20 Must-Read Best Essay Collections of 2019

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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

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 cover in best essay collections of 2019About 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 coverThe 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 cover in best essay collections of 2019The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on Americaedited 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 cover in best essay collections of 2019I’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 coverMy 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 Book CoverThe 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 cover in best essay collections of 2019White 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.