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100 Must-Read Essay Collections

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Rebecca Hussey

Staff Writer

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

Notes Native Son cover

There’s something about a shiny new collection of essays that makes my heart beat a little faster. If you feel the same way, can we be friends? If not, might I suggest that perhaps you just haven’t found the right collection yet? I don’t expect everyone to love the thought of sitting down with a nice, juicy personal essay, but I also think the genre gets a bad rap because people associate it with the kind of thing they had to write in school.

Well, essays don’t have to be like the kind of thing you wrote in school. Essays can be anything, really. They can be personal, confessional, argumentative, informative, funny, sad, shocking, sexy, and all of the above. The best essayists can make any subject interesting. If I love an essayist, I’ll read whatever they write. I’ll follow their minds anywhere. Because that’s really what I want out of an essay — the sense that I’m spending time with an interesting mind. I want a companionable, challenging, smart, surprising voice in my head.

So below is my list, not of essay collections I think everybody “must read,” even if that’s what my title says, but collections I hope you will consider checking out if you want to.

1. Against Interpretation — Susan Sontag

2. Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere — André Aciman

3. American Romances — Rebecca Brown

4. Art & Ardor — Cynthia Ozick

5. The Art of the Personal Essay — anthology, edited by Phillip Lopate

6. Bad Feminist — Roxane Gay

7. The Best American Essays of the Century — anthology, edited by Joyce Carol Oates

8. The Best American Essays series — published every year, series edited by Robert Atwan

9. Book of Days — Emily Fox Gordon

Book cover of The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard

10. The Boys of My Youth — Jo Ann Beard

11. The Braindead Megaphone — George Saunders

12. Broken Republic: Three Essays — Arundhati Roy

13. Changing My Mind — Zadie Smith

14. A Collection of Essays — George Orwell

15. The Common Reader — Virginia Woolf

16. Consider the Lobster — David Foster Wallace

17. The Crack-up — F. Scott Fitzgerald

18. Discontent and its Civilizations — Mohsin Hamid

19. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric — Claudia Rankine

20. Dreaming of Hitler — Daphne Merkin

21. Self-Reliance and Other Essays — Ralph Waldo Emerson

22. The Empathy Exams — Leslie Jameson

23. Essays After Eighty — Donald Hall

24. Essays in Idleness — Yoshida Kenko

Ex Libris cover

25. The Essays of Elia — Charles Lamb

26. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader — Anne Fadiman

27. A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit

28. Findings — Kathleen Jamie

29. The Fire Next Time — James Baldwin

30. The Folded Clock — Heidi Julavits

31. Forty-One False Starts — Janet Malcolm

32. How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America — Kiese Laymon

33. I Feel Bad About My Neck — Nora Ephron

34. I Just Lately Started Buying Wings — Kim Dana Kupperman

35. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction — anthology, edited by Lee Gutkind

36. In Praise of Shadows — Junichiro Tanizaki

37. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens — Alice Walker

38. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? — Mindy Kaling

39. I Was Told There’d Be Cake — Sloane Crosley

40. Karaoke Culture — Dubravka Ugresic

41. Labyrinths — Jorge Luis Borges

42. Living, Thinking, Looking — Siri Hustvedt

43. Loitering — Charles D’Ambrosio

44. Lunch With a Bigot — Amitava Kumar

Book cover of Meaty by Samantha Irby

45. Madness, Rack, and Honey — Mary Ruefle

46. Magic Hours — Tom Bissell

47. Meatless Days — Sara Suleri

48. Meaty — Samantha Irby

49. Meditations from a Movable Chair — Andre Dubus

50. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood — Mary McCarthy

51. Me Talk Pretty One Day — David Sedaris

52. Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal — Wendy S. Walters

53. My 1980s and Other Essays — Wayne Koestenbaum

54. The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay, and The Making of the American Essay — anthologies, edited by John D’Agata

55. The Norton Book of Personal Essays — anthology, edited by Joseph Epstein

56. Notes from No Man’s Land — Eula Biss

57. Notes of a Native Son — James Baldwin

58. Not That Kind of Girl — Lena Dunham

59. On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry

60. Once I Was Cool — Megan Stielstra

61. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write — Sarah Ruhl

62. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored — Adam Phillips

63. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence — Adrienne Rich

64. The Opposite of Loneliness — Marina Keegan

65. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition — Geoff Dyer

66. Paris to the Moon — Adam Gopnik

67. Passions of the Mind — A.S. Byatt

68. The Pillow Book — Sei Shonagon

69. A Place to Live — Natalia Ginzburg

70. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination — Toni Morrison

71. Pulphead — John Jeremiah Sullivan

72. Selected Essays — Michel de Montaigne

73. Shadow and Act — Ralph Ellison

74. Sidewalks — Valeria Luiselli

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

75. Sister Outsider — Audre Lorde

76. The Size of Thoughts — Nicholson Baker

77. Slouching Towards Bethlehem — Joan Didion

78. The Souls of Black Folk — W. E. B. Du Bois

79. The Story About the Story — anthology, edited by J.C. Hallman

80. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — David Foster Wallace

81. Ten Years in the Tub — Nick Hornby

82. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man — Henry Louis Gates

83. This Is Running for Your Life — Michelle Orange

84. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage — Ann Patchett

85. Tiny Beautiful Things — Cheryl Strayed

86. Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture — Gerald Early

87. Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints — Joan Acocella

88. The Unspeakable — Meghan Daum

89. Vermeer in Bosnia — Lawrence Weschler

90. The Wave in the Mind — Ursula K. Le Guin

91. We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think — Shirley Hazzard

92. We Should All Be Feminists — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

93. What Are People For? — Wendell Berry

94. When I Was a Child I Read Books — Marilynne Robinson

95. The White Album — Joan Didion

96. White Girls — Hilton Als

97. The Woman Warrior — Maxine Hong Kinston

98. The Writing Life — Annie Dillard

99. Writing With Intent — Margaret Atwood

100. You Don’t Have to Like Me — Alida Nugent

If you have a favorite essay collection I’ve missed here, let me know in the comments!