Essay collections exist in a kind of literary no-man’s-land. They’re non-fiction, but they don’t often slip neatly into a particular category (like “science” or “history”). Often, they draw from the author’s own life, but they don’t follow the chronology we expect of a memoir or autobiography. But if you can figure out where they’re shelved in your local independent bookshop, essay collections can make for some of the best reads. Check out these twenty brilliant essay collections, from all kinds of authors about all kinds of subjects.
Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit
Men Explain Things To Me is a slim little essay collection with a provocative title and a brilliant premise. Rebecca Solnit writes about the lived experience of women in the patriarchy in seven essays (or nine, if you get a later edition) from the last twenty years. She addresses violence against women, marriage equality, the influence of Virginia Woolf, the erasure of women from the archive, fraught online spaces, and more. Solnit was even credited with coining the term “mansplaining” – even though the word itself doesn’t appear in the title essay, and she later said she didn’t necessarily agree with such a gendered term.
Feel Free by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is a once-in-a-generation literary darling, writing beloved fiction and brilliant non-fiction with the same zeal. In Feel Free, her 2018 essay collection, she addresses questions we all find ourselves pondering from time to time. Why do we love libraries? How will we explain our inaction on climate change to future generations? What are online social networks doing to us? Her answers are categorised in the book’s five sections: In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf, and Feel Free (from which the essay collection gets its name). Smith interrogates major world-changing events and small personal disruptions with equal fascination, which makes for an illuminating read.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay has built a career on being forthright, unabashed, and holding a microphone to the best and worst of the little voices in our heads. Bad Feminist is a collection of her essays, most published individually elsewhere prior to the 2014 release, grouped thematically. They’re all loosely tied to the overarching ideas of feminism and womanhood, what it means to do it well, and what the consequences are for doing it badly. As the title suggests, in one of the collection’s most memorable moments, she addresses the difficulty of reconciling her feminism with her love of hip-hop music and the colour pink. She contends throughout this essay collection that it’s better to be a ‘bad feminist’ than to be no kind of feminist at all. Read my full review of Bad Feminist here.
Shrill by Lindy West
Have you ever felt like you just take up too much space in a world that wants you to be small and quiet? Lindy West has, and that’s what she writes in Shrill, the first of her hilarious and insightful essay collections. She lays bear the shame and humiliation that comes with the journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance, in a world that insists you be smaller and quieter. West has battled internet trolls, waged war against rape jokes, and reached an uneasy accord with her unruly body and mind. These essays are brilliant, relatable and hilarious for all women who have felt like they didn’t quite fit.
How To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
How To Write An Autobiographical Novel seems like an odd title for an essay collection, but it makes sense once you hear Alexander Chee’s explanation behind it. On book tours and at speaking events regarding his novels, he found himself facing the same question over and over: “how much of this fictional story is autobiographical?”. He started thinking about how we forge identities in literature, giving rise to this brilliant collection of essays. It’s his “manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him”.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
Samantha Irby describes herself as a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person… with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees… who still hides past due bills under her pillow”. Wow, No Thank You a collection of her essays about… stuff. Life. Ridiculous jobs. Trying to make friends as an adult. The lost art of making a mix-tape. Living in a place where most people don’t share your politics. Getting your period and bleeding all over the sheets of your Airbnb. Trying to remember why you ever found nightclubs fun. There’s even a whole essay of “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever…” jokes (the format might mystify you if you’re not on Twitter, but it’s hilarious). Read my full review of Wow, No Thank You here.
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin
Are you sick of the trope where a nice, skinny, white girl shows up dead and that’s all we ever get to know about her? You’re not the only one. Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls interrogates “iconic American works from the essays of Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, illuminating the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories”. This is one of those essay collections that will stick with you, and change the way you consume stories forever.
If you want alternatives to read, check out my list of crime thrillers without dead girls here.
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Jia Tolentino has been called “a peerless voice of our generation” and a “Joan Didion of our time”. Trick Mirror is one of the most critically acclaimed essay collections of recent years, a “dazzling collection of nine entirely original essays… [that] delves into the forces that warp our vision”. Have you ever wondered why we think what we do and the way we do? Normally, that’s the kind of question we’d leave to marketing professionals and moral philosophy professors, but Tolentino addresses it in an accessible and relatable way. She wants us to understand what advertising, social media, consumerism, and the whole she-bang has done to our consciousness and our understanding of ourselves.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
I’ll confess: David Foster Wallace is kind of my literary secret shame. The man was hardly a paragon of virtue, he treated the women in his life horribly, and he clearly had a lot of troubles that were never adequately addressed. But damn, if his essays aren’t some of the funniest I’ve ever read! Seriously, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one of those brilliant essay collections that will have you howling with laughter so loud your neighbours might call the cops. Wallace is, at turns, cynical, curious, credulous, and cutting – and yet his essays feel seamless. They’re long, they’re stuffed with footnotes that would make a lit professor weep, and yet you’ll read them feeling like no time is passing at all because you’re having so much fun. I can’t speak for his fiction, but his essay collections? Must-reads, especially this one!
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Any library of brilliant essay collections is woefully incomplete without David Sedaris, especially his 2000 collection Me Talk Pretty One Day. It’s over twenty years old, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless. It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday. It’s also a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
I find it hard not to build up a head of steam when I talk about Nora Ephron, because she is criminally underrated. Because she wrote about women and their relationships (to each other and themselves), instead of men with businesses or guns, she’s relegated to the “chick lit” and “rom-com” shelves, described as “fluffy” instead of ingenious. Want proof? Pick up I Feel Bad About My Neck, one of the most brilliant and incisive essay collections you’ll read anywhere. With her trademark candour and dry humour, she tackles the unspeakable: aging as a woman in a society that values perpetual youth.
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen
Scan the headlines of any celebrity gossip website, and you’ll notice: times have changed. We’re a long way from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. The women of today’s front pages are boundary pushers, provocative and powerful in ways that women of previous generations wouldn’t dare dream about. Anne Helen Petersen has had a lot of cause to study these women in her role as a Buzzfeed editor, and she’s written Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud to explain what she’s seen. She “uses the lens of “unruliness” to explore the ascension of powerhouses like Serena Williams, Hillary Clinton, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, exploring why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures”.
All About Love by bell hooks
“The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet we would all love better if we used it as a verb,” writes bell hooks in All About Love, one of her most widely-read and lauded essay collections. She posits that our society is descending into lovelessness. Not romantic lovelessness – we’re drowning in smooches – but the kind where we lack basic compassion and empathy for each other, and ourselves. We are divided and discontented, due to “society’s failure to provide a model for learning to love”. You’ll want to set aside a lot of time to read and think about this one, to really absorb its message – if you do, it’ll change your life.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is Eddo-Lodge’s first essay collection. It started with her blog post of the same name that she published back in 2014, but there’s no need to go trawling the internet for it: Eddo-Lodge reproduces it in full in the preface. It serves as a thesis statement, framing and contextualising everything that is to follow. So, the $64,000 question: why isn’t Eddo-Lodge talking to white people about race? Well, basically, she’s fed up: with white denial, with white self-flagellation, with trying to shake hands with a brick wall. Ironically, this is a collection of essays about race and racism that every white person should absolutely read. Read my full review of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race here.
Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe
If you loved Say Nothing and Empire Of Pain (like I did), you’ll be overjoyed (as I was) to get your hands on a copy of Rogues, a collection of Patrick Radden Keefe’s most celebrated essays from The New Yorker. These delightfully detailed investigative pieces focus on his favourite subjects: “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial”. They’re like delectable bite-sized true crime tales, all meticulously researched and fact-checked so as to ensure they’re completely believable. Each and every one is masterfully crafted, perfectly balanced, and totally gripping. Read my full review of Rogues here.
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
The best essay collections combine both sweeping views of the way we live our lives and the minutiae of how the author lives their own. How To Be A Woman is the perfect example. Caitlin Moran interrogates what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, with broad observations as well as deeply personal (not to mention riotously funny) anecdotes. From abortions to Brazilian waxes to pop culture to reproduction, Moran explores the opportunities and constraints for women in all areas of life. She “lays bare the reasons why female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself”.
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
When you think about it, essay collections are a medium well suited to the millennial generation, with our attention spans ruined by television and our ingrained narcissism and all. Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love is to our generation what Bridget Jones’s Diary was to the Gen Xers. In it, she writes about contemporary young adulthood and all its essential components: “falling in love, finding a job, getting drunk, getting dumped, realizing that Ivan from the corner shop might just be the only reliable man in her life, and that absolutely no one can ever compare to her best girlfriends”.
Figuring by Maria Popova
If you’ve ever Googled any kind of lofty question – what did Toni Morrison say makes life worth living? is stoicism a solution to anxiety? what the heck is a ‘growth mindset’? – chances are you’ve stumbled upon BrainPickings.org (now renamed The Marginalian). The mind behind the brilliant website is Maria Popova, and while her online archives constitute about a hundred essay collections’ worth of material, she’s condensed her best and made her contribution in the form of Figuring. This one is a must-read for the literary nerds and the philosophy students and the history buffs. It features snippets and essential lessons from the lives of figures like Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman.
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin
It took Maria Tumarkin nine years to research and write Axiomatic, one of the most powerful essay collections you’ll encounter at your local independent bookstore. She seeks to understand grief, loss, and trauma, and how they inform who we are as people. So, as you can probably already tell, it’s not exactly a light read – but if you’re in the mood to do some deep thinking, it’s an excellent selection. Each of its five sections is based on an axiom about the past and present (like “history repeats itself” or “time heals all wounds”), and examines true stories from Tumarkin’s own life and those around her to illustrate her wider points.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
The problem with essay collections about successful people is that too many of them are of the “here’s how you can be successful too, invest in this stock and get rich quick!” variety. Outliers is the exception (and you have no idea how hard it was not to call it an ‘outlier’ just now). Malcolm Gladwell takes an intellectual look at the best and the brightest, the shining stars of innovation and industry, with the aim of finding out what exactly makes them different. This isn’t just about waking up early or taking cold showers; there are very specific concoctions of culture, community, and cunning that get people to the very top of the game, and Gladwell lays them out for us.
November 26, 2022 at 1:54 AM
Wow this is such a great list and now I want to read them all? I have, in fact, read a handful of them – but am adding a whole bunch more to my wishlist.
Some brilliant essay collections I’ve read in recent years are Notes To Self by Emilie Pine, Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth, Miss Fortune by Lauren Weedman, How We Love by Clementine Ford. Notes From No-Man’s Land by Eula Biss is uneven, but the first essay in it is unforgettable. It’s only now that I realise I apparently never read essay collections by men…
December 13, 2022 at 9:16 PM
Interesting, I was fifty-fifty on whether I’d check out How We Love, but your commendation is definitely weighing the scale in its favour! Thank you 😀
December 3, 2022 at 2:47 PM
A favorite genre of mine that I don’t read enough in. Bookmarking this post for future reference. (One of my favorite essayists is C.S. Lewis, the master philosopher and apologist IMHO.)
December 13, 2022 at 9:16 PM
Oooh! I’ve not read any of C.S. Lewis’s essay, great tip Hannah – I’ll be keeping an eye out for them!