As memoir has surged in popularity, this other beloved nonfiction form, the essay, seems to go in and out of style. Critics alternately lament the demise or herald the resurgence of the essay, and despite the wild success of recent volumes like Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, there are plenty of people ready to tell you that essay collections don’t sell. And yet, it continually seems to be the case that they do sell, and that people want to read them.
There’s something satisfying about a form that allows for meandering thought, for philosophical musings on deep subjects mixed in with simple observations about ordinary, everyday things. You can dip in and out of an essay collection, which makes them ideal to chip away at on a busy commute or over lunch, or whenever else you fit reading into your life. You can leave an essay collection on your nightstand for months and come back to it with no worry about whether you’ve lost the thread of the plot. The essayist will welcome you back with open arms.
Anne Fadiman’s father, Clifton Fadiman, once wrote that women don’t often become essayists of this sort because “the form does not attract them,” to which Anne responds in the preface off her second essay collection At Large and At Small, “Well, it attracts me.” It attracts me, as well, and numerous other women writers, past and present. In Anne’s honor, and perhaps admittedly also as a way of defying her father and other men who consider the confessional memoir form more suitable to women’s voices than the thoughtful essay, I present a list of essay collections by women, for everyone.
1. Book of Days: Personal Essays, by Emily Fox Gordon.
Gordon is also the author of two memoirs and a novel, but she’s at her best as an essayist. Her intelligence and wit is on full display in this volume, which covers topics from faculty politics to life in therapy to the college dormitory. If you’re new to collected essays as a form, there’s no better place you could begin.
2. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith
You might know Zadie Smith from her fiction, but she is an equally fine essayist. This volume stands apart in that it demonstrates an especially wide range of styles and subject matters. Smith writes about books, about film, and about her life, sometimes in a distant, abstract way, and at other times zooming in to the emotional heart of family and relationships. She moves between these different approaches with a deft hand, her voice consistent no matter the topic or approach.
3. Sidewalks, by Valeria Luiselli
Luiselli has gained attention from her novel, The Story of My Teeth, but this slim volume of essays should not to be overlooked. In Sidewalks Luiselli takes her reader along as literary tourist, cycling the streets at night, unpacking boxes, her meandering mind and the varyingly structures of the essays mimicking the twists and turns or her own thought. The sense of space and how one inhabits it, how it shapes who a person is and becomes, threads throughout these essays, even as they exist each on their own.
4. The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard
Beard’s collection differs from the others listed here in that it reads as a more intentionally linked collection, a “memoir in essay” work. The collection starts slowly, with a piece about Bonanza, followed by one about cousins, but at around page 70 the reader begins “The Fourth State of Matter,” perhaps Beard’s most famous essay, a modern masterpiece of the genre. My favorite part of this collection is seeing how a writer built a book around this one striking piece, without allowing this single essay to overwhelm the whole.
5. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman
This list would not be complete without a nod to Fadiman herself. Ex Librisreads like a collection of love letters to a life surrounded by books, covering everything from the love of used bookstores, to the incessant need to proofread everything including the menu, to the idea of marrying libraries long after you’ve chosen to marry a particular person. This is a book lover’s book, and it is impossible not to come away from it without being drawn into the joys of the essay.