

James Altucher Cheryl had an advice column called “Dear Sugar”. I was reading the column long before Oprah recommended “Wild” by Cheryl and then Wild became a movie and “Tiny Beautiful Things” (the collection of her advice column) became a book. She is so wise and compassionate. A modern saint. I used to do Q&A sessions on Twitter. I’d read her book beforehand to get inspiration about what true advice is. (Source)

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We Were Eight Years in Power

An American Tragedy

Ta-Nehisi Coates | 4.47

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The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Albert Camu | 4.47

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David Heinemeier Hansson Camus’ philosophical exposition of absurdity, suicide in the face of meaninglessness, and other cherry topics that continue on from his fictional work in novels like The Stranger. It’s surprisingly readable, unlike many other mid 20th century philosophers, yet no less deep or pointy. It’s a great follow-up, as an original text, to that book The Age of Absurdity, I recommended last year. Still... (Source)

Kenan Malik The Myth of Sisyphus is a small work, but Camus’s meditation on faith and fate has personally been hugely important in developing my ideas. Writing in the embers of World War II, Camus confronts in The Myth of Sisyphus both the tragedy of recent history and what he sees as the absurdity of the human condition. There is, he observes, a chasm between the human need for meaning and what he calls... (Source)

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The Penguin Essays Of George Orwell

George Orwell, Bernard Crick | 4.46

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Peter Kellner George Orwell was not only an extraordinary writer but he also hated any form of cant. Some of his most widely read works such as 1984 and Animal Farm are an assault on the nastier, narrow-minded, dictatorial tendencies of the left, although Orwell was himself on the left. (Source)

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The Opposite of Loneliness

Essays and Stories

Marina Keegan, Anne Fadiman | 4.46

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Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | 4.45

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The Tipping Point

How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Malcolm Gladwell | 4.45

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Kevin Rose Bunch of really good information in here on how to make ideas go viral. This could be good to apply to any kind of products or ideas you may have. Definitely, check out The Tipping Point, which is one of my favorites. (Source)

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Seth Godin Malcolm Gladwell's breakthrough insight was to focus on the micro-relationships between individuals, which helped organizations realize that it's not about the big ads and the huge charity balls... it's about setting the stage for the buzz to start. (Source)

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Andy Stern I think that when we talk about making change, it is much more about macro change, like in policy. This book reminds you that at times when you're building big movements, or trying to elect significant decision-makers in politics, sometimes it's the little things that make a difference. Ever since the book was written, we've become very used to the idea of things going viral unexpectedly and then... (Source)

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Selected Essays

Mary Oliver | 4.44

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We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

Samantha Irby | 4.44

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Complete Essays

Michel de Montaigne, Charles Cotton | 4.42

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Ryan Holiday There is plenty to study and see simply by looking inwards — maybe even an alarming amount. (Source)

Alain de Botton I’ve given quite a lot of copies of [this book] to people down the years. (Source)

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Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Mindy Kaling | 4.42

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Angela Kinsey .@mindykaling I am rereading your book and cracking up. I appreciate your chapter on The Office so much more now. But all of it is fantastic. Thanks for starting my day with laughter. You know I loves ya. ❤️ (Source)

Yashar Ali Reminds me of one of my favorite lines from @mindykaling's book (even though I'm an early riser): “There is no sunrise so beautiful that it is worth waking me up to see it.” (Source)

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Not That Bad

Dispatches from Rape Culture

Roxane Gay, Brandon Taylor, et al | 4.40

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Henry David Thoreau | 4.40

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Laura Dassow Walls The book that we love as Walden began in the journal entries that he wrote starting with his first day at the pond. (Source)

Roman Krznaric In 1845 the American naturalist went out to live in the woods of Western Massachusetts. Thoreau was one of the great masters of the art of simple living. (Source)

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John Kaag There’s this idea that philosophy can blend into memoir and that, ideally, philosophy, at its best, is to help us through the business of living with people, within communities. This is a point that Thoreau’s Walden gave to me, as a writer, and why I consider it so valuable for today. (Source)

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Confessions of a Common Reader

Anne Fadiman | 4.40

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I Feel Bad About My Neck

And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

Nora Ephron | 4.39

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Holidays on Ice

David Sedaris | 4.37

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An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine | 4.36

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Cheryl Strayed A really important book for us to be reading right now. (Source)

Jeremy Noel-Tod Obviously, it’s been admired and acclaimed, but I do feel the general reception of it has underplayed its artfulness. Its technical subtlety and overall arrangement has been neglected, because it has been classified as a kind of documentary work. (Source)

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Christopher Hitchens | 4.36

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Le Grove @billysubway Hitchens book under your arm. I’m reading Arguably. When he’s at his best, he is a savage. Unbelievable prose. (Source)

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Notes of a Native Son

James Baldwin | 4.35

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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

Oliver Sacks | 4.34

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Suzanne O'Sullivan I didn’t choose neurology because of it but the way Oliver Sacks writes about neurology is very compelling. (Source)

Tanya Byron This is a seminal book that anyone who wants to work in mental health should read. It is a charming and gentle and also an honest exposé of what can happen to us when our mental health is compromised for whatever reason. (Source)

Bradley Voytek I can’t imagine one day waking up and not knowing who my wife is, or seeing my wife and thinking that she was replaced by some sort of clone or robot. But that could happen to any of us. (Source)

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The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison | 4.33

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This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett | 4.31

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Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

A Low Culture Manifesto

Chuck Klosterman | 4.30

Karen Pfaff Manganillo Never have I read a book that I said “this is so perfect, amazing, hilarious, he’s thinking what I’m thinking (in a much more thought out and cool way)”. (Source)

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Bird By Bird

Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Anne Lamott | 4.29

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Susan Cain I love [this book]. Such a good book. (Source)

Timothy Ferriss Bird by Bird is one of my absolute favorite books, and I gift it to everybody, which I should probably also give to startup founders, quite frankly. A lot of the lessons are the same. But you can get to your destination, even though you can only see 20 feet in front of you. (Source)

Ryan Holiday It was wonderful to read these two provocative books of essays by two incredibly wise and compassionate women. [...] Anne Lamott’s book is ostensibly about the art of writing, but really it too is about life and how to tackle the problems, temptations and opportunities life throws at us. Both will make you think and both made me a better person this year. (Source)

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Zadie Smith | 4.29

Barack Obama As 2018 draws to a close, I’m continuing a favorite tradition of mine and sharing my year-end lists. It gives me a moment to pause and reflect on the year through the books I found most thought-provoking, inspiring, or just plain loved. It also gives me a chance to highlight talented authors – some who are household names and others who you may not have heard of before. Here’s my best of 2018... (Source)

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What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

Malcolm Gladwell | 4.28

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Sam Freedman @mrianleslie (Also I agree What the Dog Saw is his best book). (Source)

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The Witches Are Coming

Lindy West | 4.27

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Against Interpretation and Other Essays

Susan Sontag | 4.25

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

Alexander Chee | 4.25

Eula Biss Alex Chee explores the realm of the real with extraordinarily beautiful essays. Being real here is an ambition, a haunting, an impossibility, and an illusion. What passes for real, his essays suggest, becomes real, just as life becomes art and art, pursued this fully, becomes a life. (Source)

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Changing My Mind

Occasional Essays

Zadie Smith | 4.25

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Barrel Fever

David Sedaris | 4.24

Chelsea Handler [The author] is fucking hilarious and there's nothing I prefer to do more than laugh. If this book doesn't make you laugh, I'll refund you the money. (Source)

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The Fire This Time

A New Generation Speaks About Race

Jesmyn Ward | 4.24

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Why Not Me?

Mindy Kaling | 4.24

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The View from the Cheap Seats

Selected Nonfiction

Neil Gaiman | 4.24

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I Was Told There'd Be Cake

Sloane Crosley | 4.24

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The Intelligent Investor

The Classic Text on Value Investing

Benjamin Graham | 4.23

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Warren Buffett To invest successfully over a lifetime does not require a stratospheric IQ, unusual business insights, or inside information. What's needed is a sound intellectual framework for making decisions and the ability to keep emotions from corroding that framework. This book precisely and clearly prescribes the proper framework. You must provide the emotional discipline. (Source)

Kevin Rose The foundation for investing. A lot of people have used this as their guide to getting into investment, basic strategies. Actually Warren Buffett cites this as the book that got him into investing and he says that principles he learned here helped him to become a great investor. Highly recommend this book. It’s a great way understand what’s going on and how to evaluate different companies out... (Source)

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John Kay The idea is that you look at the underlying value of the company’s activities instead of relying on market gossip. (Source)

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Tell Me How It Ends

An Essay in Forty Questions

Valeria Luiselli | 4.23

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Tina Fey | 4.22

Sheryl Sandberg I absolutely loved Tina Fey's "Bossypants" and didn't want it to end. It's hilarious as well as important. Not only was I laughing on every page, but I was nodding along, highlighting and dog-earing like crazy. [...] It is so, so good. As a young girl, I was labeled bossy, too, so as a former - O.K., current - bossypants, I am grateful to Tina for being outspoken, unapologetic and hysterically... (Source)

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They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us

Hanif Abdurraqib, Dr. Eve L. Ewing | 4.22

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Saadia Muzaffar Man, this is such an amazing book of essays. Meditations on music and musicians and their moments and meaning-making. @NifMuhammad's mindworks are a gift. Go find it. (thank you @asad_ch!) (Source)

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This Is Water

Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

David Foster Wallace | 4.21

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John Jeremiah Sullivan | 4.21

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Greil Marcus This is a new book by a writer in his mid-thirties, about all kinds of things. A lot of it is about the South, some of it is autobiographical, there is a long and quite wonderful piece about going to a Christian music camp. (Source)

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The Mother of All Questions

Rebecca Solnit | 4.20

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The Partly Cloudy Patriot

Sarah Vowell, Katherine Streeter | 4.20

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Essays of E.B. White

E. B. White | 4.19

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Adam Gopnik White, for me, is the great maker of the New Yorker style. Though it seems self-serving for me to say it, I think that style was the next step in the creation of the essay tone. One of the things White does is use a lot of the habits of the American newspaper in his essays. He is a genuinely simple, spare, understated writer. In the presence of White, even writers as inspired as Woolf and... (Source)

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A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Rebecca Solnit | 4.19

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A Man Without a Country

Kurt Vonnegut | 4.18

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No Time to Spare

Thinking About What Matters

Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler | 4.17

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard | 4.16

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Laura Dassow Walls She’s enacting Thoreau, but in a 20th-century context: she takes on quantum physics, the latest research on DNA and the nature of life. (Source)

Sara Maitland This book, which won the Pulitzer literature prize when it was released, is the most beautiful book about the wild. (Source)

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Maggie Nelson | 4.14

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Furiously Happy

A Funny Book About Horrible Things

Jenny Lawson | 4.13

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Women & Power

A Manifesto

Mary Beard | 4.13

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Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Timothy Snyder | 4.12

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George Saunders Please read this book. So smart, so timely. (Source)

Tom Holland "There isn’t a page of this magnificent book that does not contain some fascinating detail and the narrative is held together with a novelist’s eye for character and theme." #Dominion (Source)

Maya Wiley Prof. Tim Snyder, author of “In Tyranny” reminded us in that important little book that we must protect our institutions. #DOJ is one of our most important in gov’t for the rule of law. This is our collective house & #Barr should be evicted. (Source)

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Small Wonder

Barbara Kingsolver | 4.11

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The Source of Self-Regard

Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations

Toni Morrison | 4.11

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Hyperbole and a Half

Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened

Allie Brosh | 4.11

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Bill Gates While she self-deprecatingly depicts herself in words and art as an odd outsider, we can all relate to her struggles. Rather than laughing at her, you laugh with her. It is no hyperbole to say I love her approach -- looking, listening, and describing with the observational skills of a scientist, the creativity of an artist, and the wit of a comedian. (Source)

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Samantha Irby | 4.10

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Both Flesh and Not

David Foster Wallace | 4.10

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David Papineau People can learn to do amazing things with their bodies, and people start honing and developing these skills as an end in itself, a very natural thing for humans to do. (Source)

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So Sad Today

Personal Essays

Melissa Broder | 4.10

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Hope in the Dark

Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

Rebecca Solnit | 4.09

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Prem Panicker @sanjayen This is from an essay Solnit wrote to introduce the updated version of her book Hope In The Dark. Anything Solnit is brilliant; at times like these, she is the North Star. (Source)

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The Faraway Nearby

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How to Be Alone

Jonathan Franzen | 4.08

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Regarding the Pain of Others

Susan Sontag | 4.08

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The Essays of Warren Buffett

Lessons for Corporate America, Fifth Edition

Lawrence A. Cunningham and Warren E. Buffett | 4.08

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One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Scaachi Koul | 4.07

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Amy Poehler | 4.06

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The Souls of Black Folk

W.E.B. Du Bois | 4.05

Barack Obama According to the president’s Facebook page and a 2008 interview with the New York Times, these titles are among his most influential forever favorites: Moby Dick, Herman Melville Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson Song Of Solomon, Toni Morrison Parting The Waters, Taylor Branch Gilead, Marylinne Robinson Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton Souls of Black... (Source)

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In Praise of Shadows

Jun'ichiro Tanizaki | 4.05

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Kyle Chayka Tanizaki is mourning what has been paved over, which is the old Japanese aesthetic of darkness, of softness, of appreciating the imperfect—rather than the cold, glossy surfaces of industrialized modernity that the West had brought to Japan at that moment. For me, that’s really valuable, because it does preserve a different way of looking at the world. (Source)

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Ways of Seeing

John Berger | 4.04

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Robert Jones He’s a Marxist and says that the role of publicity or branding is to make people marginally dissatisfied with their current way of life. (Source)

David McCammon Ways of Seeing goes beyond photography and will continue to develop your language around images. (Source)

John Harrison (Eton College) You have to understand the Marxist interpretation of art; it is absolutely fundamental to the way that art history departments now study the material. Then you have to critique it, because we’ve moved on from the 1970s and the collapse of Marxism in most of the world shows—amongst other things—that the model was flawed. But it’s still a very good book to read, for a teenager especially. (Source)

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Tackling the Texas Essays

Efficient Preparation for the Texas Bar Exam

Catherine Martin Christopher | 4.04

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The Book of Delights

Ross Gay | 4.04

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Mere Christianity

C. S. Lewis | 4.04

Anoop Anthony "Mere Christianity" is first and foremost a rational book — it is in many ways the opposite of a traditional religious tome. Lewis, who was once an atheist, has been on both sides of the table, and he approaches the notion of God with accessible, clear thinking. The book reveals that experiencing God doesn't have to be a mystical exercise; God can be a concrete and logical conclusion. Lewis was... (Source)

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I Remember Nothing

and Other Reflections

Nora Ephron | 4.04

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On Photography

Susan Sontag | 4.03

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Susan Bordo Sontag was the first to make the claim, which at the time was very controversial, that photography is misleading and seductive because it looks like reality but is in fact highly selective. (Source)

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Notes from No Man's Land

American Essays

Eula Biss | 4.03

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The Doors of Perception

Heaven and Hell (Thinking Classics)

Aldous Huxley, Robbie McCallum | 4.03

best essay book in english

Michelle Rodriguez Aldous Huxley on Technodictators via @YouTube ‘Doors of Perception’ is a great book entry level to hallucinogenics (Source)

Auston Bunsen I also really loved “The doors of perception” by Aldous Huxley. (Source)

Dr. Andrew Weil Came first [in terms of my interests]. (Source)

best essay book in english

The Geek Feminist Revolution

Kameron Hurley | 4.02

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Wow, No Thank You.

Samantha Irby | 4.01

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A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift | 4.01

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At Large and at Small

Familiar Essays

Anne Fadiman | 4.00

Interesting Literature

The Best George Orwell Essays Everyone Should Read

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

George Orwell (1903-50) is known around the world for his satirical novella Animal Farm and his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four , but he was arguably at his best in the essay form. Below, we’ve selected and introduced ten of Orwell’s best essays for the interested newcomer to his non-fiction, but there are many more we could have added. What do you think is George Orwell’s greatest essay?

1. ‘ Why I Write ’.

This 1946 essay is notable for at least two reasons: one, it gives us a neat little autobiography detailing Orwell’s development as a writer; and two, it includes four ‘motives for writing’ which break down as egoism (wanting to seem clever), aesthetic enthusiasm (taking delight in the sounds of words etc.), the historical impulse (wanting to record things for posterity), and the political purpose (wanting to ‘push the world in a certain direction’).

2. ‘ Politics and the English Language ’.

The English language is ‘in a bad way’, Orwell argues in this famous essay from 1946. As its title suggests, Orwell identifies a link between the (degraded) English language of his time and the degraded political situation: Orwell sees modern political discourse as being less a matter of words chosen for their clear meanings than a series of stock phrases slung together.

Orwell concludes with six rules or guidelines for political writers and essayists, which include: never use a long word when a short one will do, or a specialist or foreign term when a simpler English one should suffice.

We have analysed this classic essay here .

3. ‘ Shooting an Elephant ’.

This is an early Orwell essay, from 1936. In it, he recalls his (possibly fictionalised) experiences as a police officer in Burma, when he had to shoot an elephant that had got out of hand. Orwell extrapolates from this one event, seeing it as a microcosm of imperialism, wherein the coloniser loses his humanity and freedom through oppressing others.

We have analysed this essay here .

4. ‘ Decline of the English Murder ’.

In this 1946 essay, Orwell writes about the British fascination with murder, focusing in particular on the period of 1850-1925, which Orwell identifies as the golden age or ‘great period in murder’ in the media and literature. But what has happened to murder in the British newspapers?

Orwell claims that the Second World War has desensitised people to brutal acts of killing, but also that there is less style and art in modern murders. Oscar Wilde would no doubt agree with Orwell’s point of view!

5. ‘ Confessions of a Book Reviewer ’.

This 1946 essay makes book-reviewing as a profession or trade – something that seems so appealing and aspirational to many book-lovers – look like a life of drudgery. Why, Orwell asks, does virtually every book that’s published have to be reviewed? It would be best, he argues, to be more discriminating and devote more column inches to the most deserving of books.

6. ‘ A Hanging ’.

This is another Burmese recollection from Orwell, and a very early work, dating from 1931. Orwell describes a condemned criminal being executed by hanging, using this event as a way in to thinking about capital punishment and how, as Orwell put it elsewhere, a premeditated execution can seem more inhumane than a thousand murders.

We discuss this Orwell essay in more detail here .

7. ‘ The Lion and the Unicorn ’.

Subtitled ‘Socialism and the English Genius’, this is another essay Orwell wrote about Britain in the wake of the outbreak of the Second World War. Published in 1941, this essay takes its title from the heraldic symbols for England (the lion) and Scotland (the unicorn). Orwell argues that some sort of socialist revolution is needed to wrest Britain out of its outmoded ways and an overhaul of the British class system will help Britain to defeat the Nazis.

The long essay contains a section, ‘England Your England’, which is often reprinted as a standalone essay, written as the German bomber planes were whizzing overhead during the Blitz of 1941. This part of the essay is a critique of blind English patriotism during wartime and an attempt to pin down ‘English’ values at a time when England itself was under threat from Nazi invasion.

8. ‘ My Country Right or Left ’.

This 1940 essay shows what a complex and nuanced thinker Orwell was when it came to political labels such as ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’. Although Orwell was on the left, he also held patriotic (although not exactly fervently nationalistic) attitudes towards England which many of his comrades on the left found baffling.

As with ‘England Your England’ above, the wartime context is central to Orwell’s argument, and lends his discussion of the relationship between left-wing politics and patriotic values an urgency and immediacy.

9. ‘ Bookshop Memories ’.

As well as writing on politics and being a writer, Orwell also wrote perceptively about readers and book-buyers – as in this 1936 essay, published the same year as his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying , which combined both bookshops and writers (the novel focuses on Gordon Comstock, an aspiring poet).

In ‘Bookshop Memories’, reflecting on his own time working as an assistant in a bookshop, Orwell divides those who haunt bookshops into various types: the snobs after a first edition, the Oriental students, and so on.

10. ‘ A Nice Cup of Tea ’.

Orwell didn’t just write about literature and politics. He also wrote about things like the perfect pub, and how to make the best cup of tea, for the London Evening Standard in the late 1940s. Here, in this essay from 1946, Orwell offers eleven ‘golden rules’ for making a tasty cuppa, arguing that people disagree vehemently how to make a perfect cup of tea because it is one of the ‘mainstays of civilisation’. Hear, hear.

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3 thoughts on “The Best George Orwell Essays Everyone Should Read”

Thanks, Orwell was a master at combining wisdom and readability. I also like his essay on Edward Lear, although some of his observations are very much of their time:

The Everyman edition of Orwell’s essays (1200 pages !) is my desert island book. I like Shooting the Elephant altho Julian Barnes seems to believe this is fictitious. Is this still a live debate ?

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Writing with a quill

Harry Mount's top 10 essays

Harry Mount is a journalist, author and editor of the Notting Hill Editions Journal , which commissions a new essay every week. The latest series of essays are published this month.

Buy Notting Hill Editions essays

"There's not much point in trying to define an essay. Its parameters are so broad and slack that they encompass practically any shortish passage of non-fiction which makes a general argument.

"As a rough rule of thumb, I'd say anything that creeps over 40,000 words is entering book territory; and anything too autobiographical strays into memoir. But, still, you could write 50,000 words about yourself, and it could be an essay in every regard.

"It sounds banal, but all that matters is quality of writing and thought. Here are 10 that are exceptional in both departments."

1. George Orwell, Why I Write (1946)

Not an original choice of writer, or of essay. But it would be churlish not to include the man who, more than any other writer over the last century, fine-tuned the form. He applied his essayistic touch to an extreme variety of subjects – the ideal pub, school stories, what makes England England - but this one, on how he became a writer, is my favourite.

The word "intellectual" often brings a lot of dull baggage with it. But Orwell's honesty and humour mean that you're never in danger of being bored. His four reasons for writing - aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, political purpose, sheer egoism - still seem unassailably true today.

2. Martha Gellhorn, Eichmann and the Private Conscience (1962)

You might call Gellhorn's account of Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem reportage. But that just shows up the flexibility of the essay. A routine bit of reportage remains reportage; brilliant reportage leaps its chains and becomes an essay.

Gellhorn's essay begins with a straight description of the conditions in the court, albeit an atmospheric, closely-observed description: "The air conditioning was too cold, and yet one sweated." But she constantly jumps from factual observation to general, philosophical thought. The seamlessly stitched combination of facts and thoughts becomes a compulsive essay.

3. Evelyn Waugh, A Call to the Orders (1938)

Evelyn Waugh considered life as a printer, cabinet-maker and carpenter before becoming a novelist. He maintained an interest in the visual arts throughout his life; this plea in defence of the classical orders of architecture appeared some time after his literary success began.

The essay is full of angry argument, deep architectural knowledge and lyrical description. "The baroque has never had a place in England; its brief fashion was of short duration; it has been relegated to the holidays – a memory of the happy days in sunglasses, washing away the dust of the southern roads with heady southern wines."

You don't have to agree with the argument to be compelled by it – a rare thing in an essay.

4. Michel de Montaigne, On the Cannibals (1595)

Montaigne is regularly wheeled out as the father of the essay. Debatable, I'd say – the baggy definition of the essay includes much older works.

Still, as well as being early on the essay scene, Montaigne was a natural essay-writer. His essay on cannibalism introduces devices that crop up again and again among the essayists that followed through the centuries. Taking the cannibalism of the Tupinamba tribesmen of Brazil, he uses it as a general analogy for barbarism. "Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to," he writes, expanding the subject into a discussion on the ideas of primitivism, natural purity and perfection.

5. JM Barrie, Courage (1922)

If you thought Steve Jobs's address to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005 was impressive, prepare to be even more deeply moved by Barrie's speech to the students of St Andrews University in 1922, where he had been voted rector.

Ostensibly about courage, the essay is really about how to deal with the loss of friends and brothers in the first world war; it's aimed at those "who still hear their cries [of the war dead] being blown across the links".

It opens up from the particular to the general, to the qualities needed to deal with such loss, and all with astonishing prescience: "By the time the next eruption comes it may be you who are responsible for it and your sons who are in the lava."

6. Truman Capote, The Duke in his Domain (1957)

Capote is best remembered for his novels, but his non-fiction was exceptional: acidly witty, to the point of nastiness; hyper-observational, to the point of even deeper nastiness. But what is more enjoyable – or, often, truer – than nastiness?

This is the essay-as-interview - in this case with Marlon Brando, at the height of his fame. There's a good deal of nastiness, and racism – "You come see Marron?" says Capote's Japanese guide. But it also gives a rare insight into the perils of celebrity: of too big an entourage, of isolation, of too many appetites being too readily satisfied.

For dinner, Brando, on a diet, orders soup, beefsteak with French-fried potatoes, three supplementary vegetables, a side dish of spaghetti, rolls and butter, a bottle of sake, salad, and cheese and crackers.

7. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729)

Extremely well-known, but that doesn't take away from the effectiveness of Swift's satirical suggestion that the way for the Irish to beat their poverty was to sell their children to the rich as meat and leather.

The best essays, like Swift's, use wit – not just to sugar the pill of heavy prose, but also to ramp up the argument beyond the merely prosaic statement of a thesis.

8. Thomas Paine, Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects (1776)

Paine's pamphlet, anonymous at the time of publication, had a direct effect on the Declaration of Independence.

An argument in the real sense of an argument, it's as if Paine is shouting at you as he rips into the unfairness of a king on one island ruling a continent on the other side of an ocean: "If we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new Republican materials."

The course of a couple of centuries often turns writing a bit Olde Worlde and quaint. Not here.

9. Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953)

For all his reputation as the planet-sized brain of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin was better at the short sprint than the magnum opus. His lectures stick in the minds of those who heard them half a century ago. This essay is just as memorable.

The inspiration came from the Ancient Greek idiom: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Berlin then sifts through his storage room of a brain to divide writers into one or the other category. Tolstoy, who forms the heart of the essay, wanted to be a hedgehog but was really a fox. Other foxes include Aristotle, Montaigne and Shakespeare. Plato and Proust are hedgehogs.

All a bit reductive perhaps, but really enjoyable, and a useful boilerplate when it comes to considering the ideas of other writers.

10. AN Wilson, In Defence of Gay Priests (2003)

Normally, a newspaper comment piece would never be long, or substantial, enough to constitute an essay. But this article – justifying the appointment of Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, as Bishop of Reading – went way beyond tomorrow's-chip-wrapper material. The personal anecdote and light, jokey manner disguise serious thought and a deeply convincing argument; and the article becomes an essay.

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Rafal Reyzer

10 Best Books on Essay Writing (You Should Read Today)

Author: Rafal Reyzer

You can improve your essay writing skills with practice, repetition, and perusing books on essay writing, which are full of useful examples.  

While simply living life, observing your surroundings, and diving into classic essays can naturally hone your writing skills, sometimes a trusty guidebook can give you that extra edge. Interested in mastering the craft of essay writing? Dive into some of the best essay-writing manuals out there. If you dream of becoming a professional essay writer , it’s essential to grasp the nuances of structure, tone, and format. Not all gifted writers can craft an exemplary essay, after all. Recognizing the significance of essays, especially in college admissions, can elevate your approach. If you’re gearing up to write a compelling college admission essay , I’d recommend perusing my guide on crafting an outstanding essay .

“I hate writing, I love having written.” – Dorothy Parker

Here are 10 Books That Will Help You With Essay Writing:

1. a professor’s guide to writing essays: the no-nonsense plan for better writing by dr. jacob neumann.

This is the highest-rated book on the subject available on the market right now. It’s written for students at any level of education. The author uses an unorthodox approach, claiming that breaking essays down into different formats is unnecessary. It doesn’t matter if it’s a persuasive or a narrative essay – the difference is not in how you write, but rather in how you build your case . Length: 118 pages Published: 2016

2. College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay – by Ethan Sawyer

Every year, millions of high-schoolers scramble to achieve above-average GPAs and score well on the SAT , or in some cases, the ACT , or both. They also have to write a 650-word essay and find their way to their dream college. If you’re one of them, then make sure you read this concise book . Ethan Sawyer (The College Essay Guy), breaks the whole essay-writing process down into simple steps and shows you the way around the most common mistakes college applicants usually make. Length: 256 pages Published: 2016

3. The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment by Susan Thurman

The institution of a grammar school is defunct, but it doesn’t mean you can ignore the basic rules that govern your language. If you’re writing an essay or a college paper , you better keep your grammar tight. Otherwise, your grades will drop dramatically because professors abhor simple grammar mistakes. By reading this little book , you’ll make sure your writing is pristine. Length: 192 pages Published: 2003

4. Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Narrative College Application Essays by Janine W. Robinson

A well-written essay has immense power. Not only that, it is the prerequisite to getting admitted to colleges and universities, but you also have to tackle a few essay questions in most, if not all exams you will ever take for career or academic advancement. For instance, when taking the LSAT to qualify for law school , the MCAT to get into med school , the DAT to pursue a degree in dentistry, or even the GRE or GMAT as the first step in earning a master’s degree. That is why this book is highly recommended to anyone navigating through the sea of higher learning. In this amusing book, Janine Robinson focuses mostly on writing narrative essays . She’s been helping college-bound students to tell unique stories for over a decade and you’ll benefit from her expert advice. The book contains 10 easy steps that you can follow as a blueprint for writing the best “slice of life” story ever told. Length: 76 pages Published: 2013

5. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present by Phillip Lopate

This large volume is a necessary diversion from the subject of formal, highly constrained types of writing. It focuses only on the genre of the personal essay which is much more free-spirited, creative, and tongue-and-cheek-like. Phillip Lopate, himself an acclaimed essayist, gathers seventy of the best essays of this type and lets you draw timeless lessons from them. Length: 777 pages Published: 1995

6. The Best American Essays of the Century by Joyce Carol Oates

The art of the modern essay starts with Voltaire at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Since then, many a writer attempted to share their personal stories and philosophical musings in this free-flowing form. Americans are no different. In this anthology, Joyce Carol Oates shares some fantastic reads that you need to absorb if you want to become a highly skilled polemicist. Length: 624 pages Published: 2001

7. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser

On Writing Well is a classic writing guide that will open your eyes to the art of producing clear-cut copy. Zinsser approached the subject of writing with a warm, cheerful attitude that seeps through the pages of his masterpiece. Whether you want to describe places, communicate with editors, self-edit your copy, or avoid verbosity, this book will have the right answer for you. Length: 336 pages Published: 2016 (reprint edition)

8. How To Write Any High School Essay: The Essential Guide by Jesse Liebman

The previous titles I mentioned were mostly for “grown-up” writers, but the list wouldn’t be complete without a book for ambitious high-school students. Its length is appropriate, making it possible even for the most ADHD among us to get through it. It contains expert advice, easy-to-implement essay outlines , and tips on finding the best topics and supporting them with strong arguments. Length: 124 pages Published: 2017

9. Essential Writing Skills for College and Beyond by C.M. Gill

On average, after finishing high school or college, Americans read only around twelve books per year. This is a pity because books contain a wealth of information. People at the top of the socio-economic ladder read between forty and sixty books per year – and you should too! But reading is just one skill that gets neglected after college. Writing is the other one. By reading the “Essential Writing Skills” you’ll be able to crush all of your college writing assignments and use them throughout your life to sharpen your prose. Length: 250 Published: 2014

10. The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing by Margot Livesey

If you want to write, you first need to read some of the best essays ever written . Developing your style results from conversing with great minds and then borrowing from them to create something new. All great artists are inspired by someone. In Hidden Machinery, Margot Livesey shares her essays on what makes good fiction and a strong narrative. It’s a must-read for all aspiring writers. Length: 224 Published: 2017 How did you like this article? Are you going to read any of the books listed above? Can you recommend any other book that I should add to this list?

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Hey there, welcome to my blog! I'm a full-time entrepreneur building two companies, a digital marketer, and a content creator with 10+ years of experience. I started to provide you with great tools and strategies you can use to become a proficient digital marketer and achieve freedom through online creativity. My site is a one-stop shop for digital marketers, and content enthusiasts who want to be independent, earn more money, and create beautiful things. Explore my journey here , and don't miss out on my AI Marketing Mastery online course.

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best essay book in english

The Best Reviewed Essay Collections of 2020

Featuring zadie smith, helen macdonald, claudia rankine, samantha irby, and more.

Zadie Smith’s Intimations , Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights , Claudia Rankine’s Just Us , and Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You all feature among the Best Reviewed Essay Collections of 2020.

Brought to you by Book Marks , Lit Hub’s “Rotten Tomatoes for books.”

Vesper Flights ribbon

1. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (Grove)

18 Rave • 3 Positive • 1 Mixed

Read Helen Macdonald on Sherlock Holmes, Ursula Le Guin, and hating On the Road  here

“A former historian of science, Macdonald is as captivated by the everyday (ants, bird’s nests) as she is by the extraordinary (glowworms, total solar eclipses), and her writing often closes the distance between the two … Always, the author pushes through the gloom to look beyond herself, beyond all people, to ‘rejoice in the complexity of things’ and to see what science has to show us: ‘that we are living in an exquisitely complicated world that is not all about us’ … The climate crisis shadows these essays. Macdonald is not, however, given to sounding dire, all-caps warnings … For all its elegiac sentences and gray moods, Vesper Flights  is a book of tremendous purpose. Throughout these essays, Macdonald revisits the idea that as a writer it is her responsibility to take stock of what’s happening to the natural world and to convey the value of the living things within it.”

–Jake Cline  ( The Washington Post )

2. Intimations by Zadie Smith (Penguin)

13 Rave • 7 Positive • 3 Mixed

Listen to Zadie Smith read from Intimations here

“Smith…is a spectacular essayist—even better, I’d say, than as a novelist … Smith…get[s] at something universal, the suspicion that has infiltrated our interactions even with those we want to think we know. This is the essential job of the essayist: to explore not our innocence but our complicity. I want to say this works because Smith doesn’t take herself too seriously, but that’s not accurate. More to the point, she is willing to expose the tangle of feelings the pandemic has provoked. And this may seem a small thing, but it’s essential: I never doubt her voice on the page … Her offhandedness, at first, feels out of step with a moment in which we are desperate to feel that whatever something we are trying to do matters. But it also describes that moment perfectly … Here we see the kind of devastating self-exposure that the essay, as a form, requires—the realization of how limited we are even in the best of times, and how bereft in the worst.”

–David L. Ulin  ( The Los Angeles Times )

3. Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf)

11 Rave • 6 Positive • 5 Mixed

Read an excerpt from Just Us here

“ Just Us  is about intimacy. Rankine is making an appeal for real closeness. She’s advocating for candor as the pathway to achieving universal humanity and authentic love … Rankine is vulnerable, too. In ‘lemonade,’ an essay about how race and racism affect her interracial marriage, Rankine models the openness she hopes to inspire. ‘lemonade’ is hard to handle. It’s naked and confessional, deeply moving and, ultimately, inspirational … Just Us , as a book, is inventive … Claudia Rankine may be the most human human I’ve ever encountered. Her inner machinations and relentless questioning would exhaust most people. Her labor should be less necessary, of course.”

–Michael Kleber-Diggs  ( The Star Tribune )

4. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (One World)

7 Rave • 10 Positive • 2 Mixed

Listen to an interview with Cathy Park Hong here

“Hong’s metaphors are crafted with stinging care. To be Asian-American, she suggests, is to be tasked with making an injury inaccessible to the body that has been injured … I read Minor Feelings  in a fugue of enveloping recognition and distancing flinch … The question of lovability, and desirability, is freighted for Asian men and Asian women in very different ways—and Minor Feelings  serves as a case study in how a feminist point of view can both deepen an inquiry and widen its resonances to something like universality … Hong reframes the quandary of negotiating dominance and submission—of desiring dominance, of hating the terms of that dominance, of submitting in the hopes of achieving some facsimile of dominance anyway—as a capitalist dilemma … Hong is writing in agonized pursuit of a liberation that doesn’t look white—a new sound, a new affect, a new consciousness—and the result feels like what she was waiting for. Her book is a reminder that we can be, and maybe have to be, what others are waiting for, too.”

–Jia Tolentino  ( The New Yorker )

5. World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Milkweed Editions)

11 Rave • 3 Positive

Read an excerpt from World of Wonders here

“In beautifully illustrated essays, poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes of exotic flora and fauna and her family, and why they are all of one piece … In days of old, books about nature were often as treasured for their illustrations as they were for their words. World of Wonders,  American poet and teacher Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s prose ode to her muses in the natural world, is a throwback that way. Its words are beautiful, but its cover and interior illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura may well be what first moves you to pick it up in a bookstore or online … The book’s magic lies in Nezhukumatathil’s ability to blend personal and natural history, to compress into each brief essay the relationship between a biographical passage from her own family and the life trajectory of a particular plant or animal … Her kaleidoscopic observations pay off in these thoughtful, nuanced, surprise-filled essays.”

–Pamela Miller  ( The Star Tribune )

WOW, NO THANK YOU by Samantha Irby

6. Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby (Vintage)

10 Rave • 3 Positive • 1 Mixed

Watch an interview with Samantha Irby here

“Haphazard and aimless as she claims to be, Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You  is purposefully hilarious, real, and full of medicine for living with our culture’s contradictory messages. From relationship advice she wasn’t asked for to surrendering her cell phone as dinner etiquette, Irby is wholly unpretentious as she opines about the unspoken expectations of adulting. Her essays poke holes and luxuriate in the weirdness of modern society … If anyone whose life is being made into a television show could continue to keep it real for her blog reading fans, it’s Irby. She proves we can still trust her authenticity not just through her questionable taste in music and descriptions of incredibly bloody periods, but through her willingness to demystify what happens in any privileged room she finds herself in … Irby defines professional lingo and describes the mundane details of exclusive industries in anecdotes that are not only entertaining but powerfully demystifying. Irby’s closeness to financial and physical precariousness combined with her willingness to enter situations she feels unprepared for make us loyal to her—she again proves herself to be a trustworthy and admirable narrator who readers will hold fast to through anything at all.”

–Molly Thornton  ( Lambda Literary )

7. Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing (W. W. Norton & Company)

5 Rave • 10 Positive • 3 Mixed • 1 Pan

“Yes, you’re in for a treat … There are few voices that we can reliably read widely these days, but I would read Laing writing about proverbial paint drying (the collection is in fact quite paint-heavy), just as soon as I would read her write about the Grenfell Tower fire, The Fire This Time , or a refugee’s experience in England, The Abandoned Person’s Tale , all of which are included in Funny Weather … Laing’s knowledge of her subjects is encyclopaedic, her awe is infectious, and her critical eye is reminiscent of the critic and author James Wood … She is to the art world what David Attenborough is to nature: a worthy guide with both a macro and micro vision, fluent in her chosen tongue and always full of empathy and awe.”

–Mia Colleran  ( The Irish Times )

8. Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami (Pantheon)

6 Rave • 7 Positive • 1 Mixed • 2 Pan

“A] searing look at the struggle for all Americans to achieve liberty and equality. Lalami eloquently tacks between her experiences as an immigrant to this country and the history of U.S. attempts to exclude different categories of people from the full benefits of citizenship … Lalami offers a fresh perspective on the double consciousness of the immigrant … Conditional citizenship is still conferred on people of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities, even those living in poverty, and Lalami’s insight in showing the subtle and overt ways discrimination operates in so many facets of life is one of this book’s major strengths.”

–Rachel Newcomb  ( The Washington Post )

9. This is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah (University of Georgia Press)

7 Rave • 2 Positive 

Watch an interview with Sejal Shah here

“Shah brings important, refreshing, and depressing observations about what it means to have dark skin and an ‘exotic’ name, when the only country you’ve ever lived in is America … The essays in this slim volume are engaging and thought-provoking … The essays are well-crafted with varying forms that should inspire and enlighten other essayists … A particularly delightful chapter is the last, called ‘Voice Texting with My Mother,’ which is, in fact, written in texts … Shah’s thoughts on heritage and belonging are important and interesting.”

–Martha Anne Toll  ( NPR )

10. Having and Being Had by Eula Biss (Riverhead)

5 Rave • 4 Positive • 4 Mixed

Read Eula Biss on the anticapitalist origins of Monopoly here

“… enthralling … Her allusive blend of autobiography and criticism may remind some of The Argonauts  by Maggie Nelson, a friend whose name pops up in the text alongside those of other artists and intellectuals who have influenced her work. And yet, line for line, her epigrammatic style perhaps most recalls that of Emily Dickinson in its radical compression of images and ideas into a few chiseled lines … Biss wears her erudition lightly … she’s really funny, with a barbed but understated wit … Keenly aware of her privilege as a white, well-educated woman who has benefited from a wide network of family and friends, Biss has written a book that is, in effect, the opposite of capitalism in its willingness to acknowledge that everything she’s accomplished rests on the labor of others.”

–Ann Levin  ( Associated Press )

The Book Marks System: RAVE = 5 points • POSITIVE = 3 points • MIXED = 1 point • PAN = -5 points

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College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay

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College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay Paperback – July 1, 2016

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The #1 resource for writing an amazing college essay to help get into your dream school!

Unlock the key to college admission success with College Essay Essentials , a comprehensive and invaluable resource designed to empower students in their essay-writing journey. Packed with expert guidance and practical tips, this must-have book is tailored specifically for high school seniors, transfer students, and aspiring college applicants.

In College Essay Essentials , Ethan Sawyer, a renowned college essay advisor and expert, shares his proven strategies and insider knowledge to help you navigate the daunting task of crafting compelling essays that stand out from the competition. With an unwavering focus on authenticity, creativity, and effective storytelling, Sawyer empowers you to create impactful narratives that captivate admissions officers.

Writing a college admission essay doesn't have to be stressful. Sawyer (aka The College Essay Guy) will show you that there are only four (really, four!) types of college admission essays. And all you have to do to figure out which type is best for you is answer two simple questions:

1. Have you experienced significant challenges in your life?

2. Do you know what you want to be or do in the future?

With these questions providing the building blocks for your essay, Sawyer guides you through the rest of the process, from choosing a structure to revising your essay, and answers the big questions that have probably been keeping you up at night: How do I brag in a way that doesn't sound like bragging? and How do I make my essay, like, deep?

College Essay Essentials will help you with:

  • The best brainstorming exercises
  • Choosing an essay structure
  • The all-important editing and revisions
  • Exercises and tools to help you get started or get unstuck
  • College admission essay examples

Don't let the essay-writing process intimidate you. Grab your copy of College Essay Essentials today and embark on a transformative journey toward college admission success!

  • Print length 256 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher Sourcebooks
  • Publication date July 1, 2016
  • Grade level 10 - 12
  • Dimensions 5.5 x 0.64 x 8.25 inches
  • ISBN-10 149263512X
  • ISBN-13 978-1492635123
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About the author.

Ethan Sawyer is a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. Each year he helps thousands of students and counselors through his online courses, workshops, articles, products, and books, and works privately with a small number of students.

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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Sourcebooks; 1st edition (July 1, 2016)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 256 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 149263512X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1492635123
  • Grade level ‏ : ‎ 10 - 12
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 11.5 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.5 x 0.64 x 8.25 inches
  • #3 in Teen & Young Adult College Guides
  • #8 in College Guides (Books)
  • #29 in College Entrance Test Guides (Books)

About the author

Ethan sawyer.

Ethan Sawyer is a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. Each year he helps thousands of students and counselors through his online courses, workshops, articles, and books, and works privately with a small number of students.

Raised in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia, Ethan has studied at seventeen different schools and has worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, voice actor, motivational speaker, community organizer, and truck driver. He is a certified Myers-Briggs® specialist, and his type (ENFJ) will tell you that he will show up on time, that he'll be excited to meet you, and that, more than anything, he is committed to—and an expert in—helping you realize your potential.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Ethan holds an MFA from UC Irvine and two counseling certificates. He lives in Los Angeles with his beautiful wife and their amazing daughter.

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Summer Boarding Courses

10 Books for Essay Writing You Need To Know About


Do you have an essay writing task? Are you looking for an example of essay writing which is the absolute best? We understand how essay writing can feel very daunting at first. It can take time to research, understand the material, plan what you want to write and have the creativity and confidence to produce the work. There are some great books for essay writing to help you out!

At Summer Boarding Courses, we recommend you take the time to work through the format for essay writing step-by-step. Many of our courses, including our Creative Writing Course at  Oxford College , can help you with this.

We advise you to keep practicing. Listen to feedback from your friends and teachers. Most of all, do not give up! Soon enough you will be able to deliver excellent work.

To help you become a better writer, it’s essential to have the best instruction too. Whilst you’re waiting for our Summer Boarding Courses to start in Oxford, why not read up on our favourite books on essay writing?

Here are our Top 10 Books for Essay Writing that will have you creating unique and captivating essays for your school assignments!


Academic Writing: A Handbook for International Students  – Stephen Bailey

If you’re one of our ESL international students wanting help for essay writing at University, this is a great book to start with! We recommend reading this before you attend University in the UK as there are many an example of how to write an excellent piece inside. Many exercises are included that you can try, which is perfect for self-study in your own time.

College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admissions Essay  – Ethan Sawyer

Are you applying to a College or University? Do you need to write a personal statement ( check out our personal statement guide here )?

Writing your application to enter the school you’re dreaming of may be making you feel very anxious, but college counsellor Ethan Sawyer has written a fantastic guide to help you through it. He will help you bring your personal experiences to life and show you that this application is not too scary after all.

We particularly love his advice in answering these two very important questions:

Have you experienced significant challenges in your life?

Do you know what you want to be or do in the future?

College Essay Essentials has lots of essay writing tips, tricks, exercises and real-life examples to reassure you. Good luck! You can do it!

Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation  – John Seely

If you want to produce good essay writing, you need your English Grammar to be clear and correct. At Summer Boarding Courses, we understand that English Grammar can sometimes be very confusing and unintuitive.

For a clear, simple and easy-to-understand pocket grammar book, John Seely’s Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation is extremely helpful.

Whether you are writing a professional piece, a school paper or a fun personal letter to a friend, this book will give you straightforward advice – and it’s small enough to easily fit in your rucksack!

Study with us in the UK!

Take your English writing to the next level.

How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps  – Inklyo

Do you need a short and easy introduction to essay writing? We recommend you start with this. It is 58 pages long, not a difficult read and covers all the basics that you need to know. The authors take you through your essay writing step-by-step and help you minimise your anxiety, even if it is the night before your project is due!

We love their recommendation about how to make your instructor happy:

‘Demonstrate that you have understood the course material and write intelligently about your subject’.

A Professor’s Guide to Writing Essays: The No-Nonsense Plan for Better Writing  – Dr. Jacob Neumann

Dr. Neumann is straight-talking. He believes that the plan for any type of essay is the same but how you approach essay writing is critical. The only thing that changes for each essay is the length and complexity of the project.

This book covers every aspect of academic writing for College, University and Secondary (High School) students. We love how simple, honest and clear his instructions are and believe you will complete your writing task much more confidently with his advice.


100 Ways to Improve Your Writing  – Gary Provost

This book may have been written in 1985, but it still a fantastic resource for the best essay writing! It does not matter if you are a student or an established successful writer. This easy-to-use guidebook will inspire you to write even better than before.

100 Ways to Improve Your Writing includes many writing examples and plenty of straightforward writing tips. It’s also easy to dip in and out of. Read through it all in one go or pick a chapter or two when you are feeling inspired!

GCSE English Writing Skills Study Guide  – CGP Books

For our younger learners aged 14 to 16, this is an excellent guide for students to refine their writing skills in essays, non-fiction, creative writing and more. There are clear, helpful exercises throughout the book for students to complete and understand the best English topics for essay writing.

The content is also written for students studying GCSE English: if you are taking this exam, you’ll have a much better chance of passing!

How to Write Better Essays (Palgrave Study Skills)  – Bryan Greetham

We all want to be confident when we are writing our essays. This step-by-step guide will help you analyse concepts, consider different arguments about a subject, and argue your ideas well. The chapters are easy to read and digest and will show you how to research ideas, take notes, write productively in exams and be engaging in your writing.

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present  – Phillip Lopate

It is by reading other writers, that we develop our own ideas and unique style. Discover how your own writing can progress and grow through gaining an insight into other writers’ minds and lives.

The Art of the Personal Essay is an excellent collection of essays, from old to new, that are highly entertaining, creative and reflective. Make sure to have this text on your bookshelf or in your bag, so that you can take it out whenever you are seeking inspiration for your next essay. Enjoy!

The Oxford Book of Essays  – John Gross

For the ultimate essay writing book, this is the collection of work that you need to read. There are 140 essays in here by 120 writers. You will find every kind of style; from poetry and fantasy to serious arguments. Some pieces are old, others are incredibly modern. Read through the essays at your own leisure, so that your ideas about how to write gently expand alongside your imagination and creativity.

Do you feel ready to write with our recommended books for essay writing?

Essay writing is an essential skill for English students but just getting started can be difficult! You will need to think about what type of essay you are being asked to write. You will have to plan your outline in essay writing – considering the introduction, the main body of the essay, an excellent conclusion and references.

Having excellent research skills, avoiding plagiarism, and making your essay stand out from the rest of the students in your class are key things you need to know.

We hope our recommendations have inspired you and lead you to writing excellent essays in the future. Good luck and get started. We look forward to seeing you at Summer Boarding Courses in Summer, where you can receive the best writing tips from our teachers in the UK!

best essay book in english

20 Must-Read Best Essay Collections of 2019

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Rebecca Hussey

Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes

View All posts by Rebecca Hussey

Calling all essay fans! For your reading pleasure, I’ve rounded up the best essay collections of 2019. It was a fabulous year for essays (although I say that about most years, to be honest). We’ve had some stellar anthologies of writing about disability, feminism, and the immigrant experience. We’ve had important collections about race, mental health, the environment, and media. And we’ve had collections of personal essays to entertain us and make us feel less alone. There should be something in this list for just about any reading mood or interest.

These books span the entire year, and in cases where the book isn’t published yet, I’ve given you the publication date so you can preorder it or add it to your library list.

I hope this list of the best essay collections of 2019 helps you find new books you love!

About Us: Essays from the Disability Series of the New York Times , edited by Peter Catapano and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

This book emerged from a  New York Times series of personal essays on living with a disability. Each piece was written by a person in the disabled community, and the volume contains an introduction by Andrew Solomon. The topics cover romance, shame, ambition, childbearing, parenting, aging, and much more. The authors offer a wide range of perspectives on living in a world not built for them.

Black is the Body: Stories from my Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard

Emily Bernard’s essays are about her experiences of race. She writes about life as a black woman in Vermont, her family’s history in Alabama and Nashville, her job as a professor who teaches African American literature, and her adoption of twin girls from Ethiopia. It begins with the story of a stabbing in New Haven and uses that as a springboard to write about what it means to live in a black body.

Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger , edited by Lilly Dancyger (Seal Press, October 8)

Women’s anger has been the source of some important and powerful writing lately (see Rebecca Traister’s  Good and Mad and Soraya Chemaly’s  Rage Becomes Her ). This collection brings together a diverse group of writers to further explore the subject. The book’s 22 writers include Leslie Jamison, Melissa Febos, Evette Dionne, and more.

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

The Collected Schizophrenias is a collection of essays on mental and chronic illness. Wang combines research with her personal knowledge of illness to explore misconceptions about schizophrenia and disagreements in the medical community about definitions and treatments. She tells moving, honest personal stories about living with mental illness.

The Collector of Leftover Souls: Field Notes on Brazil’s Everyday Insurrections by Eliane Brum, Translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty (Graywolf, October 15)

This volume collects work from two of Brum’s books, and includes investigative pieces and profiles about Brazil and its people. She focuses on underrepresented communities such as indigenous midwives from the Amazon and people in the favelas of São Paulo. Her book captures the lives and voices of people not often written about.

Erosion: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams (Sarah Crichton Books, October 8)

This volume collects essays written between 2016 and 2018 covering the topic she has always written so beautifully about: the natural world. The essays focus on the concept of erosion, including the erosion of land and of the self. They are her response to the often-overwhelming challenges we face in the political and the natural world.

The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America ,  edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman

This volume brings together an amazing group of writers including Chigozie Obioma, Jenny Zhang, Fatimah Asghar, Alexander Chee, and many more. The essayists are first and second generation immigrants who describe their personal experiences and struggles with finding their place in the U.S. The pieces connect first-person stories with broader cultural and political issues to paint an important picture of the U.S. today.

Good Things Happen to People You Hate: Essays by Rebecca Fishbein (William Morrow, October 15)

In the tradition of Samantha Irby and Sloane Crosley, this collection is a humorous look at life’s unfairness. Fishbein writes about trouble with jobs, bedbugs, fires, and cyber bullying. She covers struggles with alcohol, depression, anxiety, and failed relationships. She is honest and hilarious both, wittily capturing experiences shared by many.

I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum

This book contains new and previously published essays by  New Yorker  critic Emily Nussbaum. The pieces include reviews and profiles. They also argue for a new type of criticism that can accommodate the ambition and complexity of contemporary television. She makes a case for opening art criticism up to new forms and voices.

I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi

Bassey Ikpi’s essay collection is about her personal experiences dealing with Bipolar II and anxiety. She writes about struggling with mental health even while her career as a spoken word artist was flourishing. She looks at the ways our mental health is intertwined with every aspect of our lives. It’s an honest look at identity, health, and illness.

Little Weirds by Jenny Slate (Little, Brown and Company, November 5)

These pieces are humorous, whimsical essays about things that are on Jenny Slate’s mind. As she—an actress and stand-up comedian as well as writer—describes it, “I looked into my brain and found a book. Here it is.” With a light touch, she tells us honestly what it’s like to be her and how she sees the world, one little, weird piece of it at a time.

Make It Scream, Make It Burn: Essays   by Leslie Jamison

Here is Jamison’s follow-up essay collection to the bestselling   Empathy Exams . This one is divided into three sections, “Longing,” “Looking,” and “Dwelling,” each with pieces that combine memoir and journalism. Her subjects include the Sri Lankan civil war, the online world Second Life, the whale 52 Blue, eloping in Las Vegas, giving birth, and many more.

My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education   by Jennine Capó Crucet

Crucet grew up in Miami, the daughter of Cuban refugees. Here she explores her family’s attempts to fit into American culture and her feeling of being a stranger in her own country. She considers her relationship to the so-called “American Dream” and what it means to live in a place that doesn’t always recognize your right to be there.

Notes to Self: Essays by Emilie Pine

Emilie Pine is an Irish writer, and this book is a bestseller in Ireland. These six personal essays touch on addiction, sexual assault, infertility, and more. She captures women’s experiences that often remain hidden. She writes about bodies and emotions from rage to grief to joy with honesty, clarity, and nuance.

Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World by Zahra Hankir (Editor) and Christiane Amanpour (Foreword)

This collection gathers together 19 writers discussing their experiences as journalists working in their home countries. These women risk their lives reporting on war and face sexual harassment and difficulties traveling alone, but they also are able to talk to women and get stories their male counterpoints can’t. Their first person accounts offer new perspectives on women’s lives and current events in the Middle East.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison

Picking this up is a fitting way to pay tribute to the great Toni Morrison, who just passed away last summer. This book is a collection of essays, speeches, and meditations from the past four decades. Topics include the role of the artist, African Americans in American literature, the power of language, and discussions of her own work and that of other writers and artists.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie is a poet and nature writer. These essays combine travel, memoir, and history to look at a world rapidly changing because of our warming climate. She ranges from thawing tundra in Alaska to the preserved homes of neolithic farmers in Scotland and also examines her own experiences with change as her children grow and her father dies.

Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

As of this writing,  Thick  was just longlisted for a National Book Award in nonfiction. McMillan Cottom’s essays look at culture and personal experience from a sociological perspective. It’s an indispensable collection for those who want to think about race and society, who like a mix of personal and academic writing, and who want some complex, challenging ideas to chew on.

White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination   by Jess Row

White Flights is an examination of how race gets written about in American fiction, particularly by white writers creating mostly white spaces in their books. Row looks at writers such as Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and more to consider the role that whiteness has played in the American literary imagination.

The Witches Are Coming   by Lindy West (Hachette Books, November 5)

The Witches Are Coming  is Lindy West’s follow-up to her wonderful, best-selling book  Shrill .  She’s back with more of her incisive cultural critiques, writing essays on feminism and the misogyny that is (still) embedded in every part of our culture. She brings humor, wit, and much-needed clarity to the gender dynamics at play in media and culture.

There you have it—the best collections of 2019! This was a great year for essays, but so were the two years before. Check out my round-ups of the best essay collections from 2018 and 2017 .

best essay book in english

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The Best Books of 2024 (So Far)

best essay book in english

This list is updated monthly with new “best of the year” worthy titles.

The year may still be young, but 2024 has already brought a treasure trove of surprising new books. Multiple celebrated first-time authors have returned with highly anticipated, ambitious follow-up novels . Memoir and reportage are skillfully blended together for a collection of essays on the climate crises. A former Village Voice journalist delivers a vibrant oral history of the beloved alternative weekly. And we’d be remiss not to mention a brilliant debut novel that deftly brings humanity and humor to existential dread. Here are the titles that we already can’t stop thinking about.

Titles are listed by U.S. release date.

Headshot , by Rita Bullwinkel

best essay book in english

In a shabby gym in Reno, Nevada, teenage girls face off in a youth boxing tournament under a shifting ray of daylight that “fills the whole space with a dull, dusty brightness” and surrounded by a sparse crowd of mostly uninterested coaches and parents. The novel enters deep into the girls’ minds as they assess one another’s weaknesses and coax themselves through the rounds, which are described in brutal, bloody detail. Each fighter has her own source of competitive energy, but they’re all realistically ambivalent, too — unsure about why, exactly, they’re drawn to a sport that gives them so little for their trouble. Rita Bullwinkel’s debut novel is as tense and disciplined as its characters, and she has a gift for capturing the way their minds wander far from the ring and back again: One girl counts off the digits of pi, while another obsesses over a death she witnessed as a lifeguard. There’s a mesmerizing sense of limitlessness to the narrative, which roams far into the future of these fighters even as they’re absorbing hits in the ring. — Emma Alpern

Lessons for Survival , by Emily Raboteau

best essay book in english

Raboteau emerged on the scene some two decades ago as a writer of sharp, incisive fiction that mapped the contours of identity and race. In recent years, she has become a literary voice of consciousness about the ongoing climate crisis. Across a series of essays, book reviews, and conversations, Raboteau has charted the progression of the crisis, our shared culpability, and our responsibility to develop practical solutions. Lessons for Survival is, in many ways, a culmination and continuation of this work. Raboteau travels locally and abroad to capture stories about the impact of the environmental crisis, and the resilience of communities that find themselves on the front lines. She also writes authentically — her prose seamlessly melds slang and heightened language — about her own experiences as a Black mother, whose identity has shaped her understanding of these issues. This is scintillating work, an essential primer for our times. — Tope Folarin

Solidarity: The Past, Present and Future of a World-Changing Idea, by Leah Hunt-Hendrix, Astra Taylor

The grand irony of this juncture in history is that at the very moment when the problems we’re facing — climate change, economic inequality, cross-border violence — require global solutions, our societies have become more atomized than ever. This is the case both within various societies, in which individual concerns increasingly trump collective interests, and between societies, whereby individual countries pursue their objectives at the expense of global cooperation. In their new book, Solidarity: The Past, Present and Future of a World-Changing Idea , Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor offer an essential antidote: a renewed commitment to solidarity. Their book is ambitious and comprehensive. It traces the evolving meaning of solidarity from ancient Rome through the Black Lives Matter movement and identifies different kinds of solidarity, how they arise, and how effective they are in forming and maintaining social bonds. They persuasively argue that in order to create a more “egalitarian world,” we must learn to cultivate and practice the kind of solidarity that “chang[es] the social order toward one that is both freer and more just.” — T.F.

Help Wanted , by Adelle Waldman

best essay book in english

Set at a big-box store in upstate New York, Help Wanted recalls Mike White’s Enlightene d in its textured portrayal of how small humiliations and injustices at work inevitably boil over into righteous rage. It’s a novel that lingers in the imagination, by which I mean, after you read it you’ll think of it every time you shop at Target, forever. — Emily Gould

➽ Read Emily Gould’s interview with Help Wanted author Adelle Waldman on The Cut .

Stranger , by Emily Hunt

best essay book in english

Emily Hunt’s second book of poems considers real intimacy mediated by apps. In “Company,” a long poem originally published as a chapbook, the speaker works for a flower delivery startup, gently pulling roots from soil, culling, clipping, and handing off arrangements. These moments are sensorily rich, slotted into 15-minute assembly-line shifts, and short lines. In “Emily,” Hunt uses messages from Tinder as her source material, not to mock (or not only to mock) the senders or the stilted situation of meeting online, but to construct a self in relief, as seen and spoken to by strangers. A funny and surprising interaction with dailiness, including our phones — the hardware and the relationships maintained through them — and whatever else is still tactile. — Maddie Crum

Dead Weight: Essays on Hunger and Harm, by Emmeline Clein

best essay book in english

Emmeline Clein’s Dead Weight seems destined to fundamentally reshape how we think and write about the subject of eating disorders. What separates Clein’s book from others on the topic is her commitment to treating the sufferers of eating disorders with the kind of dignity that clinicians tend to withhold. She writes as an insider, telling both her personal story and sharing the stories of her “sisters,” which range from Tumblr accounts to clinical studies co-authored by their subjects. Throughout, she refrains from including the graphic details that have historically plagued books about the subject. “Too many people I love have misread a memoir as a manual,” she writes. The book she writes instead confronts the complicated entanglement between eating disorders, race, capitalism, and the ongoing erosion of social safety nets. Stereotypes about eating disorders commonly portray the illness as one rooted in control. Dead Weight not only exposes how little control patients have had over their own narratives and bodies, it returns the narrative to those who have suffered from the disease. This is a moving, brilliant, and important book. — Isle McElroy

The Freaks Came Out to Write , by Tricia Romano

best essay book in english

If you were reading The Village Voice in the 1990s, as I was, it wasn’t as good as it used to be. That was also true ten years later, and 20 years before, and frankly it was probably what people started saying upon reading issue No. 2 in 1955. What the Voice was, inarguably, was shaggy, sometimes under-edited, alternately vigorous and undisciplined and brilliant and exhausting and fun. The infighting in its pages and in its newsroom was relentless, amped up by the very aggressiveness that made its reporters and editors able to do what they did. You’ll encounter more than one office fistfight in The Freaks Came Out to Write , this oral history by Tricia Romano, who worked there at the very end of its life. She got a huge number of Voice survivors to talk, including almost every living person who played a major role in this beloved, irritating paper’s life, and good archival interviews fill in the gaps. If you read the Voice in its glory days (whenever those were!) you’ll miss it terribly by the end of this book; if you weren’t there, you will be amazed that such a thing not only existed but, for a while, flourished. — Christopher Bonanos

Wandering Stars , by Tommy Orange

best essay book in english

Orange’s Pulitzer-finalist debut, 2018’s There There , is a tightly constructed, polyphonic book that ends with a gunshot at a powwow. His follow-up, which shares the first one’s perspective-hopping structure (and several of its characters), is a different beast, an introspective novel about addiction and adolescence. The story begins in the 1860s, when a young Cheyenne man becomes an early subject in the U.S. government’s attempts to assimilate Native Americans. The consequences of this flurry of violence and imprisonment will reverberate through generations of his family, eventually landing in present-day Oakland, California, where three young brothers live with their grandmother and her sister. The oldest brother, Orvil, was shot at There There ’s powwow, and even though he survived, the heaviness of that day is weighing on him and his family. Prescribed opioids for the pain, he finds that — like several of his ancestors, though he has no way of knowing that — he likes the sense of removal they give him. Orange’s novel is unusually curious and gentle in its treatment of addiction; he lets his characters puzzle out why they’re drawn to intoxication, managing to balance a lack of judgment with an understanding of the danger they’re in. — E.A.

➽ Read Emma Alpern’s full review of Wandering Stars .

Come and Get It , by Kiley Reid

best essay book in english

In Come and Get It , the second novel from the breakout author of Such a Fun Age , the University of Arkansas serves as the backdrop for Kylie Reid’s assessment of race, class, and social hierarchy on a college campus. Over the course of a semester that shifts between the perspectives of Millie, a meek yet dutiful R.A., Kennedy, a shy transfer student with a traumatic secret, and Agatha, a visiting professor out of her depths, the primary characters are forced to grapple with the heady concepts of desire, privilege, and the rules of social conduct in an environment where the the game is rigged and fairness is reserved for a select few. Light on plot and heavy on character development and social commentary, Come and Get It is the kind of book you put down and immediately want to discuss . But fair warning: If you ever lived in a college dorm in the U.S., this book might inflict a non-negligible amount of PTSD. — Anusha Praturu

Martyr! , by Kaveh Akbar

best essay book in english

In Poet Kaveh Akbar’s debut novel, Cyrus Shams is a nexus of dissonant identities: He’s a 20-something Iranian-American, a straight-passing queer, a recovering addict, a depressive insomniac, and a writer who’s recently gotten some unflattering feedback. He’s also grieving his parents, who he considers to have died meaninglessly, his mother on a passenger flight out of Tehran that was accidentally shot down by the U.S. military (a real event that occurred in 1988), his father “anonymous[ly] after spending decades cleaning chicken shit on some corporate farm.” Martyr! traces Cyrus’s obsession with the idea of dying with a purpose, disrupting linear time and moving miraculously between worlds and perspectives. Sometimes, the dead speak for themselves; we hear from Cyrus’s mother and his uncle, who recounts his life as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war. The book also shines with humor, including an imagined conversation between Cyrus’s mother and Lisa Simpson. Akbar’s prose courses with lyrical intelligence and offers an interrogation of whose pain matters — and what it means to live and die meaningfully — that is as politically urgent as it is deeply alive. — Jasmine Vojdani

The Rebel’s Clinic , by Adam Shatz

best essay book in english

In these chaotic times, Franz Fanon’s work is constantly and enthusiastically referenced. A new generation of activists — as many before them — has repurposed Fanon’s words to describe our current travails, and to propose how we might move forward. Fanon persists in the activist imagination as a kind of radical soothsayer, an intellectual who can speak authoritatively about our moment because of his identity as a Black man and colonial subject who personally experienced the barbarity of a colonizing power. In The Rebel’s Clinic , Adam Shatz complicates our understanding of Fanon’s life and work, and persuasively conjures the human being who wrote the words that have inspired so many. Among Shatz’s most important interventions is to highlight Fanon’s vocation as a doctor who “treated the torturers by day and the tortured at night.” Shatz’s book is a chronicle of a man who, because of his identity and gifts, was obliged to constantly reconcile opposing ideas and ways of being. — T.F.

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A painting of a young man who is holding a finger to his temple and furrowing his brow. He is wearing a dark green jacket.

Lord Byron Was Hard to Pin Down. That’s What Made Him Great.

Two hundred years after his death, this Romantic poet is still worth reading.

“Who would write, who had anything better to do?” Byron once said. Credit... Musée Fabre/Hulton Fine Art Collection, via Getty Images

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By Benjamin Markovits

Benjamin Markovits is the author of a trilogy of novels about Lord Byron, “Imposture,” “A Quiet Adjustment” and “Childish Loves.”

  • April 19, 2024

This week is the 200th anniversary of Lord Byron’s death. The most famous poet of his age (an odd phrase now) died fighting for Greek independence in the marshes of Missolonghi. “Who would write, who had anything better to do?” he once said. There was a strange contest over his body and memory: The lungs and larynx remained in Greece but friends carried the rest back to England, where huge crowds followed the funeral procession. A month after his death, his former editor burned his memoirs, worried they would damage the reputation of a superstar read around the world.

Does anyone read Byron now? He’s one of those unusual figures who have become better known for the lives they led than the books they wrote. Even some of his fans admire the letters more than the poems. It isn’t totally clear what it means to say that Byron is your favorite poet. Of the so-called Big Six Romantics, he’s the hardest to place. The hikers and the introverts read Wordsworth, the hippies love Blake, Keats is for the purists, Shelley for the political dreamers … and Byron? In spite of his fame, he lacks brand recognition. That’s partly because, halfway through his career, he decided to change the brand. “If I am sincere with myself,” he once wrote, “(but I fear one lies more to one’s self than to any one else), every page should confute, refute and utterly abjure its predecessor.”

All of which makes him a complicated sell. Academics trying to revive his reputation sometimes claim him as the anti-Romantic, a satirist who made fun of the movement’s clichés. Which is true. But he also wrote wonderful love poems, including two of his best-known lyrics, “ She Walks in Beauty ” and “ So We’ll Go No More a Roving .” Both are cleareyed about their own sentimentality, but more sad than satirical.

There are other ways of reclaiming him: as the first celebrity writer, as an early adopter of autofiction, for his sexual fluidity. He fell in love with both men and women, and slept with almost everybody, including his half sister, Augusta — which explains why his old editor, John Murray, decided to burn the memoirs.

Writers usually get famous because they touch a chord, and then keep playing it. And even if, as their work matures, they find ways to deepen the tone, it’s still recognizable; readers know what to expect from the product. And Byron touched a chord very young. His breakthrough poem — another odd phrase — was published when he was 24. “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” about a moody young nobleman who travels through war-torn Europe chased by some secret sorrow, made him a household name. Fan mail flowed in; women offered themselves in assignations. (Philip Roth joked in “The Ghost Writer” that for an author to get laid in New York you need only publish a couplet.) “Childe Harold” eventually stretched to four volumes.

Movie versions of Byron’s life tend to take the Childe Harold angle, presenting him as the beautiful young nobleman and exaggerating his Gothic or camp tendencies. He’s been played by Rupert Everett and Hugh Grant. You can find those elements in his writing, too, especially in the early verse, but then a few things changed. He got married, and the marriage went badly; he left England in 1816 and didn’t return; his fame hardened, and as it hardened, he began to realize that it didn’t really fit him.

People who met Byron for the first time expected him to be someone he wasn’t. This bugged him, not just as a human being but as a writer. He asked his friend Tom Moore to tell a well-known literary critic “that I was not, and, indeed, am not even now , the misanthropical and gloomy gentleman he takes me for, but a facetious companion, well to do with those with whom I am intimate, and as loquacious and laughing as if I were a much cleverer fellow.”

Byron was writing this from Venice after his separation from his wife. It was in many ways an unhappy couple of years. Still recovering from the trauma of his marriage, he overindulged himself, sexually and otherwise. The beautiful young nobleman was growing middle-aged. “Lord Byron could not have been more than 30,” one visitor remarked, “but he looked 40. His face had become pale, bloated and sallow. He had grown very fat, his shoulders broad and round, and the knuckles of his hands were lost in fat.” Some of Byron’s reputation for scandalous living dates to his stay in Venice. But he also made another literary breakthrough, finishing one long poem, “ Beppo ,” and starting his masterpiece, written “in the same style and manner” — “ Don Juan .”

“Don Juan” would occupy him for the rest of his short life. It cost him his relationship with Murray, who disapproved of the new tone in Byron’s writing. “You have so many ‘ divine ’ poems,” Byron told him. “Is it nothing to have written a Human one?” Around the time that Shelley was writing “ To a Skylark ” (“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!”) and Keats was working on “ Ode to a Nightingale ” (“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!”), Byron in “Beppo” was advising visitors who come to Venice for the Carnival to bring ketchup or soy with them, because Venetians give up sauce for Lent. But he was making a broader point, too. Poetical truths, about birds, about nature, don’t always rank high on the list of what matters. Poets should spend more time talking about things like money and food.

Part of what his early success taught him was to be suspicious of it, which meant being suspicious of writers — of the ways they lie to themselves and their readers. Keats, for example, was guilty of “a sort of mental masturbation,” Byron said. “I don’t mean that he is indecent but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state which is neither poetry nor anything else.” The work of Leigh Hunt was “disfigured only by a strange style. His answer was that his style was a system … and, when a man talks of system, his case is hopeless.” Experience, Byron believed, was the real source of literary value. “Could any man have written it,” he said of “Don Juan,” “who has not lived in the world?”

But experience relies on the honesty of the writer, and honesty, as Byron knew, is not a simple virtue. His own style became increasingly hard to pin down and hard to imitate — there is nobody who writes quite like him. Sometimes he lays on the devices pretty thick (“He rushed into the field, and, foremost fighting, fell”), the way you might scatter salt over a meal to add all-purpose flavor. But he can also write poetry that is unabashedly prosy: “There might be one more motive, which makes two.” What he’s particularly good at is achieving vividness without metaphor or adjective: “I have imbibed such a love for money that I keep some Sequins in a drawer to count, & cry over them once a week.” This is classic Byron, self-mocking and sincere at the same time.

The overall effect is like someone pitching knuckle balls. He seems to be just tossing lines at you, almost carelessly or without effort, but they’re always moving unpredictably, and when you try to do it yourself, you realize how hard it is to throw without spin. Two centuries later, this still seems a talent worth celebrating.

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Here Are the 14 New Books You Should Read in May

best essay book in english

These are independent reviews of the products mentioned, but TIME receives a commission when purchases are made through affiliate links at no additional cost to the purchaser.

F rom Brittney Griner ’s eagerly anticipated memoir to a long-awaited sequel to Colm Tóibín’s beloved novel Brooklyn , the best books coming in May offer a range of choices for every reader. Those looking for a good laugh should check out the latest high-society comedy from Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan or filmmaker Miranda July’s first novel in 10 years, which offers a profoundly humorous take on menopause and mortality. R.O. Kwon ’s sensual followup to her 2018 best-seller The Incendiaries is sure to keep readers on their toes, while scholar Deborah Paredez’s tribute to America’s finest divas offers an important lesson in pop-culture etymology.    

Here, the 14 new books to read this month.

Coming Home , Brittney Griner (May 7)

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On Feb. 17, 2022, WNBA player Brittney Griner was detained in Russia , where she played professionally in the offseason, for possessing cannabis oil, a substance that is illegal in the country. (At the time, Griner’s Russian lawyers stated that she had been prescribed medical cannabis for pain management by her doctors in the U.S.) The celebrated athlete was sentenced to nine years in prison for drug smuggling and served in a Russian penal colony until the U.S. government was able to broker a prisoner swap in December 2022, trading her for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout . Griner’s memoir, Coming Home, which she co-authored with Michelle Burford, details all of this and more, offering a raw look at the harrowing experience that has turned her into an outspoken advocate for Americans who have been wrongfully detained abroad .

Buy Now : Coming Home on Bookshop | Amazon

Shanghailanders , Juli Min (May 7)

best essay book in english

Juli Min’s ambitious debut novel, Shanghailanders, is a thrilling, futuristic family drama that captures the joys, disappointments, and inside jokes of one Shanghai family in reverse chronological order. Starting in 2040 and working its way back to 2014, the book unspools the shared and separate lives of the wealthy Yangs: Chinese real estate investor Leo, his elegant Japanese French wife Eko, their precocious eldest daughters Yumi and Yoko, and the baby of the family, aspiring actress Kiko. By giving readers the gift of hindsight, Min shows how one enigmatic family falls apart and comes back together over several decades.

Buy Now : Shanghailanders on Bookshop | Amazon

Long Island , Colm Tóibín (May 7)

best essay book in english

Best-selling Irish author Colm Tóibín returns with Long Island, a well-observed sequel to his much loved 2009 novel Brooklyn , set 20 years after Eilis, the inscrutable heroine of the aforementioned book, emigrated from Ireland. Picking up in the spring of 1976, Eilis, now in her 40s, is still married to Italian American plumber Tony Fiorello and living in the titular suburbs outside of New York City with their two teenage children and her in-laws. All is well, if a little boring, until she is confronted by an irate Irishman who claims Tony has gotten his wife pregnant and he plans to leave the baby on Eilis’ doorstep once it’s born. Tóibín’s 11th novel offers an absorbing look at a middle-aged woman at a crossroads in not only her marriage, but also in a life she worries has gone unfulfilled.

Buy Now : Long Island on Bookshop | Amazon

The Skunks , Fiona Warnick (May 7)

best essay book in english

In Fiona Warnick’s quirky debut, The Skunks, Isabel returns to her hometown after college graduation to take on a few odd jobs and figure out what she wants to do with her life. To take her mind off of her post-adolescent fears and anxieties, she starts thinking about the book’s titular creatures. Specifically, the three baby skunks that unexpectedly show up in the yard of the place she is house sitting. Their presence forces her to ponder life’s existential questions—and question her own romantic desires. The Skunks is a hilarious look at post-grad life and the loneliness, uncertainty, and occasional joy that comes with it.

Buy Now : The Skunks on Bookshop | Amazon

All Fours , Miranda July (May 14)

best essay book in english

Filmmaker, artist, and best-selling author Miranda July’s first novel in a decade is an intimate, fearless, and sexy coming-of-middle-age story about a woman hellbent on reinventing herself. All Fours begins with the unnamed narrator, a 45-year-old semi-famous artist, learning that someone has been peering into her window with a telephoto lens. She decides to leave her husband and child behind to drive from Los Angeles to New York for a writing retreat. Unfortunately, she only makes it as far as Monrovia, Calif., less than an hour from home. It’s there she finds herself tackling fluctuating hormones, an increased libido, and a rather impractical motel room renovation in this wonderfully weird adventure.

Buy Now : All Fours on Bookshop | Amazon

Blue Ruin , Hari Kunzru (May 14)

best essay book in english

Hari Kunzru ’s seventh novel, Blue Ruin, is a provocative portrait of a once-promising artist as a disillusioned man of a certain age. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Jay, a 40-something undocumented performance artist, is living out of his car and delivering groceries to wealthy residents in upstate New York. On one of his runs, he finds himself face-to-face with Alice, a woman he dated nearly two decades earlier. Alice invites him to ride out the crisis in the luxurious home where she is quarantining with her painter husband, the art school rival for whom she ghosted Jay. The unexpected run-in leads to a possible big career break for Jay, who worries the deal may just cost him his soul.

Buy Now : Blue Ruin on Bookshop | Amazon

This Strange Eventful History , Claire Messud (May 14)

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This Strange Eventful History is a sprawling yet intimate saga that draws inspiration from author Claire Messud’s own family history. (She has called this novel, her seventh, the “most significant work” of her life.) Spanning several decades, from 1940 to 2010, Messud follows the Cassar family, a fictional French Algerian clan first displaced by World War II, and again, nearly 20 years later, by Algeria’s war of independence . With great empathy, Messud shows the effects war, colonialism, and later sovereignty had on three generations of the Cassars, most notably, the family’s youngest member, aspiring writer Chloe, a stand-in for Messud, who believes the truth will finally set her relatives free.

Buy Now : This Strange Eventful History on Bookshop | Amazon

Very Bad Company , Emma Rosenblum (May 14)

best essay book in english

With her latest novel, Very Bad Company , best-selling author and journalist Emma Rosenblum takes a page from Rian Johnson ’s Knives Out playbook. Despite her lack of experience, former TV producer Caitlin Levy is hired as the new head of events at Aurora, a trendy ad-tech startup led by an eccentric CEO. To welcome her to the team, Caitlin is invited to take part in Aurora’s annual corporate retreat in Miami. This year, the company is preparing for an impending billion-dollar merger. But when one of Aurora’s high-level executives turns up dead, everyone on sight is forced to ignore the crisis so as to not sink the deal. What ensues is a darkly funny mystery about toxic corporate culture.

Buy Now : Very Bad Company on Bookshop | Amazon

In Tongues , Thomas Grattan (May 21)

best essay book in english

In Thomas Grattan’s rollicking sophomore release, In Tongues, the charming if naive Gordon moves from Minnesota to New York City where he gets a job walking the dogs of Manhattan’s elite, including gallery owners Phillip and Nicola. Soon he is hobnobbing and bed-hopping with the high-powered couple, turning their lives upside down with little regard for the consequences of his actions. In this delightfully modern comedy of manners, Gordon wonders if he has the ability to change his ways as he begins to understand the damage his impulses have caused.

Buy Now : In Tongues on Bookshop | Amazon

Lies and Weddings , Kevin Kwan (May 21)

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From Kevin Kwan , the author of Crazy Rich Asians, a high comedy sure to delight fans of Jane Austen . Rufus Leung Gresham, the protagonist of Lies and Weddings , is the future Earl of Greshambury (a clever nod to the fictional setting of Anthony Trollope’s 1858 novel Doctor Thorne ) and son of a former Hong Kong supermodel. He’s also been buried underneath a mountain of debt thanks to his family’s reckless spending. To dig himself out, Rufus’ always scheming mother suggests he find a wealthy woman to marry at his sister’s upcoming high-society wedding. What could possibly go wrong?

Buy Now : Lies and Weddings on Bookshop | Amazon

Exhibit , R. O. Kwon (May 21)

best essay book in english

R. O. Kwon’s Exhibit is a hypnotic queer love story full of lust and longing. The sultry novel follows two women, talented photographer Jin and injured prima ballerina Lidija, and the ancient familial curse that stands to keep them apart. Exhibit is a haunting romance about desire, obsession, and ambition that is sure to get your heart rate up.

Buy Now : Exhibit on Bookshop | Amazon

American Diva , Deborah Paredez (May 21)

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Fifteen years ago, poet and cultural critic Deborah Paredez tackled the posthumous legacy of Selena Quintanilla with Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory . Now, with American Diva, she has put together an insightful ode to the famous women— Aretha Franklin , Tina Turner , and Serena Williams , to name a few—who have come to embody the often misconstrued term. Combining cultural criticism and memoir, Paredez shows how the word “diva,” once used to describe a powerhouse opera singer, evolved to become a condemnation of confident and powerful women, many of whom are women of color. American Diva is Paredez’s attempt to reclaim the word.

Buy Now : American Diva on Bookshop | Amazon

Accordion Eulogies , Noé Álvarez (May 28)

best essay book in english

Growing up, Noé Álvarez’s working class Mexican immigrant parents rarely spoke of his larger-than-life grandfather. All Álvarez ever knew of the relative who was more myth than man was that he played the accordion and possibly put a curse on his descendents with his questionable behavior. In his poignant new memoir, Accordion Eulogies, Álvarez traces the history of the humble titular instrument in hopes of better understanding his own family’s mysterious lineage. With empathy and humor, the author dares to find the root cause of his generational trauma with the hope of finally breaking the cycle.

Buy Now : Accordion Eulogies on Bookshop | Amazon

In These Streets , Josiah Bates (May 28)

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With In These Streets, journalist and former TIME reporter Josiah Bates takes a closer look at the recent surge in gun violence throughout the United States, particularly in marginalized communities. Bates travels the country speaking with those on the frontlines of what many have deemed a public health crisis that has only gotten worse since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He interviews victims, perpetrators, activists, law enforcement, and academics in hopes of gaining new insight into the epidemic.

Buy Now : In These Streets on Bookshop | Amazon

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In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place:

Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satires on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, in a veiled fashion. The typhus epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is our only weapon in the ghetto—our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humor is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.

Berg here movingly expresses a common and comforting idea. Laughter is one of the few weapons that the weak have against the strong. Gallows humor is the one thing that cannot be taken away from those who are about to be hanged, the final death-defying assertion of human dignity and freedom. And the hangmen don’t get the jokes. Fascists don’t understand humor.

There is great consolation in these thoughts. Yet is it really true that fascists don’t get humor? Racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, xenophobic, antidisabled, and antiqueer jokes have always been used to dehumanize those who are being victimized. The ghetto humor that Berg recorded was a way of keeping self-pity at bay. But as Sigmund Freud pointed out, jokes can also be a way of shutting down pity itself by identifying those who are being laughed at as the ones not worthy of it: “A saving in pity is one of the most frequent sources of humorous pleasure.” Humor, as in Berg’s description, may be a way of telling us not to feel sorry for ourselves. But it is more often a way of telling us not to feel sorry for others. It creates an economy of compassion, limiting it to those who are laughing and excluding those who are being laughed at. It makes the polarization of humanity fun.

Around the time that Berg was writing her diary, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were pointing to the relationship between Nazi rallies and this kind of comedy. The rally, they suggested, was an arena in which a release that was otherwise forbidden was officially permitted:

The anti-Semites gather to celebrate the moment when authority lifts the ban; that moment alone makes them a collective, constituting the community of kindred spirits. Their ranting is organized laughter. The more dreadful the accusations and threats, the greater the fury, the more withering is the scorn. Rage, mockery, and poisoned imitation are fundamentally the same thing.

Donald Trump is not a Nazi, and his followers are (mostly) not fascists. But it is not hard to see how this description resonates with his campaign appearances. Trump is America’s biggest comedian. His badinage is hardly Wildean, but his put-downs, honed to the sharpness of stilettos, are many people’s idea of fun. For them, he makes anger, fear, and resentment entertaining.

For anyone who questions how much talent and charisma this requires, there is a simple answer: Ron DeSantis. Why did DeSantis’s attempt to appeal to Republican voters as a straitlaced version of Trump fall so flat? Because Trumpism without the cruel laughter is nothing. It needs its creator’s fusion of rage, mockery, and poisoned imitation, whether of a reporter with a disability or (in a dumb show that Trump has been playing out in his speeches in recent months) of Joe Biden apparently unable to find his way off a stage. It demands the withering scorn for Sleepy Joe and Crooked Hillary, Crazy Liz and Ron DeSanctimonious, Cryin’ Chuck and Phoney Fani. It requires the lifting of taboos to create a community of kindred spirits. It depends on Trump’s ability to be pitiless in his ridicule of the targets of his contempt while allowing his audience to feel deeply sorry for itself. (If tragedy, as Aristotle claimed, involves terror and pity, Trump’s tragicomedy deals in terror and self-pity.)

Hard as it is to understand, especially for those of us who are too terrified to be amused, Trump’s ranting is organized laughter. To understand his continuing hold over his fans, we have to ask: Why is he funny?

This is not the 1930s or the 1940s, and we should not expect this toxic laughter to be organized quite as it was then. Trump functions in a culture supersaturated with knowingness and irony. In twentieth-century European fascism, the relationship between words and actions was clear: the end point of mockery was annihilation. Now, the joke is “only a joke.” Populist politics exploits the doubleness of comedy—the way that “only a joke” can so easily become “no joke”—to create a relationship of active connivance between the leader and his followers in which everything is permissible because nothing is serious.

This shift has happened in Europe, too. Think of Boris Johnson’s clown act, his deliberately ruffled hair, rumpled clothes, and ludicrous language. Or think of Giorgia Meloni, the first Italian prime minister from the far right since Benito Mussolini, posting on election day in September 2022 a TikTok video of herself holding two large melons ( meloni in Italian) in front of her breasts: fascism as adolescent snigger. It is impossible to think of previous far-right leaders engaging in such public self-mockery. Only in our time is it possible for a politician to create a sense of cultlike authority by using the collusiveness of comedy, the idea that the leader and his followers are united by being in on the joke.

Trump may be a narcissist, but he has a long history of this kind of self-caricature. When he did the Top Ten List on the David Letterman show in 2009, he seemed entirely comfortable delivering with a knowing smirk the top ten “financial tips” written for him, including “When nobody’s watching I go into a 7/11 and stick my head under a soda nozzle”; “Save money by styling your own hair” (pointing to his own improbable coiffure); “Sell North Dakota to the Chinese”; “If all else fails, steal someone’s identity”; and “The fastest way to get rich: marry and divorce me.” This performance, moreover, was the occasion for Trump’s entry into the world of social media. His first ever tweet was: “Be sure to tune in and watch Donald Trump on Late Night with David Letterman as he presents the Top Ten List tonight!”

At the 2005 Emmy Awards, Trump dressed in blue overalls and a straw hat and, brandishing a pitchfork, sang the theme song from the 1960s TV comedy Green Acres . Trump is a terrible singer and a worse actor, but he seemed completely unembarrassed on stage. He understood the joke: that Oliver, the fictional character he was impersonating, is a wealthy Manhattanite who moves to rustic Hooterville to run a farm, following his dream of the simple life—an alternative self that was amusing because it was, for Trump, unimaginable. But he may have sensed that there was also a deep cultural resonance. The Apprentice was “reality TV ,” a form in which the actual and the fictional are completely fused.

Green Acres , scenes from which played on a screen behind Trump as he was singing, pioneered this kind of metatelevision. Its debut episode set it up as a supposed documentary presented by a well-known former newscaster. Its characters regularly broke the fourth wall. When Oliver launched into rhapsodic speeches about American rural values, a fife rendition of “Yankee Doodle” would play on the soundtrack, and the other characters would move around in puzzlement trying to figure out where the musician was. Eva Gabor, playing Oliver’s pampered wife, admits on the show that her only real talent is doing impressions of Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actor’s more famous real-life sister.

The critic Armond White wrote in 1985 that “ Green Acres ’ surreal rationale is to capture the moment American gothic turns American comic.” Trump playing Oliver in 2005 may be the moment American comedy turned gothic again. Whoever had the idea of connecting Trump back to Green Acres clearly understood that “Donald Trump” had by then also become a metatelevision character, a real-life failed businessman who impersonated an ultrasuccessful mogul on The Apprentice . And Trump went along with the conceit because he instinctively understood that self-parody was not a threat to his image—it was his image. This connection to Green Acres was reestablished by Trump himself as president of the United States. In December 2018, as he was about to sign the Farm Bill into law, Trump tweeted, “Farm Bill signing in 15 minutes! #Emmys #TBT,” with a clip of himself in the Green Acres spoof. Hooterville and the White House were as one.

What is new in the development of antidemocratic politics is that Trump brings all this comic doubleness—the confusion of the real and the performative, of character and caricature—to bear on the authoritarian persona of the caudillo, the duce, the strongman savior. The prototype dictators of the far right may have looked absurd to their critics (“Hitler,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer, “can gesticulate like a clown, Mussolini risk false notes like a provincial tenor”), but within the community of their followers and the shadow community of their intended victims, their histrionics had to be taken entirely seriously. Trump, on the other hand, retains all his self-aware absurdity even while creating a political persona of immense consequence.

This comic-authoritarian politics has some advantages over the older dictatorial style. It allows a threat to democracy to appear as at worst a tasteless prank: in the 2016 presidential campaign even liberal outlets like The New York Times took Hillary Clinton’s e-mails far more seriously than Trump’s open stirring of hatred against Mexicans and Muslims. Funny-autocratic functions better in a society like that of the US, where the boundaries of acceptable insult are still shifting and mainstream hate-mongering still has to be light on its feet. It allows racial insults and brazen lies to be issued, as it were, in inverted commas. If you don’t see those invisible quotation marks, you are not smart enough—or you are too deeply infected by the woke mind virus—to be in on the joke. You are not part of the laughing community. The importance of not being earnest is that it defines the boundaries of the tribe. The earnest are the enemy.

The extreme right in America was very quick to understand the potency of “only a joke” in the Internet age. In a 2001 study of three hate speech websites sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, Michael Billig noted that each of them described itself on its home page as a humorous exercise. The largest, called “N…..jokes KKK ” (the ellipsis is mine) carried the disclaimers: “You agree by entering this site, that this type of joke is legal where you live, and you agree that you recognize this site is meant as a joke not to be taken seriously”; “And you agree that this site is a comedy site, not a real racist site”; “We ARE NOT real life racists.”

What does “real life” even mean when Klansmen are not really racist? The power of this “humorous” mode of discourse lies at least partly in the way it blurs the distinctions between the real and the symbolic, and between words and actions. Consider the example of some of the men tried for their alleged parts in a 2020 plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan. One of them, Barry Croft, insisted at his trial in 2022 that he was joking most of the time when he posted on Facebook questions like “Which governor is going to end up being dragged off and hung for treason first?” Another, Brandon Caserta, was acquitted in 2022 in part because he successfully pleaded that violent statements he made on Facebook and in secretly recorded meetings of the group were not serious. These included claims that the Second Amendment sanctions the killing of “agents of the government when they become tyrannical.” “I may kill dozens of agents but eventually die in the process,” Caserta wrote on Facebook in May 2020. He later posted that he would beat government agents so hard they would “beg til they couldn’t beg any more because their mouth is so full of blood.”

At Croft’s trial, his defense attorney put it to an FBI witness that a meme Croft posted showing thirty bullets as “30 votes that count” was “A little tongue-in-cheek? A little bit funny?” On the second season of Jon Ronson’s superb podcast series for the BBC , Things Fell Apart , Caserta acknowledges that, on the secret recordings, he is heard to urge his fellow militia members that any lawyers advocating for the Covid vaccine be decapitated in their own homes, speaks of “wanting Zionist banker blood,” and advocates blowing up buildings where the vaccine is manufactured. He nonetheless insists to Ronson:

This isn’t something I’m dead serious about. This is nothing I ever planned. It’s funny, dude! It’s funny! It’s fun to blow stuff up. It’s fun to shoot guns. It’s fun to say ridiculous offensive shit. And if it offends you, so what? I don’t care about your feelings and how you feel about words. Sorry!

The twist of logic here is striking: Caserta equates blowing stuff up and shooting people with saying ridiculous offensive shit. Violent words and violent actions are all covered by the same disclaimer—one that Trump’s apologists use to blur the relationship between his words and his followers’ actions in the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. In the Trumpian twilight zone where democracy is dying but not yet dead, the connection between words (“fight like hell”) and deeds (the armed invasion of the Capitol) must be both strong and weak, sufficiently “no joke” to be understood by the faithful yet sufficiently “only a joke” to be deniable to the infidels. The comic mode is what creates the plausible deniability that in turn allows what used to be mainstream Republicans (and some Democrats) to remain in denial about what Trumpism really means.

For those who love Trump, there is something carnivalesque in all of this. In his discussion of “mediaeval laughter” in Rabelais and His World , Mikhail Bakhtin wrote that “one might say that it builds its own world versus the official world, its own church versus the official church, its own state versus the official state.” Bakhtin suggested that the

festive liberation of laughter…was a temporary suspension of the entire official system with all its prohibitions and hierarchic barriers. For a short time life came out of its usual, legalized and consecrated furrows and entered the sphere of utopian freedom.

Trump and many of his followers have made this quite literal. They create their own America, their own republic, their own notions of legality, their own church of the leader’s cult, their own state versus what they see as the official state. In this way, extreme polarization becomes a sphere of utopian freedom.

This is the capacious zone in which Trump’s comedy operates, an arena that admits everyone who gets the joke, from those who fantasize about killing tyrants, decapitating lawyers, and torturing government agents to those who just like to blow off steam by listening to their hero saying stuff that riles the woke enemy. It is crucial that in Trump’s delivery there is no shift from mockery to seriousness, no line between entertainment and violence. His singsong tone is generous and flexible, serving equally well for vaudeville and vituperation. In his streams of consciousness, they flow together as complementary currents.

In the recent speeches in which he has upped the ante on openly fascist rhetoric by characterizing his opponents as “vermin” and accusing immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country,” it is notable that his cadence is soft, almost lilting. There is no warning to his audience that these comments are of a different order. They are not even applause lines. By underplaying them, Trump leaves open the fundamental question: Is his mimicking of Hitler’s imagery just another impersonation, all of a piece with the way he does Biden and Haley in funny voices or even with the way he sings the theme song from Green Acres ?

Even when Trump actually goes the whole way and acknowledges that his rhetoric is indeed Hitlerian, as he did in a speech in Iowa after the alarmed reaction of liberals to his previous “poisoning the blood” speech, it is in a passage that jumbles together murderous intent, complaint about the media, and comic acting: “They are destroying the blood of our country. That’s what they’re doing…. They don’t like it when I said that. And I never read Mein Kampf .” But he makes the “Kampf” funny, puckering his lips and elongating the “pf” so it sounds like a rude noise. He continues: “They said ‘Oh, Hitler said that.’” Then he adds his defense: “in a much different way.” It is the stand-up comedian’s credo: it’s not the jokes, it’s the way you tell ’em. And this is, indeed, true—the difference is in the way he tells it, in a voice whose ambiguous pitch has been perfected over many years of performance.

The knowingness is all. In the speech in Conway, South Carolina, on February 10, in which he openly encouraged Russia to attack “delinquent” members of NATO , this startling statement, with potential world-historical consequences, was preceded by Trump’s metatheatrical riff on the idea of “fun.” What was fun, he told his followers, was the reaction he could provoke just by saying “Barack Hussein Obama”:

Every time I say it, anytime I want to have a little fun…even though the country is going to hell, we have to have a little bit of fun…. Remember Rush Limbaugh, he’d go “Barack Hooosaynn Obama”—I wonder what he was getting at.

He then segued into another commentary on his own well-honed send-up of Joe Biden: “I do the imitation where Biden can’t find his way off the stage…. So I do the imitation—is this fun?—I say this guy can’t put two sentences together…and then I go ‘Watch!’” (He said the word with a comic pout.) “I’ll imitate him. I go like this: ‘Haw!’” Trump hunches his shoulders and extends his arm, in a parody of Biden’s gestures. In this burlesque, Trump is not just mimicking his opponent; he is explicitly reenacting his own previous mocking impersonation, complete with commentary. He is simultaneously speaking, acting, and speaking about his acting.

It is within this “fun” frame that Trump proceeded to insinuate that there is something awry with Nikki Haley’s marriage: “Where’s her husband? Oh he’s away…. What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband! Where is he? He’s gone. He knew, he knew.” He and presumably many members of the audience were aware that Michael Haley is currently serving in Djibouti with the South Carolina National Guard. But as part of the show, with the funny voices and the exaggerated gestures, that lurid hint at some mysteriously unmentionable scandal (“He knew, he knew”) is somehow amusing. And then so is Trump’s story about telling an unnamed head of a “big” NATO country that the US would not defend it from invasion and—the punch line—that he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want.” Here Trump is acting in both senses, both ostentatiously performing and exerting a real influence on global politics—but which is which? How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

This shuffling in a typical Trump speech of different levels of seriousness—personal grudges beside grave geopolitics, savage venom mixed with knockabout farce, possible truths rubbing up against outrageous lies—creates a force field of incongruities. Between the looming solidity of Trump’s body and the airy, distracted quality of his words, in which weightless notions fly off before they are fully expressed, he seems at once immovable and in manic flux.

Incongruity has long been seen as one of the conditions of comedy. Francis Hutcheson in Reflections Upon Laughter (1725) noted that it is “this contrast or opposition of ideas of dignity and meanness which is the occasion of laughter.” The supposedly dignified idea of “greatness” is vital to Trump’s presence and rhetoric. But it is inextricably intertwined with the mean, the inconsequential, even the infantile. He is at one moment the grandiose man of destiny and the next a naughty child—an incongruity that can be contained only within an organized laughter in which the juxtaposition of incompatibilities is the essence of fun. This is why Trump’s lapses into pure gibberish—like telling a National Rifle Association gathering in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on February 9 that the Democrats are planning to “change the name of Pennsylvania” and that, in relation to the marble columns in the hall, it was “incredible how they could [have been built] years ago without the powerful tractors that you have today”—do not make his fans alarmed about his mental acuity. Cognitive dysfunction is not a worry with a man whose métier is cognitive dissonance.

Part of the dissonance is that Trump’s stand-up routine is completely dependent on the idea that he and his audience most despise: political correctness. Like much of the worst of contemporary comedy, Trump both amuses and thrills his audience by telling them that he is saying what he is not allowed to say. “Beautiful women,” he said at the rally in South Carolina after pointing to a group of female superfans in the audience. “You’re not allowed to say that anymore, but I’ll say it…. That usually is the end of a career, but I’ll say it.” There are so many layers to a moment like this: the idea that the woke mob is stopping manly men from complimenting attractive women, a sideways nod toward the “pussygate” tapes that should have ended Trump’s political career but didn’t, a dig at the Me Too movement, a reiteration of Trump’s right to categorize women as “my type” or “not my type,” the power of the leader to lift prohibitions—not just for himself but, in this carnivalesque arena of utopian freedom, for everyone in the audience.

Flirting with the unsayable has long been part of his shtick. If we go all the way back to May 1992 to watch Trump on Letterman’s show, there is a moment when Trump silently mouths the word “shit.” He does this in a way that must have been practiced rather than spontaneous—it takes some skill to form an unspoken word so clearly for a TV audience that everyone immediately understands it. Letterman plays his straight man: “You ain’t that rich, Don, you can’t come on here and say that.” But of course Trump did not “say” it. A sympathetic audience loves a moment like this because it is invited to do the transgressive part in its head. It gets the pleasure of filling in the blank.

Trump’s audiences, in other words, are not passive. This comedy is a joint enterprise of performer and listener. It gives those listeners the opportunity for consent and collusion. Consider a televised speech Trump gave at the Al Smith Dinner, hosted by the Catholic archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in October 2016, near the end of the presidential campaign. The dinner, held to raise money for Catholic charities, is traditionally the last occasion on which the two main presidential candidates share a stage—Hillary Clinton was also present. Trump deadpanned that he knew he would have a receptive audience because “so many of you in the archdiocese already have a place in your heart for a guy who started out as a carpenter working for his father. I was a carpenter working for my father. True.”

What is the joke here? That Trump is like Jesus Christ. Imagine if Clinton had attempted an equivalent gag. There would have been outrage and uproar: Clinton has insulted all Christians by making a blasphemous comparison between herself and the divine Savior. But the cameras cut to Dolan, a sycophantic supporter of Trump, and showed him laughing heartily. And if the cardinal found it funny, it was funny. It was thus an in-joke. If Clinton had made it, it would be the ultimate out-joke, proof of the Democrats’ contempt for people of faith.

But what is allowed as funny will sooner or later be proposed seriously. Many of those attending Trump rallies now wear T-shirts that proclaim “Jesus Is My Savior. Trump Is My President.” Some of them illustrate the slogan with a picture of an ethereal Christ laying both his hands on Trump’s shoulders. What begins as a risqué quip ends up as a religious icon. There is no line here between sacrilege and devotion, transgressive humor and religious veneration.

Just as Trump’s jokes can become literal, his ugly realities can be bathed in the soothing balm of laughter. Long before he ran for president, he was indulged on the late-night talk shows as the hilarious huckster. In 1987 Letterman tried repeatedly to get Trump to tell him how much money he had, and when he continually evaded the question, Letterman broke the tension with the laugh-line, “You act like you’re running for something.” In December 2005 Conan O’Brien asked him, “You also have an online school? Is that correct?” Trump replied, “Trump University—if you want to learn how to get rich.” The audience howled with laughter, presumably not because they thought he was kidding but because the very words “Trump University” are innately absurd. When he did that Top Ten List on Letterman in 2009, Trump’s comic financial advice included “For tip number four, simply send me $29.95.”

But these jokes came true. Trump wouldn’t say how much he was worth because his net worth was partly fictional. Trump did run for something. Trump University was an innately funny idea that people took seriously enough to enable Trump to rip them off. And Trump does want you to send him $29.95—the first thing you get on Trump’s official website is an insistent demand: “Donate Today.” This is the thing about Trump’s form of organized laughter, in which the idea of humor obscures the distinction between outlandish words and real-life actions. Sooner or later, the first becomes the second. The in-joke becomes the killer line.

March 21, 2024

Who Should Regulate Online Speech?

Small Island

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The ambiguous hero of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is a man of science who insists on the primacy of truth and evidence. But he’s also, possibly, a bit of a fascist.

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As we enter an election year, can the Democrats prevent age from becoming a serious obstacle?

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A previous version of this article misstated the date of David Letterman’s 1987 interview with Donald Trump.

Fintan O’Toole is the Advising Editor at The New York Review and a columnist for The Irish Times. His most recent book, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland , was published in the US in 2022. (May 2024)

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  20. The Best Reviewed Essay Collections of 2020 ‹ Literary Hub

    December 10, 2020. Zadie Smith's Intimations, Helen Macdonald's Vesper Flights, Claudia Rankine's Just Us, and Samantha Irby's Wow, No Thank You all feature among the Best Reviewed Essay Collections of 2020. Brought to you by Book Marks, Lit Hub's "Rotten Tomatoes for books.". *.

  21. College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful

    The #1 resource for writing an amazing college essay to help get into your dream school! Unlock the key to college admission success with College Essay Essentials, a comprehensive and invaluable resource designed to empower students in their essay-writing journey.Packed with expert guidance and practical tips, this must-have book is tailored specifically for high school seniors, transfer ...

  22. 10 Books for Essay Writing You Need To Know About

    The Oxford Book of Essays - John Gross. For the ultimate essay writing book, this is the collection of work that you need to read. There are 140 essays in here by 120 writers. You will find every kind of style; from poetry and fantasy to serious arguments. Some pieces are old, others are incredibly modern.

  23. The 20 Best Essay Collections of 2019 to Add to Your TBR

    Erosion: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams (Sarah Crichton Books, October 8) This volume collects essays written between 2016 and 2018 covering the topic she has always written so beautifully about: the natural world. The essays focus on the concept of erosion, including the erosion of land and of the self.

  24. Best Essayists

    Lists about novelists, poets, short story authors, journalists, essayists, and playwrights, from simple rankings to fun facts about the men and women behind the pens. Over 1K readers have voted on the 70+ people on History's Greatest Essayists. Current Top 3: Michel de Montaigne, George Orwell, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

  25. The Best Books of 2024 (So Far): This Year's New Must-Reads

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  26. Interview with Robert Kagan, the author of ...

    His essay warning that dictatorship was a real threat went viral, which prompted the early release of "Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart — Again." To relax, he reads the ...

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    But he also wrote wonderful love poems, including two of his best-known lyrics, ... Page 30 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Essay / Remember Thee! Remember Thee!.

  28. 100 Books Everyone Should Read

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  29. The Best New Books to Read in May 2024

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