Cheese and crackers
I’m not much of a nonfiction reader—I’m almost never in the mood to tackle some massive tome that tells me everything I (or anyone) ever wanted to know about a particular subject. But sometimes I like to graze a little. You know those days when you don’t want the lunch entree with the salad or fries alongside your giant sandwich, you just feel like making a snack plate with some crackers and cheese, maybe a pickle or some olives, and following up with a cookie? On those reading days, I seek out the essay.
There are many books of essays out there, and they encompass every topic under the sun. Some are serious, some are humorous. Some are lyrical and poetic, others are stark and matter-of-fact. Many writers of longer fiction and nonfiction also have thoughts that don’t extend to an entire novel or treatise but demand to be expressed, so they collect these short nuggets of thought and when they have enough to share, they publish them as books of essays.
One essayist who is a favorite of mine is multiple award-winning science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. The things I enjoy about her science fiction–that it is rooted in philosophy and ethics and deals with controversial topics–are also what I enjoy about her essays. But they are not all super serious; in her book The Wave in the Mind, she ranges from literary criticism to anthropology to the power of the imagination, and then dips into thoughts on aging, on being a woman, and on libraries. An eclectic but thoroughly engaging collection.
Another interesting essayist whose writings I enjoy is the Wiccan leader, ecofeminist, permaculture instructor, and novelist Starhawk. She has written three books of essays, but is probably most well known for Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics, which she wrote almost 20 years ago but which still resonates today. The book is political theory grounded in intuitive terms, an examination of hierarchies as structures of estrangement and the consideration of the collective theory of organization as an alternative. If you are a person who is put off by, as one reviewer called it, “hippy dippyness,” you may not enjoy the terms in which she couches her political philosophy; but she has much to share about organizing and empowerment, topics that are currently relevant to many.
When you want wryly funny stories of everyday life, Annabelle Gurwitch is a good choice. After being fired by her idol, Woody Allen, she began back in 2005 by collecting other people’s stories about being fired from a job, and parlayed those into a gig on NPR, a live stand-up show with friends in L.A. and New York, a documentary film and, finally, a book of essays called Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, and Dismissed.
She followed those up with I See You Made An Effort, her humorous essays about aging towards 50, and Wherever You Go, There They Are, stories about her family of “scam artists and hucksters.” Conversational, sarcastic, but also sweet, Gurwitch hits a common human note that many will enjoy.
Renowned poet Mary Oliver is best known for her award-winning poetry, in which she celebrates all aspects of the natural world in lyrical yet concise verse. But Oliver was also an essayist, and although she preferred to write poetry, citing prose as “the softened, fleshy story, while poetry remains the stark revelation in writing,” her essays are also a treat. Since she generally mixes essays with poetry in all her books, check one out and you can experience both! Her essays are primarily contained within Long Life and Upstream.
In 2003, author and editor Dave Eggers started publishing a magazine called Believer, an eclectic mix of pop culture and literature. Essays originally published in that magazine were later collected into two volumes, Read Hard, and Read Harder, a delightful collection of the profound and the absurd by such writers as Jonathan Lethem, Nick Hornby, Lev Grossman, and Susan Straight.
It’s bittersweet to realize the power and poignancy of the essays in The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan, because this is the only book we will ever have from her; she died in a car crash five days after graduating from Yale University, just weeks away from taking a position at the New Yorker. But her essays live on, defining and discussing the struggle we humans face as we try to figure out who we are or want to be, and how that will be expressed in our lives. Her best known essay is “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” about the odd career aspirations of her fellow classmates after Yale.
In Utopia is Creepy, and Other Provocations, Nicholas Car, author of The Shallows (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”), discusses the various social aspects of technology, looking with an educated and somewhat jaundiced eye at everything from Wikipedia to Snapchat. The essays are interesting for both inveterate tech lovers and those who fervently wish that Tim Berners-Lee had never invented the World Wide Web. His final conclusion? “Resistance is never futile.” See what you think.
There are hundreds of collections of essays out there in the world—do you have a favorite?
I have a favorites! Sue Hubbell’s Broadsides From the Other Orders, and John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, for starters.
Is Sue Hubbell’s also about bees?