Recently, my friend told me a story about when she went surfing in South Africa. I won’t retell it here, because she might still write about it someday, but it was one of those stories that are just made for an essay. It was quirky and funny and ripe for insight. My friend finished her story, sighed, and said,
“See? I feel like I have lots of great experiences, but I never have the words when I go to write them down.”
“I’m the opposite,” I told her. “I’m always writing, but I haven’t done anything worth writing about.”
We then agreed: together, we could make a really great book of essays. But as I reflected on this conversation later, I realized that many of my favorite essays aren’t necessarily about adventure or travel (though a lot of truly great ones are), but instead about more universal experiences: love, empathy, insecurity, self-doubt, relationships. As a writer, I’m inspired by authors who can take their experiences, whether they are commonplace or completely singular, and say something about them that we can all understand.
Here are five books of essays that have changed the way I think about writing.
Most people think of Sontag as primarily a critic, which I think is accurate. But this book, which is a long reflection on war and conflict photography, seems to transcend criticism. In her examinations of photographs and artwork, Sontag makes observations about our capacity for empathy in a world that is increasingly inundated with violent images. It feels more and more relevant with each fresh tragedy. Though it’s probably the least personal book on this list, Sontag includes a critique of her earlier work, On Photography, and examines her own contribution to what she deems a “spectacle of suffering.” These pieces manage to be thoughtful, incisive, sad and hopeful all at once, which is one of the reasons Sontag is so legendary.
If I had to pick a single literary role model, Nora Ephron is it. As a journalist, humorist, novelist, essayist, and inventor of the modern romantic comedy, Ephron was always completely candid with her readers about her life: the good, the bad, and the ugly. These essays, which deal with topics such as aging, New York real estate, female beauty rituals, and divorce (to name a few) are witty, biting, and completely honest. Ephron famously said that “everything is copy,” meaning, really, that everything in one’s life is fair game for writing – and, in writing about the ugly things, you gain control over them. These are words that I live by, too.
There’s a reason this book was such a phenomenon when it was published in 2014: Gay’s essays are refreshing and grounded, intimate yet tough. Gay gives her readers a complete picture of her life, from her family relationships to the media she consumes, in order to flesh out a feminist identity that is constantly evolving. Gay is brilliant and funny (follow her on Twitter) and this book was sorely needed in this age of Internet thinkpieces. Gay gives her readers permission to be human and full of contradictions, while also urging each of us to be critical of the world around us. Like Ephron, she is unapologetically herself, and that is something I find really admirable.
Solnit is one of the best essayists of our time, and any one of her books could make this list, but The Faraway Nearby is special to me because it was such a comfort to me at a very tumultuous time in my life. Solnit weaves her beautiful observations about life in between analyses of art, history, and her own experiences. Nearly every line strikes a chord for me, but her observations never seem contrived. Rather than being revolutionary, this book just seems…true.
In these essays, Jamison is employed as a medical actor, attends a conference for an illness that may or may not exist, attends a nearly-impossible foot race, and so much more. But it is not just a series of strange tales; Jamison is ruthlessly interrogating the concept of empathy, and the result is a book I haven’t stopped thinking about in the year since I first read it. Jamison’s travels are bizarre, and the people she meets eccentric, but underneath all of that is Jamison herself: young, messy, and still learning. I wish I had written this book, but no one else possibly could have written this book. In my opinion, it’s pretty close to a work of genius.
I think that the main reason I love essays so much is that they are so personal. In a lot of ways, they’re like a friend telling you a story. More than that, they seem to invite you to answer with a story of your own.