Today marks the release of celebrated novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson’s newest collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. We’ve been excited about this book for a while now, so if you’ve been reading our books coverage with any regularity you probably already know we think it’s something worth picking up. Great as it is, Robinson’s collection only whet our appetites for more essays by contemporary writers, so in case it does the same for you, we’ve put together a list of contemporary essayists we think everyone should be reading right now (or, you know, whenever you finish watching Downton Abbey). We’ve tried to stick to authors who are still alive — so David Foster Wallace and Christopher Hitchens are off the table, though they both would have made this list with flying colors were they still with us — and limited ourselves to American writers, but even with those caveats, there is enough in these writers’ oeuvres to keep you up and thinking for weeks on end. Click through to read our list, and please do add your own suggestions for top-notch essayists we should all be reading in the comments.
Though Robinson is much lauded for her fiction (she won the Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, Gilead), she is equally adored for her incisive essays, which often take hard looks at Americanism and the social political system writ both large and very small. Dorris Lessing called her 1998 collection, The Death of Adam, “a useful antidote to the increasingly crude and slogan-loving culture we inhabit,” and we’re comfortable expanding that statement to Robinson’s work at large — always challenging, always thought provoking, always making us want to be better.