Best Essay Collections Pdf Viewer

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In a classic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Goodbye to All That,” the novelist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time—to prod her reader. She rhetorically asks and answers: “…was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.” The wry little moment is perfectly indicative of Didion’s unsparingly ironic critical voice. Didion is a consummate critic, from Greek kritēs, “a judge." But she is always foremost a judge of herself. An account of Didion’s eight years in New York City, where she wrote her first novel while working for Vogue, “Goodbye to All That” frequently shifts point of view as Didion examines the truth of each statement, her prose moving seamlessly from deliberation to commentary, annotation, aside, and aphorism, like the below:

I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.

Anyone who has ever loved and left New York—or any life-altering city—will know the pangs of resignation Didion captures. These economic times and every other produce many such stories. But Didion made something entirely new of familiar sentiments. Although her essay has inspired a sub-genre, and a collection of breakup letters to New York with the same title, the unsentimental precision and compactness of Didion’s prose is all her own.

The essay appears in 1967’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a representative text of the literary nonfiction of the sixties alongside the work of John McPhee, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson. In Didion’s case, the emphasis must be decidedly on the literary—her essays are as skillfully and imaginatively written as her fiction and in close conversation with their authorial forebears. “Goodbye to All That” takes its title from an earlier memoir, poet and critic Robert Graves’ 1929 account of leaving his hometown in England to fight in World War I. Didion’s appropriation of the title shows in part an ironic undercutting of the memoir as a serious piece of writing.

And yet she is perhaps best known for her work in the genre. Published almost fifty years after Slouching Toward Bethlehem, her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking is, in poet Robert Pinsky’s words, a “traveler’s faithful account” of the stunningly sudden and crushing personal calamities that claimed the lives of her husband and daughter separately. “Though the material is literally terrible,” Pinsky writes, “the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative: a forced expedition into those ‘cliffs of fall’ identified by Hopkins.” He refers to lines by the gifted Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that Didion quotes in the book: "O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne'er hung there."

The nearly unimpeachably authoritative ethos of Didion’s voice convinces us that she can fearlessly traverse a wild inner landscape most of us trivialize, “hold cheap,” or cannot fathom. And yet, in a 1978 Paris Review interview, Didion—with that technical sleight of hand that is her casual mastery---called herself “a kind of apprentice plumber of fiction, a Cluny Brown at the writer’s trade.” Here she invokes a kind of archetype of literary modesty (John Locke, for example, called himself an “underlabourer” of knowledge) while also figuring herself as the winsome heroine of a 1946 Ernst Lubitsch comedy about a social climber plumber’s niece played by Jennifer Jones, a character who learns to thumb her nose at power and privilege.

A twist of fate—interviewer Linda Kuehl’s death—meant that Didion wrote her own introduction to the Paris Review interview, a very unusual occurrence that allows her to assume the role of her own interpreter, offering ironic prefatory remarks on her self-understanding. After the introduction, it’s difficult not to read the interview as a self-interrogation. Asked about her characterization of writing as a “hostile act” against readers, Didion says, “Obviously I listen to a reader, but the only reader I hear is me. I am always writing to myself. So very possibly I’m committing an aggressive and hostile act toward myself.”

It’s a curious statement. Didion’s cutting wit and fearless vulnerability take in seemingly all—the expanses of her inner world and political scandals and geopolitical intrigues of the outer, which she has dissected for the better part of half a century. Below, we have assembled a selection of Didion’s best essays online. We begin with one from Vogue:

"On Self Respect" (1961)

Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album brought together some of her most trenchant and searching essays about her immersion in the counterculture, and the ideological fault lines of the late sixties and seventies. The title essay begins with a gemlike sentence that became the title of a collection of her first seven volumes of nonfiction: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Read two essays from that collection below:

“The Women’s Movement” (1972)

“Holy Water” (1977)

Didion has maintained a vigorous presence at the New York Review of Books since the late seventies, writing primarily on politics. Below are a few of her best known pieces for them:

“Insider Baseball” (1988)

“Eye on the Prize” (1992)

“The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich” (1995)

“Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History” (2003)

“Politics in the New Normal America” (2004)

“The Case of Theresa Schiavo” (2005)

“The Deferential Spirit” (2013)

"California Notes" (2016)

Didion continues to write with as much style and sensitivity as she did in her first collection, her voice refined by a lifetime of experience in self-examination and piercing critical appraisal. She got her start at Vogue in the late fifties, and in 2011, she published an autobiographical essay there that returns to the theme of “yearning for a glamorous, grown up life” that she explored in “Goodbye to All That.” In “Sable and Dark Glasses,” Didion’s gaze is steadier, her focus this time not on the naïve young woman tempered and hardened by New York, but on herself as a child “determined to bypass childhood” and emerge as a poised, self-confident 24-year old sophisticate—the perfect New Yorker she never became.

Related Content:

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Read 18 Short Stories From Nobel Prize-Winning Writer Alice Munro Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


It’s a great time to be a reader of essays. As has been noted by many writers and critics, the form has risen in popularity and visibility in recent years, and the result has been an abundance of fantastically written nonfiction on a variety of topics, from the personal to the political to the aesthetic.

Whether you, as a reader, are looking for an incisive take on a universal subject, an idiosyncratic look at a specific corner of the world, an insightful look at a piece of recent history, or a powerful explanation of the self, odds are that you can find a fantastic essay on that very topic — if not several.

What follows is as look at some of the best essay collections released this year. Some take a very personal view; others come at their subjects from the societal angle. Some will leave you in hysterics; others might bring you to tears. At the end of a chaotic and unpredictable year, one of these books might be exactly what you need to explore a new corner of the world or have a breakthrough in some quotidian part of your own life. Or maybe the narrative contained within it will give you a few hours of delight as you get lost in its pages.

Essays are, after all, capable of many things.

  • The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

    Belle Boggs

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    Questions of family, children, and science are familiar subjects for many a nonfiction writer. In her new book, Belle Boggs explores a series of big ideas, from the variety of emotions that surround parenthood to how questions of having children (or not having children) are addressed in fiction and pop culture.

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  • Uproot: Travels in Twenty-First-Century Music & Global Digital Culture

    Jace Clayton

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    The questions posed by writer and musician Jace Clayton in his book Uproot are some of the most central to ongoing discussions of culture, borders, and geography. Clayton explores what it means to be a global artist in the current century, and also delves into thornier issues around cultural appropriation and the ways in which music is marketed to different audiences around the world. This is a book that leaves the reader with plenty to ponder–as well as a sizable list of music that they might want to explore.

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  • The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New

    Annie Dillard

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    Annie Dillard’s powerful, frequently pastoral nonfiction has floored readers since her monumental 1974 book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The Abundance brings together some of the short-form highlights of her body of work, along with several essays appearing in book form for the first time here. This serves as a fine introduction to Dillard’s resonant style and areas of interest.

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  • Known and Strange Things

    Essays

    Teju Cole

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    Readers who have experienced Teju Cole’s fiction are familiar with the precise way in which he uses language, often to devastating ends. But he’s also written an extensive amount of nonfiction, including a regular column on photography for The New York Times Magazine. Known and Strange Things collects a host of his essays on topics as wide-ranging as art, the nature of national identity, literature, and more.

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  • Pieces of Soap

    Stanley Elkin

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    Stanley Elkin’s writing is often memorably absurdist and can be disarmingly funny, even as it deals with offbeat and sometimes harrowing subjects. (The novel The Magic Kingdom and the collection Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers give a good sense of his approach.)  This collection of his essays was first published in 1992, and the new edition has an introduction by Sam Lipsyte, a writer who knows a thing or two about bitterly funny fiction that can prompt discomfort and humor in equal measure.

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  • White Sands

    Experiences from the Outside World

    Geoff Dyer

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    Never predictable, Geoff Dyer’s writings push at the boundaries of what the essay can do, defying expectations along the way. As with some of his best work, Dyer himself is a constant presence in these works, which touch on issues of art, geography, and landscapes, and his thoroughly fallible nature lends to the anything-goes mood.

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  • Pretentiousness: Why It Matters

    Dan Fox

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    Dan Fox does not set himself an easy task with this book, an examination of, well, why what’s generally thought of as a bad thing is actually vitally important to culture and our sense of self. This isn’t, mind you, a contrarian-for-the-sake-of-it argument; instead, it’s a measured, nuanced approach to a debate that has applications both within the realm of culture and in larger debates as well.

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  • Everything We Don’t Know

    Aaron Gilbreath

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    Some essayists take us to unexpected corners of the world. Such is the case with Aaron Gilbreath, who has written memorably about topics as disparate as capsule hotels and Californian honky-tonks. Everything We Don’t Know is Gilbreath’s first collection of essays, and it promises to provide a fine window into his rigorous, expansive view of the world.

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  • Everywhere I Look

    Helen Garner

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    This new collection of essays from the acclaimed Australian writer Helen Garner covers topics as vast as aging, her relationship to her mother, and her impressions of the films of Russell Crowe. The result is a book with a big scope, both in terms of the subjects covered and of the stylistic approaches used to discuss them — a great reminder of the range of the essay as form.

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  • Rules for Others to Live By

    Comments and Self-Contradictions

    Richard Greenberg

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    Richard Greenberg may be best-known for his work as a playwright and director: his plays Take Me Out and Three Days of Rain have both been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, with the former also winning the Tony Award. In the essays collected in this volume, he examines a range of topics encompassing everything from life in New York to the process of aging, giving a window into his life along the way.

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  • Against Everything

    Essays

    Mark Greif

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    Last year brought with it The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933-1973, a towering work of cultural criticism by Mark Greif, also known for his work as a founder of the magazine n+1. At his best, he combines an astute eye for detail with a wide-ranging historical sensibility. This year brings with it a new book by Greif, this one collecting a number of his essays on American society and pop culture.

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  • Sprinkle Glitter on My Grave

    Observations, Rants, and Other Uplifting Thoughts About Life

    Jill Kargman

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    Jill Kargman is the author of several novels, one of which, Momzillas, was adapted as the show Odd Mom Out, in which Kargman writes and stars. The essays in the memorably-titled Sprinkle Glitter On My Grave take on everything from social dynamics to the habit of reading obituaries to her approach to parenting.

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  • Upstream

    Selected Essays

    Mary Oliver

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    Some of the most memorable essays in recent years have come from the minds of poets, and this collection from Mary Oliver looks to be no exception. Like her poetry, the focus here is on the natural world, with nods to questions of place and the literary legacy in which her work often falls (Walt Whitman is just one of the figures alluded to).

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  • Thrill Me

    Benjamin Percy

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    Benjamin Percy’s writing is often gripping, whether he’s telling stories of violent obsessions (The Wilding), retelling history in a science-fictional context (The Dead Lands), or venturing into shared universes inhabited by superheroes (his recent work on Green Arrow). In this collection, he explores his own thoughts on fiction and storytelling, sharing valuable advice on the craft with a larger community of readers and writers.

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  • The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race

    Jesmyn Ward

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    Discussions of race and racism in contemporary American society have become and more and more prevalent. This new anthology, edited by Jesmyn Ward, brings together writings on the subject by a great group of writers, including Kiese Laymon, Wendy S. Walters, Edwidge Danticat, and Mitchell S. Jackson.

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  • The Terror Years

    From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State

    Lawrence Wright

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    Whether he’s examining American foreign policy or the unsettling history of Scientology, Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction can make the familiar feel new again. One of his strengths as a writer is his ability to find new angles on long-running issues — a skill that should be put to good use in The Terror Years, a look at the rise of terrorism in the Middle East from the 1990s on.

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  • The View from the Cheap Seats

    Neil Gaiman

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    This volume collects a host of Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction, written over the course of several decades. The topics are varied, from the ways in which he developed his love of reading as a child to the process by which he came up with the ideas for books like Stardust and American Gods. It’s a powerful and charming guide to one author’s literary life. And a section dedicated to remembrances of figures from Gaiman’s life after their deaths contains some of the most moving work in the book.

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