Essay Collections Keep Saving Me

Between October 2001 and November 2002, a drought befell New Jersey, my home state. The summer of 2002 was a big reading season for me, as we were unable to fill the backyard pool. I read Harry Potter for the first time, and so began my adolescent infatuation with all things fantasy, my bookshelves prominently featuring the spines of J.K. Rowling, Garth Nix, and Brian Jacques.

Not coincidentally, around this time I wrote my first story. Shortly thereafter, I wrote my second, and my third. They were all simple, and as half-realized as you might expect the writing of a 10-year-old to be, but they were mine. I loved those stories of dragons and wizards that I scrawled out in spiral-bound notebooks. When I wrote them, in conjunction with devouring The Seventh Tower and Redwall, it occurred to me, for the first time, that I wanted to be a writer.

For all of middle school, my consumption of YA fantasy kept up at a steady clip. It took me through all the landmarks of a young reader of my time: Artemis Fowl, Eragon, and even the earliest folly of an attempt at reading Lord of the Rings.

By high school, though, I was exhausted. I did not want to read another book about magic, dragons, or grand adventure, and because this was the vast majority of the reading material available to me at the time, I stopped reading as a hobby. I became involved in other things, like high school theatre, the first awkward milestones of high school dating, and a burning desire to distance myself from all things that marked my prepubescent life.

For the next few years, a drought of a different kind overtook my life: I no longer enjoyed reading. Reading slumps are exceedingly common, but mine was epic. For six years, I did not have any intense or thoughtful connection to anything I read, most of which was course material that I either skimmed or never finished.

Magic Hours by Tom Bissell coverThis changed when I first encountered Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours. Like when you first meet a person who later indelibly changes your life, I remember the first moment I saw Magic Hours perfectly. It was at the Wexner Center bookstore in Columbus, Ohio. Spring break of sophomore year. I was there seeing an exhibit with my then-partner and her mom, and my knees hurt from walking. A brief respite in the bookstore allowed me to sit for a while, in a comfortable blue chair that happened to put me at eye level with this essay collection.

In these essays, Bissell examines the creative processes of artists as disparate as Chuck Lorrie, Emily Dickinson, and Tommy Wiseau; he describes the minutia of media as different as video games, film shoots, and how-to-write books. His voice is sharp, direct, and unfailing in its commitment to small details.

The collection contains “essays on creators and creation.” I did not know it at the time I first picked it up, but this was the exact sort of reading material I needed when I was 19 years old, partway through my sophomore year of getting a BFA in theatre. I needed perspective on what the hell exactly I and my peers were striving toward.

And then, without my noticing, I suddenly loved to read again. Beyond actually reading most of my course materials in full, I found time to read for pleasure. Suddenly, the fantasy novels of my youth had soul again. I became deeply enamored of Paula Vogel, August Wilson, and Sam Shepard. I read David Sedaris for the first time, whose When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Me Talk Pretty One Day tore my soul into shreds through episodes of laughter and sobbing. Though I’ve still yet to do a full read of Lord of the Rings, I crawled my way into first attempts at other older, denser material, like the works of Dostoevsky and Virginia Woolf.

This phase of my reading life was nothing short of revelatory. Although Bissell’s writing covers the exact subject matter I needed to read at the time, there was something beyond the power of his individual book at work. Ever since this first encounter with creative nonfiction, essay collections have continued to be reliable ways for me to break my reading slumps.

This is Running for Your Life by Michelle OrangeA few years later, I had a similar experience with Michelle Orange’s This Is Running for Your Life. Like Bissell, Orange’s writing is concerned with media, but less with those who create it and more with those who consume it. She examines the ways in which images, celebrity culture, and popular psychology influence our interpersonal relationships, with a voice that expertly rides the line between critical and personal.

It was around the time I read This Is Running for Your Life that my perspective about the kind of writer I wanted to be also shifted. My writing for much of my late teens and early 20s was entirely concerned with being Good Fiction. I am grateful now to see the fallacy of the idea that fiction, particularly literary fiction, is somehow inherently better than other types of writing, especially nonfiction, for which I have developed such a passion. I began writing my own essays, mostly about music and other pop culture, and building my muscle for analyzing my media and culture experiences in a way that writing fiction had not allowed me to do. (Funnily enough, it was only when I shed some of the snobbery around other genres that I began noticing my fiction writing getting better.)

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib coverFinally, and most recently, I have fallen in love with They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Hanif Abdurraqib writes with such singularity and precision that each of his essays is like a magic trick. I absorb his vivid, yet conversational descriptions of times and places, and within small spans, sometimes as short as only two or three pages, am transported by the insights—on race, on poverty, on drugs, on creativity, on loneliness—he draws from seemingly frivolous topics like metalcore bands, famous moments in basketball, and long drives through the Midwest to see hip-hop concerts. To read Abdurraqib’s writing is to learn new ways in which to see.

I could write a thousand more words about the other essay collections that have saved my life as a reader and a writer. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. The list is long, and I endeavor to keep lengthening it so long as I read.

In the author’s note of Magic Hours, Tom Bissell describes an episode early in his career in which he doubts his ability to write a magazine assignment:

Shortly before the trip … I had second thoughts and called the editor. “You’re aware,” I said, “that I’m not actually a journalist?” … The editor was undeterred. “Look,” he said, “just go up there and write about what you see.”

To engage with an essay collection is to agree to listen to someone describe what they’ve seen, what they’ve thought, what they’ve felt. It is a genre of book that can surprise you with its depth and diversity, and allow you permission to see the world in different ways, often when you need it most.

10 Must-Read Essay Collections by Women

This list of essay collections by women is sponsored by I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.

In this memoir-in-essays full of spot-on observations about home, work, and creative life, acclaimed essayist Mary Laura Philpott takes on the conflicting pressures of modern adulthood with wit and heart. She offers up her own stories to show that identity crises don’t happen just once or only at midlife; reassures us that small, recurring personal re-inventions are both normal and necessary; and advises that if you’re going to faint, you should get low to the ground first. Most of all, Philpott shows that when you stop feeling satisfied with your life, you don’t have to burn it all down and set off on a transcontinental hike (unless you want to, of course). You can call upon your many selves to figure out who you are, who you’re not, and where you belong. Who among us isn’t trying to do that?


Learning Writing by Reading

In senior year of high school, I had the joy of taking a personal essay writing class with one of the best English teachers in Brooklyn. It did serve as a boon for people writing their college application essays, but none of the essays I wrote for college ended up being read aloud in that class. I guess I was more comfortable sharing personal writing with strangers in an admissions office than my high school classmates. (Especially because one of my college essays was about how much I hate late people, and I used many examples of my high school classmates.)

We read seminal writers in the personal essay field, as well as a great deal of criticism. It was a wonderful class for learning how to integrate personal stories with cultural criticism, and I still look back fondly on my high school musings about Buffy and feelings about my sisters. I’m only a little embarrassed. I decided to rounded up some of the best work in essays and criticism by women available today.

Essays, Criticism, and Calls to Action

I Remember NothingI Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections by Nora Ephron

Ephron’s legacy remains strong in her screenwriting, but I also want to shout out her amazing final essay collection, I Remember Nothing. Ranging from how waiters over-serve Pellegrino to meditations on losing her memory, Ephron takes a survey of her life, and how she looks back at it. A lot of it was writing, and a lot of the time she didn’t want to write. This book gave me a much-needed perspective on aging when I read it at 17. A full life doesn’t always mean an easily categorized one, and forcing yourself to get the words on the page, like Nora, is hugely necessary.

Movie LoveMovie Love by Pauline Kael

The tenth collection of Pauline Kael’s New Yorker reviews focus on movies from the ’80s and ’90s. It also reaffirms Kael’s love of B-movies and stylist filmmakers. She pulls together reviews of famous nerd fare (Back to the Future II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), cult hits, and movies that have fallen to the annals of cinematic history. Reading Kael’s movie criticism is a master class in art writing. Thank you to my mom for re-alerting me last week to what a virtuoso Kael was.

One Day We'll Be Dead and None of This Will MatterOne Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays by Scaachi Koul

I was originally introduced to Koul in her reporting episodes of BuzzFeed’s Follow This on Netflix. Whether Koul is talking about growing up as a woman of color in Canada or the difficulties of dealing with the social Internet, she is generous and razor-sharp in her writing. This book examines Koul sitting at the intersection of Western beauty standards and Indian social expectations. She is also just so hilarious and smart.

Care WorkCare Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha doesn’t want to leave anyone behind. Although it is a sweet sentiment, her book dives into the radicalism of including people who are rendered disabled by an unjust society. She argues that building empathy and inclusion for people marginalized by sickness, disability, race, or gender is the way to create thriving activist communities.

I'm Afraid of MenI’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

Growing up in Canada, Vivek Shraya was forced to hide in overcompensating, especially among straight men. As a trans woman of color, she is even more attuned to the way men exert control over people’s behavior. She especially felt this perpetuation of patriarchal standards through the pressure of fitting into feminine body standards. Shraya’s work has received several awards, including one of the best audiobooks of 2018 by us here at Book Riot, and there are many more books by trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming authors to dive into.

90s Bitch90s Bitch by Allison Yarrow

After this book, I definitely began to doubt the reclamation of the world “bitch” in our contemporary moment. Many women in the ’90s were public figures against their will, and some were deliberate public firebrands who pushed controversy in hopes of making big change. Either way, “bitch” flattened women who did anything at all into easily dismissed jokes. I want to remind myself consistently of the hard work women in the past have done to allow us to speak freely in order to push fundamental equality and intersectional feminism forward.

Living a Feminist LifeLiving a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed

Sara Ahmed’s scholarly writing is varied and impactful, with a throughline of the politics of inclusion. It is important to note that Ahmed’s edicts for living a feminist life include the issues of racism, postcolonialism, and queer theory, as they should. She argues that we should always push feminist values into our daily lives and interactions, as it is so easy to let things slide. The accumulation of letting things slide is what can lead to the nightmarish, world-shaking situations we are in these days. Ahmed is such an effective writer because she never trips up in academic language—her focus on clarity is so necessary for breaking down complex theory.

Greek to MeGreek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris

I relate to Mary Norris’s unabashed nerdiness about language on a soul-deep level. The former New Yorker copy editor explores her obsession with Greece through the goddesses, the historic landscape, and most importantly the development of language. It’s the rare series of travel essays that manages to thread together the history and culture of the destination as well as the author’s personal history.

TrainwreckTrainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why by Sady Doyle

Craving dramatic stories and reveling in schadenfreude is deeply normalized in Western culture, and Sady Doyle brilliantly breaks down the myriad ways the consequences fall on women. Focusing on a woman’s inappropriate behavior is one of the easiest ways to discredit her, push her into the category of “trainwreck,” as opposed to “woman who has lived a complicated life and also critiques societal inequities.”

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock CriticThe First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper

Music criticism is still a frustratingly male-dominated field, so I always appreciate Hopper’s interventions. Reading her measured considerations of grunge, riot grrrl, and the rise of emo are a master class in how music is so integral to our society. Her article about R. Kelly from 2013 is also included, and it is a sad reminder about how much male musician behavior gets swept under the rug.

 

The most effective nonfiction essay writers can reveal as much about ourselves as themselves in a well-crafted piece of writing. I’m so excited by the ever-growing group of women and queer writers telling their stories in personal writing and criticism these days.

What Essay Collection Should You Read Next?

This essay collection quiz is sponsored by I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott.

I miss you when I blinkIn this memoir-in-essays full of spot-on observations about home, work, and creative life, acclaimed essayist Mary Laura Philpott takes on the conflicting pressures of modern adulthood with wit and heart. She offers up her own stories to show that identity crises don’t happen just once or only at midlife; reassures us that small, recurring personal re-inventions are both normal and necessary; and advises that if you’re going to faint, you should get low to the ground first. Most of all, Philpott shows that when you stop feeling satisfied with your life, you don’t have to burn it all down and set off on a transcontinental hike (unless you want to, of course). You can call upon your many selves to figure out who you are, who you’re not, and where you belong. Who among us isn’t trying to do that?


Because essay collections can be so wide-ranging in content and form, it’s often hard to pick your next read. This quiz asks six very easy-to-answer and fun questions to guide you into your next read. Whether your interests are in high literary memoir or low-brow political satire, this quiz is sure to point you toward your next favorite essay collection.