An Easy Introduction to Nonfiction: The Essay

One of my reading goals for this year was to read an essay every single day. Reading essays — both online and in collections — has helped remind me about all the great, short nonfiction there is out there. And, I think we’re living in a particularly robust time for long-form writing, which makes it easy for readers that are tentative about trying nonfiction to find something to enjoy.

Good old Merriam-Webster defines an essay as “an analytic or interpretative literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view.” While that’s a pretty clinical definition, it does get at the idea that an essay is both literary and limited, but doesn’t go on to dictate subject or specific style (other than “literary,” but that basically doesn’t mean anything… literary fiction, anyone?).

I’ve been interpreting the idea of an essay pretty broadly, everything from Katy Butler’s incredibly beautiful piece in the New York Times Magazine, “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” to a sports story about Tom Brady’s first hour after losing the Super Bowl on Sunday with a particularly lovely sense of structure.

If you’re into some very, very recent writing, there are two stories, just published, about the exotic animal shootings in Zanesville, Ohio last year that are must reads — “Animals” by Chris Jones in Esquire and “18 Tigers, 17 Lions, 8 Bears, 3 Cougars, 2 Wolves, 1 Baboon, 1 Macaque, and 1 Man Dead in Ohio” by Chris Heath in GQ. And then you could read about the story trailer that Esquire made and how the Internet is disrupting the traditional magazine publishing cycle. I’m fascinated. And a total dork.

Anyway, if you’re interested in exploring some of today’s best narrative nonfiction, I have three websites to suggest:

  • Longform: is a website that collects old and new nonfiction articles from across the Internet that are “too long and too interesting to be read on a web browser.” The site is set up to easily work with read later services like Instapaper or Read It Later, and just recently launched an iPad app. I love the variety that comes from this site. I find a new essay to read almost every day.
  • Byliner: is a little more in-depth than Longform. The site is a publishing company and social network that centers around narrative stories. The site publishes original pieces, Byliner Originals, that are typically between 10,000 to 35,000 words that are available to purchase digitally. The site also collects narrative journalism from around the web that can be sorted by topic or author.
  • Nieman Storyboard: If you’re a bit of a narrative nonfiction wonk, Nieman Storyboard is the blog to check out. A project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, the site looks into storytelling across mediums and offers a place for conversation about how long-form writing is changing in the digital age. I’ve read some fantastic author interviews (this one with Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is awesome), and I love the way they dissect contemporary writing to see how it works.

If you’re the kind of reader that feels intimidated by book-length nonfiction, the essay can be a great way to ease into the genre. Do you have any favorite essays or long-form journalism sources (books or websites) to share?