I’m what you might call an essay evangelist. I’ve been a devoted reader of them ever since a life-transforming college English class where we read from Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, the book I call my Essay Bible. I was hooked and have read essays regularly ever since.
But I think a lot of people don’t consider essay collections or anthologies as things they might want to read, and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s that essays seem boring or stuffy, that fiction feels more fun, or that readers aren’t sure where to start.
But if you are open to persuasion, or if you are interested in reading an essay collection but haven’t yet taken the plunge, here are 10 reasons to consider picking one up the next time you are casting about for something new to read:
1. Essays can be about anything, and you are guaranteed to find some on subjects that interest you. I’ve read essays on feminism, empathy, California, elephants, Instagram, dieting, palliative care, babies, and France. And much, much more. If you want to read about it, someone’s probably written an essay on it. (And if not, then you can always write your own!)
2. The best essayists make any subject interesting. Think you would never want to read an essay on flies? Well, Sallie Tisdale’s “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” from her book Violation will make you think otherwise. Think an essay about going to a state fair sounds boring? It’s not. It’s good to read an essay because the subject interests you, but it’s even better to read an essay and find a seemingly dull topic transformed into a page-turner.
3. The best essays feel like a scintillating conversation. Or they are like listening to a lecture by the best college professor you ever had. Essays can give you a glimpse into someone’s mind. A good essay is letting a wise, amusing, enticing, seductive voice into your head. To me, they can feel companionable, as though I’m making a new best friend. Or, in other cases, they let me safely spend time with someone I never actually want to meet, but whose brain I’m curious about.
4. The essay as a genre has always felt wide open to me, as though writers can do absolutely anything in them. Which they can. Essays are where writers can follow their thoughts in any direction they want, mix and match any subjects they want, use any tone they want. There aren’t any “rules” about what an essay should be about or how it should be written. The only rule is that it must be interesting.
5. Essays can satisfy the itch to learn about the world while being entertained. They both teach and please. Some essayists research their subjects deeply and some do in-depth reporting to prepare for writing them. Essays are a great source of information, but the good ones are never textbook-like. They make learning fun.
6. Some essays are deeply personal, full of confessions and secrets newly revealed. Essays are a place where writers bare their souls and make readers feel less alone. They can be a source of comfort.
7. Essays, like stories, fit into short pockets of time throughout the day. They are great for a busy schedule because you can read one quickly and feel like you accomplished something. They fit nicely into a lunch hour or a short reading session right before bed.
8. There are lots of ways to read essay collections. You can read them in their entirety from front to back, you can read them out of order, or you can read one or two essays and move on to another book. If you take a year to read an entire collection, who cares? You won’t lose the thread of a story as you would with a novel if you take a long time.
9. You can get the best of all genres in essays: they can contain elements of fiction, memoir, poetry, biography, philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, history, science, mystery, romance, and other, unclassifiable, fabulous things.
10. Essays are cool and you look smarter when you read them. (I said I was an essay evangelist, right? Forgive me for this one.)
So, now that I’ve convinced you to pick up an essay collection, where should you start? Here are 100 suggestions. These five are particularly good choices:
How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, by Kiese Laymon
The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison
The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard
Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace