50 Essays Guaranteed to Make You a Better Person

It’s hard to be a person in the world today — or, really, any day, but today’s what we’ve got. Humans are striving creatures, and also empathetic ones, so most of us are always looking for an opportunity to improve ourselves, even in tiny, literary ways. We’ve already established that novels can make you a better person, but of course, novels also take you down a long winding road to get there. If you’re looking for a more direct shot to the heart, try an essay. After the jump, you’ll find 50 essays more or less guaranteed to make you a better person — or at least a better-read one — some recommended by notables of the literary and literary nonfiction world, some recommended by yours truly, incessant consumer of the written word. Don’t see the essay that changed your life? Please do add it to the list.

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”Documents,” Charles D’Ambrosio

(Recommended by Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams)

“You could call Charles D’Ambrosio’s essay “Documents” a piece of memoir, an act of urgent fraternal curiosity, a parade of ghosts — and it’s all of these, but formally it’s really a series of close-readings connected by deep grooves of loss. D’Ambrosio examines texts written by his father and his troubled brothers — including letters, a suicide note, and a fanciful poem — in order to meditate on the intimacies and ruptures that have structured his family. As is the nature of his brilliance, D’Ambrosio resists conclusions. He honors the complexity embedded in his grief—not always a source of solace, but ultimately a powerful kind of tribute.”

“Documents” will appear this November in Loitering. For now, read it here.

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”Some Thoughts on Mercy,” Ross Gay

This essay is, unfortunately, more relevant than ever. Poet Ross Gay delves not only into the terrible prejudices with which people of color in America struggle every day, but also into the way those prejudices influence their own perception, their own idea of themselves. “Look how I’ve been made by this,” he writes.

“But what if we acknowledged those fears, regardless of how awful or shameful they are? What if we acknowledged this country’s terrible and ongoing history of imagining its own citizens — indigenous, black, Japanese American, Arab American, Latino — as monsters? What if we acknowledged the drug war, and the resulting mass incarceration of African Americans, and the myriad intermediate crimes against citizens and communities as a product of our fears? And what if we thereby had to reevaluate our sense of justice and the laws and procedures and beliefs that constitute it? What if we honestly assessed what we have come to believe about ourselves and each other, and how those beliefs shape our lives? And what if we did it with generosity and forgiveness? What if we did it with mercy?”

As an added bonus, there is also some really beautiful stuff about bees.

Read it here.

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“Some Notes on Attunement,” Zadie Smith

In this gorgeous essay, Zadie Smith describes falling in love with Joni Mitchell — and also has some intelligent and universally useful things to say about the value of emotional and intellectual openness. “Faith involves an acceptance of absurdity,” she writes. “To get us to that point, Kierkegaard hopes to ‘attune’ us, systematically discarding all the usual defenses we put up in the face of the absurd. Of course, loving Joni Mitchell does not require an acceptance of absurdity. I’m speaking of the minor category of the aesthetic, not the monument of the religious. But if you want to effect a breach in that stolid edifice the human personality I think it helps to cultivate this Kierkegaardian sense of defenselessness. Kierkegaard’s simple man makes a simple mistake: he wants to translate the mystery of the Biblical story into terms that he can comprehend. His failure has something to teach us. Sometimes it is when we stop trying to understand or interrogate apparently ‘absurd’ phenomena — like the category of the ‘new’ in art — that we become more open to them. Put simply: you need to lower your defenses.”

Read it here.

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”The Aquarium,” Aleksandar Hemon

The last essay in Hemon’s wonderful The Book of My Lives is also the most stirring. In it, he recounts — with such gentleness, with such grace, with such bare grief — his family’s life after his nine-month-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer, a brain tumor. They say it’s the development of empathy that improves the emotional capacities of people who read literature, and if so, this essay must be the most effective piece of writing around. It will not only make you cry and call all your loved ones, but it will add Hemon, unalterably, to the list.

Read it here.

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“In History,” Jamaica Kincaid

(Recommended by Jen Percy, author of Demon Camp)

“Kincaid, who is from Antigua, feels her own history has been erased. ‘What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me? Should I call it history?’ When Christopher Columbus arrived to the New World, he named everything he saw, ​including Antigua, which he named after a church. ‘This church might have been ​an ​important church to Christopher Columbus​,​ but churches are not important, originally, to people who look like me.’​ ​Kincaid​ reminds us that ​Columbus​ was ​not naming but renaming the world. ‘That it is new only to him, that it had a substantial existence, physical and spiritual, before he became aware of it,’ she writes, ‘does not occur to him.’ There is a seething quality to Kincaid — humanizing but also seething. This essay make s​ you aware of the narratives you ​unknowingly ​impose on others, and will ​help you ​​think with greater sensitivity about race and power. It asks you not to forget. The false story of history might become your own — ​and ​you are complicit in the up​most​ sense of the word.”

“In History” appears in The Colors of Nature.

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“Once More to the Lake,” E.B. White

Feel like getting in touch with your own mortality? No, I’m sure you don’t, but it might be good for you. This classic essay is a luminous reminder of the circle of life and the ultimate interconnectedness of all human beings, likely to leave you flat — but also, all things considered, rather better off.

Read it here.

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“A Few Words About Breasts,” Nora Ephron

Firstly: laughter probably makes you a better person. And so does the kind of giggly, head-nodding empathy that Ephron always seems to evoke — she will always be the one to remind you that you’re part of the world, part of her world, and it isn’t so bad, even when it’s bad, terrible, and totally flat-chested.

Read it here.

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“Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard

One of the most cosmically beautiful essays of all time, and filled with wisdom to boot. Just one eggy taste: “There are a few more things to tell from this level, the level of the restaurant. One is the old joke about breakfast. ‘It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.’ Wallace Stevens wrote that, and in the long run he was right. The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, and God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy.

“The dear, stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious, clamoring mind will hush if you give it an egg.”

Read it here.

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”Forty-One False Starts,” Janet Malcolm

(Recommended by Rachel Aviv, staff writer at The New Yorker)

“This won’t make you a better person, I don’t think. But it will make you attuned to how impossible it is to ever really know someone. No one is better than Malcolm at revealing the way that people, with all their complexities (and mood swings and self-constructions), continually slip out of reach.”

Read the essay in Malcolm’s collection of the same name, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers.

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“Split at the Root,” Adrienne Rich

Essential reading for anyone struggling with the multiplicity of identity — so, everybody.

Read it here.

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“Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I know, I know, you’re asleep already, but there’s a reason we all had to read this in high school. Emerson’s basic message is so elemental, so American, perhaps, but still worthwhile: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Self-reliance, self-trust, self-belief — these things can go a long way towards just about anyone’s personal betterment.

Read it here.

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“On Self-Respect,” Joan Didion

(Recommended by Sloane Crosley, author of How Did You Get This Number?)

“I don’t know if Joan Didion’s ‘On Self-Respect’ will make you a better person but it won’t make you a worse one (there are plenty of inward-facing essays that will). ‘On Self-Respect’ is an all-time favorite for how balanced and thoughtful it is, all the while acknowledging that we are not the balanced and thoughtful creatures we’d like to be, that we are quick to congratulate ourselves on compassion for the wrong reasons or to attack what we fear most in ourselves. It reaches deeply and quickly, separating out self-worth from self-respect, slyly highlighting the dangers of living to please and challenging our judgmental impulses, i.e. ‘To protest that some fairly improbable people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely.’ It also contains a killer Gone With The Wind reference.”

Read the essay here.

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”Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin

One of the classics, and for good reason. “It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered. The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one’s own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” Almost 60 years later, and we still need to be reminded.

Read it here.

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“Shunned,” Meredith Hall

Hall’s powerful essay details her experiences as a pregnant teenager in a small town in the ‘60s, cast out by family, church, friends. More poignant still is the way the reaction of those she thought loved her has infected the rest of her life — something we should all think about when leaping to judge or ostracize someone. “The shunning has created a deep shame that infuses my life. It makes me feel wildly vulnerable. I struggle still to claim a permanent space, an immutable relationship to those around me. It negates forever the ability to have a real friend. To speak in a room with confidence. To walk anyplace without believing that I have no right to be there and that I am in danger. In response I have built a formidable tenacity; my grandmother, never knowing its source, called me her ‘little rock of Gibraltar.’ I sometimes meet women and recognize in them an instinct to run, to be gone before harm can come again, mixed with a ferocious recklessness because nothing else can be taken. I wonder what they could have done to be paying such a price.”

Read it here.

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“Blindness,” Jorge Luis Borges

Borges’s moving essay on his own “modest blindness” and the ways in which it has both inconvenienced and, more importantly, enriched his life will inspire anyone to embrace — or at least accept — their perceived flaws.

Read it here.

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“Horseman, Pass By,” John Jeremiah Sullivan

(Recommended by Bronwen Dickey, essayist and journalist)

“You can read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2002 Harper’s essay ‘Horseman, Pass By’ a hundred times and never quite figure out how he does it — how the author shapes the loss of his father into a symphony that carries the reader across oceans of time, pondering the bond between man and horse. There are so many plates spinning at once — mortality, evolution, love, art, power, greed, and hope — that could have easily crashed at the hands of a lesser writer. But somehow, by the end of the piece, men and horses explain… everything. Not just for Sullivan, but for you.”

Read it here.

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”The Love of My Life,” Cheryl Strayed

It’s hard, physically hard, to get through this essay. That’s how heartbreaking it is, how brutally raw, how plain brutal. You’ll carry it around with you for months. But you won’t be thinking about you and how hard this essay was to read — you’ll be thinking about how hard it must have been to actually live. After all, when it comes down to it, it’s mostly empathy for others, seeing outside ourselves, that makes us better people. Even (especially) when it’s hard.

Read it here.

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”Notes on ‘Camp’,” Susan Sontag

Okay, okay, so this essay might not exactly make you a better person, but then again, as she quotes from Wilde, “It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” This essay is guaranteed to make you more charming, and less the other thing.

Read it here.

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”Bad Feminist,” Roxane Gay

Feminism! Everyone should know what it means — and what it doesn’t mean. I would be amiss if I didn’t suggest that you read Gay’s entire, newly released essay collection of the same name, but if you only have 21 minutes to better yourself, here is a taste, published at VQR 2012.

Read it here.

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“My Heroin Christmas,” Terry Castle

(Recommended by Meghan Daum, author of The Unspeakable…And Other Subjects of Discussion)

“Every essay in this 2010 collection by Stanford professor and renown scholar and cultural critic Terry Castle is a knockout, the most famous being her acerbic but ultimately affectionate retracing of her friendship (or, more accurately, ‘frenemy-ship’) with the late Susan Sontag. My favorite, however, deals with a less leonine figure, the jazz alto saxophone and clarinetist, Art Pepper. In ‘My Heroin Christmas,’ Castle writes of finding herself surprisingly engrossed in Pepper’s autobiography, Straight Life, which chronicles his lifelong struggles with heroin and his ‘Satanic fuck-it-all grandeur.’ Inexplicably drawn to the passionate, trainwrecked quality of Pepper’s life, Castle uses his story to channel some of her own dark family dramas. I love how this essay is at once totally erudite and totally irreverent. That’s Castle’s trademark blend.”

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“No Name Woman,” Maxine Hong Kingston

In this lovely and strange essay, second-generation Chinese immigrant Maxine Hong Kingston explores and imagines her family’s secret: an aunt who drowned herself and her baby and is never spoken of. But Kingston gives her voice at long last, while investigating the damaging power of silence, the responsibilities of family, and the relationship of the dead to the living.

Read it here.

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“The New Commandments,” Christopher Hitchens

In this short essay, Hitchens dissects the ten commandments (in their “Authorized” version) and suggests some rewrites. Whatever your religious beliefs, it’s hard to argue with that wallop of a final paragraph (and if you can argue, read it again, you need this):

“It’s difficult to take oneself with sufficient seriousness to begin any sentence with the words ‘Thou shalt not.’ But who cannot summon the confidence to say: Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color. Do not ever use people as private property. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child. Do not condemn people for their inborn nature — why would God create so many homosexuals only in order to torture and destroy them? Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature, and think and act accordingly. Do not imagine that you can escape judgement if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife. Turn off that fucking cell phone — you have no idea how unimportant your call is to us. Denounce all jihad-ists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions. Be willing to renounce any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict any of the above. In short: Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form.”

Read it here.

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“Against Joie de Vivre,” Philip Lopate

This essay will, among other things, forever release you from the yoke of FOMO.

Read it here.

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“The Fourth State of Matter,” Jo Ann Beard

(Recommended by Sari Botton, editor of the anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York)

“There’s an aspect of Jo Ann Beard’s ‘The Fourth State of Matter’ — published originally in the June 24th, 1996 issue of The New Yorker and later in her essay collection, The Boys of My Youth — whose relevance is too often reestablished, each time news emerges of another school shooting. But even apart from that, this devastating essay remains perpetually relevant as a reminder of the fragility of life, and how tragedy can upend our lives drastically in an instant, taking with it nearly everything and everyone we hold dear. Beard illustrates this, ingeniously and poignantly, against the backdrop of a life that by contrast is shifting — unraveling, really — at a tortuously glacial pace. She’s barely living while her marriage and her dog are dying slow, undignified deaths. She holds onto shreds of hope that her husband might be coming back, despite all evidence to the contrary, including an unfortunately (deliberately?) placed pack of condoms (guys, don’t do that). And then a disgruntled graduate student chooses an afternoon Beard has taken off from work to gun down all her colleagues in the astrophysics office at the University of Iowa. Each time I revisit this stunning piece, my heart pounds, and I find myself praying, ‘Please let it end differently this time.'”

Read it here.

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“Mississippi Drift,” Matthew Power

If you’ve ever dreamed of Huck-Finning it down the Mississippi river on a raft of your own invention — or just living outside of society — read this essay first. In it, Power investigates the life of a “anarcho-buccaneer” and the overwhelming, or underwhelming, power of drift.

Read it here.

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“The Death of the Moth,” Virginia Woolf

Such a tiny essay, such a tiny moth, such big things afoot: life, death, and what else is there? Woolf is a master, and this strange collection of images has lasted for many years, batting at our collective brain lamps.

Read it here.

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“How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Gloria E. Anzaldúa

A beautifully written and also very funny essay about the importance of language to self and the frustrations of being caught between cultures — things you probably don’t think about if you don’t experience them, but should.

Read it here.

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“Advice to Graduates,” George Saunders

(Recommended by Megan Shull, author of The Swap)

“I love, love, love, George Saunders’s ‘Advice to Graduates’ — it’s a stunner. It’s one of those pieces I remember reading with bed-head hair, coffee in hand and blurry sleepy eyes on a Sunday morning and immediately, it just: woke me up. To have your heart awakened by words is a gift, and in this short beautiful graduation speech/essay is a treasure.”

From the essay: “That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

Read it here.

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“The Braindead Megaphone,” George Saunders

Speaking of George Saunders — this essay on the ludicrousness of the news media and the Megaphone Guy phenomenon is a few years old now, but since things have (arguably) gotten even worse, it is still worth a read, if only so you can start working, belatedly, on your own personal antidote. That is, as explained by Saunders “every well-thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance.” Well, get on it, people.

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“This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life,” David Foster Wallace

Here’s the thing: pretty much all of David Foster Wallace’s essays are brilliant. I’m half inclined to pull the SNOOT card and declare that “Authority and American Usage” would make anyone a better person, and it might. “Consider the Lobster,” “Big Red Son” (that’s the porn industry one), many others. But for this list, I’m just going to be a sensitive sucker and suggest “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life,” which originated as a 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College. This one, really and truly, might make you a better person, if only by reminding you that you are not actually the center of the universe.

Read it here, or listen to Wallace’s original talk.

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“On Fear,” Mary Ruefle

In this essay, just one of the many incredible essays in her recent collection, Ruefle investigates the phenomenon of fear via poetry (plus a doctor and a pilot, among others). Besides being intellectually stimulating, it will remind you that you are not alone, it will remind you not to be (quite so) afraid.

Read it here.

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“The Year in Dog Shit,” Jordan Ginsberg

(Recommended by Benjamin Samuel, Editor-at-Large at Electric Literature and Program Manager at the National Book Foundation)

“First I wanted to recommend an essay for writers, then something for everyone (because George Saunders is a genius). But I decided on an essay that was close to my heart, and closer still to my dog’s bowels. Dogs are perpetual delight, sure, but they’re also a lot of maintenance. I’ve never learned how to delicately explain that I’ll be late for work, dinner, drinks, etc. because I’m waiting for my dog to… evacuate? But in this essay, Jordan Ginsberg is unashamed, reminding us that with dogs, just as with people, love means dealing with a whole lot of shit.”

Read it here.

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“Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell

A classic on empathy, conscience, and imperialism from a hallowed master of the form. Will make you think twice before doing whatever it is you’re told to do.

Read it here.

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“Advice to Youth,” Mark Twain

Just because this is a satire, doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful. After all, some of it, while tongue-in-cheek, is pretty damn accurate. Case in point: “Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run, because if you don’t, they will make you. Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.”

Read it here.

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“Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” Roger Ebert

Ebert’s meditation on mortality contains some of the best, most succinct information on how to live that I’ve ever read: “‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

Read it here.

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“Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” Sigmund Freud

(Recommended by Lynne Tillman, author of What Would Lynne Tillman Do?)

“Freud’s essay is revelatory. He first supported Austria in the Great War, but changed his mind quickly. The essay begins, ‘In the confusion of war-time in which we are caught up…’ Here, Freud analyzes, and rejects, patriotism, and discusses the social and psychological meanings of war, and the neuroses that underlie going to war. For those of us living in the US, caught up in so many wars, this essay is extremely relevant and helpful.”

Read the essay here.

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“Infinite Ache: My First Mother’s Day Without Her,” Saeed Jones

A beautiful and encouraging short essay about grief that might mend a tiny corner of a broken heart. Poets write the best essays.

Read it here.

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“Attitude,” Margaret Atwood

Another essay-slash-commencement speech from the always excellent Atwood, carrying at least one piece of wisdom that will surely improve the life of just about everyone: “You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality. Try it and see.”

Read it here.

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“Laugh, Kookaburra,” David Sedaris

That stovetop analogy will haunt you every time you have to make a decision. Depressing, but true.

Read it here.

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“When I Was a Child,” Marilynne Robinson

(Recommended by Thessaly La Force, writer and editor of My Ideal Bookshelf)

“I won’t repeat who has already been named, so I’ll nominate the essays of Marilynne Robinson. She’s more known for her novels —Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and now, Lila, which will come out this fall. Everyone should read those books, but her essays are worth picking up, too. ‘When I Was a Child,’ for example, is so fascinating and lifts the curtain to her great, wise mind. It’s also a mind that is fiercely individual, one that looks to the past for guidance, and is unapologetic about her own peculiar upbringing. There are gems to be found everywhere. Here, as she is explaining the intellectual drive behind Housekeeping and the prejudice she encounters from easterners who find it unbelievable that she managed to write such a good book:

Idaho society at that time at least seemed to lack the sense of social class which elsewhere makes culture a system of signs and passwords, more or less entirely without meaning except as it identifies groups and subgroups. I think it is indifference to these codes among Westerners that makes Easterners think they are without culture.

Or here, when she explains the West’s concept of ‘lonesomeness’:

I remember when I was a child at Coolin or Sagle or Talache, walking into the woods by myself and feeling the solitude around me build like electricity and pass through my body with a jolt that made my hair prickle. I remember kneeling by a creek that spilled and pooled among rocks and fallen trees with the unspeakably tender growth of small trees already sprouting from their backs, and thinking, there is only one thing wrong here, which is my own presence, and that is the slightest imaginable intrusion–feeling that my solitude, my loneliness, made me almost acceptable in so sacred a place.

​Her essays aren’t narratively driven like Janet Malcolm and they won’t have that understated cool like Joan Didion or even that eerie voice like Jo Ann Beard. But Robinson’s essays provoke my mind, and when they work, they remind me to go searching through the texts of the ancients — or anything before the 20th Century, really. And when I do, sometimes the best thing I’ve read all day can’t be found in some glossy magazine or a novel by a 20-under-40-er, but is, instead, a modest poem by Emily Dickinson. It’s not an easy space to find, especially in the midst of Instagram, Twitter, and trendy novels. But it’s worth trying to get there.”

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“The Wound in the Face,” Angela Carter

Angela Carter on cosmetics and the evolution of what women’s faces are supposed to look like — always coming back to that big red mouth-wound, sex and blood together. Whether this will make you a better person, I’m not sure, but it will make you look at the faces of half the world just a little bit differently — and possibly with more understanding. Which really can’t hurt.

Read it here.

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“The Bitch is Back,” Sandra Tsing Loh

A hilarious dissection of menopause in contemporary culture-slash-essential guide for “women of transitional age” and those that know them.

Read it here.

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“On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion

(Recommended by Taylor Sperry, Assistant Editor at FSG)

“’On Keeping a Notebook’ is not the most obvious Didion essay to read for the purpose of self-improvement (maybe that’s ‘On Morality,’ itself complicated in the context of such an exercise), but it contains phrases that found their way into my own notebooks and are now important not necessarily because of what they say, but because of who it was copying them down six, seven, eight years ago. And this, I take it, is the point: that ‘we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.’ ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ is useful, bettering, because it may remind you of the thing that asks of you what ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ asks of me.”

Read it here.

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“Long Distance,” Victor LaValle

In this essay, LaValle tells of “the most moving relationship” of his early twenties (a 50-year-old woman he’d never met, but called regularly through a dating line) and, later, the experience of sex after losing some 155 pounds. Lovely and funny and a reminder that we are something other than just our bodies — and a little bit our bodies, past and present, too.

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“Travels With My Mom,” Terry Castle

(Recommended by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction)

“Though she tends to be better known for ‘The Professor’ or her hilarious essay on Sontag, my preferred piece of Terry Castle’s, and one of the essays I find myself thinking about most often, is ‘Travels with My Mom,’ originally published in a 2007 issue of the LRB. It’s simultaneously unforgettable as an essay about taste — her attempt to hold up a strand of raw garlic to the sentimentality of Georgia O’Keefe — and as a beautiful and surprising tribute to a difficult mother. A magnificent and powerful performance all around.”

Read it here.

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“Devil’s Bait,” Leslie Jamison

Jamison’s essay about the mysterious and bizarre Morgellons disease is a wonderful meditation on suffering and empathy and how we can or should respond to pain in others. Or as she writes herself: “This isn’t an essay about whether Morgellons disease is real. That’s probably obvious by now. It’s an essay about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion. It’s about this strange sympathetic limbo: Is it wrong to speak of empathy when you trust the fact of suffering but not the source?”

Read it here.

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”Mr. Lytle, an Essay,” John Jeremiah Sullivan

Every essay in Pulphead is great, but this one, about Sullivan’s more-than-apprenticeship to a dying Southern writer, is a gorgeous ode to art and life that will make you reach out, even clumsily, even pointlessly, to those around you.

Read it here.

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“The Ugly Tourist,” Jamaica Kincaid

Is this essay ever ruthless — but sometimes ruthlessness is what it takes to wrench one’s eyes open. “An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just passed cannot stand you…” Controversial, to be sure, but likely to make you a better tourist — at least.

Read it here (paywalled).

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“The Forgotten Parakeet” et al, Chris Cokinos

(Recommended by Earl Swift, author of Auto Biography)

“Many essays stay with me long after I’ve read them, but a couple have persisted longer than most: those on the tragic fates of the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon included in Hope Is the Thing with Feathers (New York: J.P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), Chris Cokinos’s wonderful meditation on impermanence, extinction and the heavy hand of man.

I had spent a lot of time in the woods before reading them, and had come to see the wilds around me as sturdy and timeless. Cokinos convinced me that this wasn’t at all the case—and reminded me that beauty is fleeting, life is fragile, and that in carelessness lies the recipe for disaster.”

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”My Misspent Youth,” Meghan Daum

Even though it was written back in 1999, this essay is still an essential read for anyone dreaming of life in the big city or anyone whose dreams have already been, if not shattered, dented up by reality.

Read it here.