While We’re On the Subject: 10 of the Best Essay Collections

Liberty Hardy

Senior Contributing Editor

Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading. Twitter: @MissLiberty

One of the great things about being adult is that you only have to read the books you want to read now. No more assigned reading (unless you’re pursuing more education)! And while the word “essay” can conjure up images of homework, it’s actually just another really fun form of writing as a way to get information into your brain. An essay is a short piece of writing about a specific subject. That’s all. And just like all other writing, the subject possibilities are endless! There are so many amazing collections of essays to choose from. That’s why we’re helping you find a few great ones with this list of ten of the best essay collections.

These books cover a variety of topics, such as music, nature, race, and writing. Each of these are written by one particular author, but you can find essay collections with multiple contributors. The Best American Essays are a great place to start — the most recent one was guest edited by Alexander Chee, who has a book also listed below. He knows essays! I also highly recommend A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen. I had no idea how much I would love a small collection of essays about the famous mime Marcel Marceau until I picked it up. What a gem!

cover of They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib; photo of a wolf wearing a black track suit and a gold medallion

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

Poet, essayist, and critic Abdurraqib’s first collection is an amazing jumping-off point if you’ve not read many essays. These are smart and thoughtful pieces, some about life as viewed through the lens of culture, such as his experience at a Carly Rae Jepsen show and his thoughts on attending concerts in the wake of the shootings in Paris. And some are about his experience as a Black man living in America. This collection was so successful, it got a new five-year anniversary cover, so you might also find this with a blue cover with a wolf in a red track suit.

cover of Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin; photo of Baldwin, a Black man

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s famous essay collection about racism and the lives of Black people in America was written in the 1940s and early 1950s, at the start of the Civil Rights movement. A powerful writer and activist, Baldwin was one of the early writers discussing the violence and murder perpetrated against Black people. His essays exposed readers to police violence and racial injustice in a time before it was being discussed publicly and nationally.

cover of How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee; red with a small photo of the author, an Asian man

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

Chee, who is a brilliant teacher as well as a published writer, discusses how the life of the writer is entangled in work in various ways. While explaining the importance of art and how it gives meaning to our lives, he revisits his own experiences, including the death of his father, the AIDS crisis, and writing his first novel Edinburgh.

cover of Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D'Ambrosio; image of bird's wing with feathers made from pages of a book

Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio

D’Ambrosio tackles very different subjects in this collection of things that loiter in his brain, while weaving very personal, heartbreaking information into each one. There’s a discussion of the trial of jailed teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, the work of J.D. Salinger, a haunted house, weather, and more. It is also an examination of mental illness and suicide in his family.

cover of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion; b&W photo of the author, a middle-aged white woman wearing a scarf

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion

Like Baldwin, Didion is one of the most famous essayists in the American literary canon. This memorable book includes her sharp, original takes on John Wayne and Howard Hughes, as well as a look at her life growing up in California, and other memorable takes on places around the state.

cover of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby; yellow with a photo of an angry gray kitten

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

And if you want a collection that will make you laugh out loud, pick up this (or any of Irby’s other books.) These are screamingly funny, honest essays about relationships, health and bodies, sex, pet ownership, family, and more. (A few more funny essayists to check out: Jenny Lawson, Helen Ellis, Phoebe Robinson, and Mary Laura Philpott.)

cover of Small Wonder: Essays by Barbara Kingsolver; white with an illustration of a white flower at the bottom

Small Wonder: Essays by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver is one of the finest novelists of the last few decades, but did you know she also writes smart, touching nonfiction? Using nature as the underlying them in each one, Kingsolver probes our world, from mountains and trees, to the dangers of genetically modified foods, to what we owe the children of the world. It’s a collection about growth, literally and metaphorically.

cover of Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver; photo deep inside a forest

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver was an award-winning poet, and her immense, gorgeous talent for writing poetry is apparent in these beautiful, thoughtful essays. They examine her interest in nature and the world at large from a young age, and how the beauty she found around her influence her life and her work. Get ready to underline pretty much everything.

Book cover of let me clear my throat by elena passarello

Let Me Clear My Throat: Essays by Elena Passarello

This is a fascinating collection about voices throughout popular culture, from an 18th century opera singer to Spaceballs to A Streetcar Named Desire. Passarello examines the sound and shape of the sounds that have contributed to the soundtracks of human lives. Equally fascinating is Animals Strike Curious Poses, her essay collection about famous animals throughout history.

cover of Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan; photo of an air freshener with a jaguar on it hanging from a rear view mirror

Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan

And last but not least, another lesser-known gem. Pulphead is like a road trip in a book that covers pop culture, and events around America. Sullivan investigates a Christian rock festival, Real World alumni, the BP oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, and more. It’s an absorbing collection that belongs on the shelf of every essay lover.

For more essays to enrich your life, be sure to check out 100 Must-Read Essay Collections and Essay Collections That Make You Necessarily Uncomfortable.