Essential essay collections

Knowledge and enlightenment are sometimes best delivered in nugget-form, which is why we are suckers for a good essay collection. Hopefully in these collections, our very faves, you’ll be able to detect not only the concentrated nugget-like goodness of each individual essay, but wider, more thought-provoking threads that bind each collection together, whether the subject is societal decay in Mexico or the very nature of reading for pleasure. Oh, and also look out for the incredible takedown of Joan Didion in the Elaine Castillo collection, then read the Joan Didion collection on this list to make your own mind up!

How To Read Now, by Elaine Castillo

We’re not ones to make lofty claims too often, but this book could permanently change the way you read. In this searing series of essays, Elaine Castillo contemplates and critiques our reading culture (not only with respect to books, but generally how we are encouraged and have learned to ‘read’ the world) and the white supremacy which it champions, ultimately arguing for something ‘better’, a more engaged and thoughtful way of reading stories. She takes to task lauded (and not-so lauded) figures such as J.K Rowling, Joan Didion and Peter Handke, and writes about others with awe, care, and admirable incisiveness.

The exhilarating takedowns are not the work of a cultural party-pooper, however. Castillo celebrates as much as she rightly interrogates – even if you haven’t encountered the works she happily valorises, the rigorous approach is infectious, and may lead to you beginning a binge-watch of Wong Kar-wai movies.

A Little Devil in America, by Hanif Abdurraqib

The poet and essayist is fairly peerless when it comes to topics of race and culture in modern America, but where this collection of essays shines brightest is when Abdurraqib’s unbidden enthusiasm for this subjects comes through: so that means Lando Calrissian, the recorded output of Whitney Houston and the power of a good game of spades. Indispensible, angry when necessary, brutally entertaining.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

Sun-baked showbiz encounters, sensitive and probing explorfations of the darker side of life and lashings of Didion’s trademark incisive analysis. This book simply is Los Angeles, it is America. We particularly enjoyed Didion’s account of hanging around movie sets with a tyre-bellied John Wayne, the sadness and deflation of an icon summed up in one gorgeous essay.

This is Not Miami, by Fernanda Melchor
trans. Sophie Hughes

This collection of reportage and narrative non-fiction is a perfect companion for Melchor’s fiction titles, Hurricane Season and Paradais. The collection contextualises these novels, taking us to the roots of some of Veracruz’s darkest and most dangerous places. In her characteristically frank and non-judgemental style, she shines a light on criminals, murderers and some of Mexico’s most misunderstood people. Whilst no-one is ever excused or let off the hook in Melchor’s stories, she sets out the truths and contexts, politics and histories in such a way that we can take a step back and understand more about the society that created and moulded these individuals. 

A Horse at Night, by Amina Cain

Reaffirming our strong belief that books of the greatest heft and insight more often than not arrive in small and unassuming packages, this sliver of a tome is packed with countless ‘YES, CORRECT!’ moments on every page.

Amina Cain treated us a couple of years ago with her sublime little novel Indelicacy, and to follow she has written this gentle and truthful account of her own reading habits, the books that shaped her own writing sensibilities and the thoughts that race through her mind when in the midst of creativity. It’s like a non-invasive rummage through a very smart friend’s diary.

The good news is that to enjoy this book you need no experience of Cain’s previous work, nor any of the books she refers to. All the pleasure is derived from the nuggets of truth she brings forth from them, the passages she highlights and the way they extend beyond the page and into your own sense of potential.

Notes to Self, by Emilie Pine

One of those books that makes you feel like a different person after you’ve finished it. Notes to Self is a sort of memoir in six raw, personal essays which will make pretty much anyone cry, guaranteed – but in the best, most cathartic way.

Not to Read, by Alejandro Zambra
trans. Megan McDowell

It’s no secret that we’re Zambra megafans at Storysmith, but once you’ve devoured all his novels we highly suggest migrating to his essay collection, a sort of literary memoir in very short essays by Zambra mostly on the subject of reading – whether it be book recommendations from the man himself or essays about the pleasures of reading photocopies of novels too expensive to buy (apparently books could be prohibitively expensive in the Chile of Zambra’s youth). Dead funny and totally charming.

Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino

Tolentino’s gift for entertaining analysis is made all the more readable because she treats subjects like athleisure wear and campus assault with equal seriousness. Sharp yet loose, she careens through hot-button topics with effortless insight and cool.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee

A thoroughly enjoyable and perceptive collection of semi-autobiographical essays. Chee covers the joys of drag, tongue-in-cheek novel writing tips, odd-jobs between books, activism, the AIDS crisis, sexuality, race, and what it was like to be taught by Annie Dillard.

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