Essay collections are perfect for filling bits of time when you need something to read but don’t want to settle into anything long. I am almost always in the middle of a collection, and it doesn’t matter in the least if I take a long time to finish it. They are perfect for dipping into, for trying out, for reading at whim.
2017 is a great year for essays. The 20 collections featured below give you a taste of the kind of material available: there are books about what it’s like to live in Trump’s America, about being a woman today, about living in the age of Black Lives Matter. You will also find collections about art and literature and about the ups and downs of everyday life. Some collections contain all of the above. The richness and variety of essays available today is overwhelming, in the best possible way. So check out this list of 20 of the year’s best collections and see if something catches your interest.
Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life by Chelsea Martin
These essays chart Chelsea Martin’s life from her girlhood into her early adult years. They are personal, revealing, funny, and wince-inducing all at once. Martin grew up poor in a poor California town, and here she lays it all out: her struggles with family, love, sex, money, illness, and more. This is a quick read, and one that will stay with you.
Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding
Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, Samantha Irby, Katha Pollitt, and Nicole Chung are among the 23 women writers in this collection about living in Trump’s America. This is an essential book for those who want to think about how our country ended up where it is and how we move forward.
Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and other bad ideas by Jenny Allen
Here you will find 35 short pieces by a humor writer and performer who can bring out the comedy of everyday life. Allen mixes comedic pieces with more serious essays on illness, motherhood, and single life after decades of being in a relationship. This is a book for when you want to laugh and then sigh with rueful recognition.
Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment Edited by Angela J. Davis
Authors included in this anthology are Bryan Stevenson, Sherrilyn Ifill, Jeremy Travis, and more. It’s a look at issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the ways the criminal justice system affects black boys and men. It’s one of a large group of books out this year that help explain the impact of racism on black Americans and on the culture at large.
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
Irby’s previous essay collection Meaty was hilarious. Here is her follow-up, with more of what she is so good at: comic personal essays on the trials and tribulations of contemporary life. The essays will move you and entertain you both.
The Hidden Machinery: essays on Writing by Margo Livesey
This collection is for writers and those who like to read about books and writing. It’s part a study of literature, part writing class, and part memoir. You can read Livesey’s thoughts on Flaubert and Austen and learn her thoughts on how to create characters and how to write dialogue. Livesey is a beloved writing teacher sharing the wisdom gained by years of teaching.
The Wrong Way to Save Your life: Essays by Megan Stielstra
Here you will find personal essays that cover a range of topics: motherhood, education, art, academia, the internet, and more. It’s personal, smart, moving, and funny, the kind of book that will make you think and feel both, and where the writer feels like she’s keeping you company while you read.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman By Anne Helen Peterson
In a similar vein as Sady Doyle’s great 2016 book Trainwreck, this collection looks at women in the public eye. Analyzing figures such as Lena Dunham, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, Peterson discusses why we love to hate these powerful, controversial women and what our obsession with celebrity tells us about who we are.
Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History by Camille T. Dungy
Camille Dungy covers a broad range of topics: traveling as a mother, working in the literary world as a woman of color, hiking, visiting slave-trading ports in Ghana, watching her daughter learn language. In every essay, Dungy is incisive and revealing, both of her own experience and of the state of the world as she sees it.
Browse: The World in BookshopsEdited by Henry Hitchings
This one is for bookshop lovers and those who love to read about books (as I do!). Here you will find 15 essays on the significance, function, pleasures, and possibilities of bookstores from around the world. Contributors include Alaa Al Aswany, Michael Dirda, Yiyun Li, Elif Shafak, Ali Smith, and more.
We Were Eight Years in POwer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates is always an exciting event, and here he is writing about the Obama years. This collection contains work that appeared in magazines to great acclaim and much discussion such as “Fear of a Black President,” and “The Case for Reparations.” It contains eight new essays as well, each of which covers a year of the Obama administration.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
These are essays about music, but also about culture, race, and life in America today. Willis-Abdurraqib writes about attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, what it was like growing up in America in the 1990s, the first time he was thrown on the ground by police officers, and much more.
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison
These essays began as lectures. They cover history, politics, and literature, including an examination of authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Any book by Toni Morrison is an essential one, and here she delivers the incisive observations about race and American culture we have come to expect from her.
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard
Like many on this list, Sarah Gerard’s collection has a lot to tell us about America. She focuses on Florida and from there moves into the personal, and into politics, the economy, and the environment. The essays are a mix of reporting, memoir, and cultural critique.
Somebody with a little hammer: Essays by Mary Gaitskill
Mary Gaitskill is known for her novels Veronica, Two Girls Fat and Thin, and others, and now we have her first essay collection. These pieces were written over the course of a couple decades and cover a range of topics including books and authors; musicians, artists, and celebrities; and cultural and political movements and debates.
Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by Laurie Penny
Here’s a collection for anyone who wants to read a series of smart, provocative essays on feminism today, including subjects such as the 2016 election, online harassment, being a woman writer, transgender rights, and more. Laurie Penny makes a fiercely intelligent companion in our quest to understand feminism and contemporary culture.
Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean Edited by Jennifer Browdy
This collection contains the work of 16 writers including Julia Alvarez, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Gloria Anzaldua, and more. It contains both poetry and essays on the topic of resistance: how women can collaborate across race and class boundaries to fight patriarchy and white supremacy.
Too Much and Not the MOod by Durga Chew-Bose
Full of examples of what gets called the “lyric essay,” this book is varied in subject matter and beautifully written. It opens with a long essay called “Heart Museum” that takes us into Chew-Bose’s life and around the world, and from there moves to shorter essays on family, identity, race, and culture.
Everwhere Home: A Life in Essays by Fenton Johnson
Fenton Johnson’s subjects include sexuality, religion, art, basketball, and more. The essays are also about travel: he wanders from Kentucky to San Francisco to Paris to Calcutta. It’s a collection of pieces that appeared in places like Harper’s as well as new work.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will matter by Scaachi Koul
If you’re in the mood for some humorous essays, this is the book for you: a debut collection that touches on race and culture, gender roles, parents, the internet, and more. She will make you laugh as she tells personal stories and analyzes what it’s like to grow up shaped by two cultures, Western (Canadian) and Indian.
News, new releases, and reading recommendations for nonfiction readers!
Twitter was abuzz with chatter about Mindy Kaling yesterday. She had attended a breakfast at Book Expo America and said funny things like “This is like a high school reunion where all the jocks were killed in a plane crash … & all the minorities too” and “In TV I work in rooms full of white men. It’s interesting to see where all the women went,” both of which were tweeted by Publishers Weekly. The rest of the Twitter love came from fans who’d read the twenty-six-page-excerpt from Kaling’s forthcoming book “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” (the thing that brought her to the expo), which her publisher had just posted online for free. Kaling, who writes and produces for “The Office” (and plays Kelly Kapoor), really, really strikes a chord with the demographic she’s writing for, which is the demographic just below Tina Fey’s (i.e., unmarried, babyless women above the age of sixteen and under the age of thirty). “Oh my God, @mindykaling’s new book is everything I need in my life. I feel like I wrote this (or at least thought it),” one tweeted. And another: “It’s uncanny how @mindykaling has intercepted the collective brain of my friends and me.” Kaling’s book, which is a collection of humorous essays and advice on fashion, dating, and how to be a good best friend, sounds a lot like it was written by a smarter version of Kelly Kapoor, everyone’s favorite girly girl, which helps to explain the appeal: if you love Kelly and think the three minutes or so allotted her on episodes of “The Office” are too few, you can take home Mindy, spend a few hours with her, and keep her on the shelf.
Funny women actor/writers—Tina, Mindy, Kristen, and Amy (first names only please)—are having a real cultural moment. If you keep an eye out for such things, you’ll have noticed that these women are funniest when they’re writing themselves, perhaps because they are usually playing a version of themselves: Liz Lemon is best when Tina Fey writes her; Kristen Wiig broke out of her twitchy “S.N.L.” persona in “Bridesmaids”; Amy Poehler’s character Leslie Knope shone in the couple episodes of “Parks and Recreation” Poehler wrote; and Kelly Kapoor is funniest when Mindy Kaling’s in control. This makes sense: can you imagine anyone besides Woody Allen writing the Woody Allen character? It could be done, but there would be brand disintegration. Allen has so protected his persona that it has long been identifiable, cohesive, and fungible, meaning others can easily slip it on (most recently Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris”), and it would be nice for some of these women writer/actors to be able to do something similar over the course of their careers.
Something strange happens to me when such professional funny people turn to writing prose: they’re often wonderful writers (you can read some great Allen and Fey in The New Yorker), but I have trouble focussing—I can hear their voices reading the words aloud with the correct cadence, rather than the one my brain imposes; I can see their faces making the expressions only they can make. It’s very distracting. And so, even though I like their books, I don’t really want to sit and read them all by myself. I want Tina Fey and Woody Allen to come over to my house and perform their books in my living room.
With Kaling’s book, the problem is amplified by the disjointed structure: it’s a collection of bits begging to be performed on a stand-up stage. And they need Kaling’s bobbleheaded-deadpan delivery to make them pop. In a chapter called “The Day I Stopped Eating Cupcakes,” she writes about an offer made to her by a cupcake salesman: “We know you’re on Twitter. (Leaning in conspiratorially) and, if you’re willing to tweet about loving Sunshine Cupcakes, this cupcake (gesturing to the one I was buying) is free”:
I did not know it was possible to be triple offended. First of all, Manager Woman, if you notice that a thirty-one-year-old woman is coming to your cupcake bakery every day for a week, keep that information to yourself. I don’t need to be reminded of how poor my food choices are on a regular basis. Secondly, how cheap and/or poor do you think I am? A cupcake costs two bucks! You think I’m miserly enough to think, like, “Oh goody, I can save those two bucks for some other tiny purchase later today”? And thirdly, even if I were to buy in to this weird bribey situation where I endorse your product, you think the cost of it would be one measly cupcake? The implications of this offer were far worse than anything she meant to propose, obviously, but I hate her forever nonetheless.
This is why I never eat cupcakes anymore. The connotations are too disturbing to me.
O.K., it’s funny. But I still have a request for anyone named above planning on writing a book in the future: could you please release a companion DVD of you acting out your work along with the print edition (and/or come over to my house and do it in person)? As great as books are, sometimes you are your own best medium.
(Via Shelf Life)