Jul 28, 2013

The Sunday Salon – Reader Seeks Personal Essays

The Sunday Salon.com

Lately I’ve been craving the kind of direct, open, no-place-to-hide writing you tend to find in personal essays. It’s not that I think they’re more personal than other types of writing; on the contrary, I absolutely believe that all forms of writing are very personal. We inject ourselves, with all our biases and beliefs and quirks and particular ways of looking at the world, into everything we create, be it literary criticism, a piece about sports, a travelogue, or personal correspondence. But there’s just something about pieces that tackle specific human concerns or experiences head on that really speaks to me lately.

Of course, fiction often does this as well, but more often than not fiction resonates with me in more oblique sorts of ways. This multiplicity of interpretation is part of what I love about it, but every now and then I crave directness. Take, for example, “I Know What You Think of Me” by Tim Kreider, or Amy’s brilliant “On Loving a Person”. And I can’t fail to mention Cheryl Strayed’s intensely personal essays in the guise of advice columns, which moved me more than anything else I’ve read this year and which pretty much started this craving.

I decided to deal with my current reading whim in the customary manner: by putting together a reading list and by asking you, my lovely fellow bookworms, for input. Which of the following essay collections have you read? Where would you recommend that I start? And what isn’t on the list below but really ought to be? As always, your thoughts are welcome.

Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories by Katha Pollitt, Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon, Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman, Slouching Towards Bethlehem Joan Didion, No More Nice Girls by Ellen Willis, When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson, My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
  • Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith: this one’s a no-brainer — it’s an essay collection by one of my favourite novelists, so of course I want to read it. On top of that, I’m going to have the pleasure to see her speak next month, and reading this collection in preparation strikes me as an excellent idea. According to the publisher’s blurb, Changing My Mind covers topics from E.M. Forster to travel; from Smith’s progress as a writer to her father. Lastly, I really love the title, which alludes to the sense of comfort with being wrong that I find so valuable in anyone with a body of work that spans long periods of time.

  • Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories by Katha Pollitt: I’ve read two collections of Pollitt’s political columns for The Nation and adored them both, so I have a good feeling about her personal essays. According to the publisher, “she writes about love, sex, betrayal, heartbreak, and much more: what she learned about her parents from reading their FBI files, the joy and loneliness of new motherhood, the curious mental effects of a post-college stint proofreading pornographic novels, and the decline and fall of practically everything, including herself.”

  • Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon: This has been on my TBR list for a shamefully long time. I was a huge fan of Chabon’s Maps and Legends, so I rather suspect I’ll enjoy this one. Plus I’m always interested in examinations of masculinity, and in pieces that are willing to acknowledge that masculinity is every bit as constructed as femininity, especially considering that our culture’s tendency to sometimes perceive masculinity as natural and femininity as artificial has such unfortunate consequences. Publisher’s blurb:
    In these insightful, provocative, slyly interlinked essays, one of our most brilliant and humane writers presents his autobiography and vision of life in the way so many of us experience our own: as a series of reflections, regrets and re-examinations, each sparked by an encounter, in the present, that holds some legacy of the past.
    What does it mean to be a man today? Chabon invokes and interprets and struggles to reinvent for us, with characteristic warmth and lyric wit, the personal and family history that haunts him even as it goes on being written every day. As a son, a husband and above all as a father of four young children, Chabon’s memories of childhood, of his parents’ marriage and divorce, of moments of painful adolescent comedy and giddy encounters with the popular art and literature of his own youth, are like a theme played – on different instruments, with a fresh tempo and in a new key – by the mad quartet of which he now finds himself co-conductor.
  • Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman: Traditionally feminine roles are all closely policed, but motherhood is probably the most scrutinised of all. Waldman shocked the world by admitting in an essay that she felt emotionally closer to her husband than her children, and I’m curious to see what else she has to say. According to the publisher, “Bad Mother illuminates the anxieties that riddle motherhood today, while providing women with the encouragement they need to give themselves a break.”

  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion: I’ve yet to read any Didion, which is a pretty shameful gap in my reading history. This classic collection strikes me as a good place to start:
    In essay after essay, Didion captures the dislocation of the 1960s, the disorientation of a country shredding itself apart with social change. Her essays not only describe the subject at hand—the murderous housewife, the little girl trailing the rock group, the millionaire bunkered in his mansion—but also offer a broader vision of America, one that is both terrifying and tender, ominous and uniquely her own.
  • No More Nice Girls by Ellen Willis: How could I resist a title like this? This is a collection of “essays addressing issues of feminism, politics, and culture in the Reagan era and beyond” and which “confront the conservative backlash that has eroded the ideals of the 1960s and explore the internal debates that have splintered the political left.” Yes please.

  • When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson: I tried to more or less stay away from collections of essays about reading when making this list, but I’d be a huge hypocrite if I didn’t admit that writing about the books that shaped us is intensely personal. The publisher tells us that “in this luminous new collection [Robinson] returns to the themes which have preoccupied her bestselling novels: the place literature has in life, the role of faith in modern living, the contradictions inherent in human nature.”

  • Lastly, there’s My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum: I vaguely remembering having read some mixed things about this one, but the blurb is intriguing enough that I want to give it a go:
    From her well-remember New Yorker essays about the financial demands of big-city ambition and the ethereal, strangely old-fashioned allure of cyber-relationships to her dazzlingly hilarious riff in Harper's about musical passions that give way to middle-brow paraphernalia, Daum delves into the center of things while closely examining the detritus that spills out along the way. With precision and well-balanced irony, Daum implicates herself as readily as she does the targets that fascinate and horrify her.
So, who are your favourite essayists? What else do you recommend? I’m not only interested in collections and anthologies in book format, but also blogs that specialise in personal essays or particularly striking pieces you may have come across online. Thank you in advance for any recommendations you might have, and have a lovely Sunday.


  1. The Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman books are wonderful to read together, if you are so inclined. I'm sure they are also wonderful separately though.

    I have no particular recommendations to add to this -- although do please tell us which essayists you find to love! -- but I will say that longform.org very often has wonderful essays of all kinds (from all over the internet), and some of those are personal essays. Also if you

  2. As Jenny says, the Chabon and Waldman are fascinating to read together. It is not often that you get two perspectives on the same family, though for my part I preferred Chabon's writing.

    I read Elinor Lipman's I Can't Complain earlier this week and have been craving more personal essays ever since so was thrilled to see your list. I must read the Zadie Smith!

  3. I haven't read any of those since I rarely read essays but The Bad Mother sounds awfully appealing.

  4. I haven't read any of these, but many of them are on my list.

    I feel like I must have recommendations, but nothing is coming directly to mind. I'll have to go through my books and see what I can find.

  5. Some of these sound very interesting but essays are not something I really pick up. Although, I did just finish the latest David Sedaris book which I thought was good but not as great as some of his others.

  6. I read Robinson's book, and think you will be pleasantly surprised by it (the title comes from one of the essays, and even that is not all about her reading list. Far from it.) Do, do, do read Joan Didion. Slouching Toward Bethlehem is among my favorites (also The Year of Magical Thinking). And you know how I feel about the memoirs & essays of Virginia Woolf ;-)

  7. I really enjoyed Bad Mother. I read it several years ago and still remember stuff she said in the book. Her chapter on having an abortion was particularly memorable.

  8. I adored Robinson's essay collection, but I wouldn't call them personal essays. They're more scholarly and less autobiograpical. Only one essay is really about the books she read as a child. (I complained in my review that the title is a little misleading.)

    An essayist you might want to add is Anne Lamott. She does write a lot about faith, but just as a part of her life, not as a way to proselytize. What you say about bringing your own quirks into tackling personal issues is just what she does in a thoughtful but funny way. You can get a pretty good feel for her writing at Salon.com (http://www.salon.com/writer/anne_lamott/)

  9. Read the first essay in Smith's collection then you can toss it if you want. The essay is about Smith reading Zora Neale Hurtson's Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time.

    I agree with Teresa about Anne Lamott. Her essay collections are so personal and good.

    Another personal collection is Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder.

  10. The Chabon is really, really good. His Maps and Legends is also an interesting choice.

  11. My own favorite book of essays is Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; I am so glad my high school English teacher assigned it! It is all about think about nature, and people living in the world, and how we experience reality and self-hood etc etc....

  12. Most of mine come off the internet and you know them already. The one person you might not be reading is Elizabeth Bachner: http://www.bookslut.com/authors.php?author=Elizabeth Bachner

  13. I love the Zadie Smith book. I taught Bad Mother and Manhood for Amateurs in a Gender & Lit class a couple of years ago--sparked great discussion. What about Home Cooking and More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin? Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan? Except When I Write by Arthur Krystal?

  14. I can't remember, have you read any Anne Fadiman? I quite enjoyed Ex Libris but haven't managed to make my way through At Large and At Small yet. She's got me rather anxious to read Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia.

  15. I recommend Pathologies by Susan Olding, which I reviewed here. (Forgive me for the misuse of the word "literally" in the second paragraph!)

  16. I have no recommendations, but this is a great list! I should probably read more personal essays,too.

  17. I liked the Zadie Smith, the Chabon, and the Waldman collections. I echo the suggestions of Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Barbara Kingsolver (I prefer High Tide in Tucson to Small Wonder). I also echo the David Sedaris suggestion--his essays are very personal. In addition, how about Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell and Consider the Lobster by DF Wallace?

  18. Wow. Now I want to read every one of these!!! I think most especially, Bad Mother. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to hear that her admitting she felt emotionally closer to her husband than her children caused a stink, but still I am. Because honestly, I can't imagine it being any other way. Yes, I love my kiddos so deeply it still catches me off guard sometimes; yes, I marvel at the wonderful unique people that they are; yes, I've poured my heart into motherhood. BUT for all they give me just for being who they are, it doesn't compare to what I get from Rich. But doesn't that only make sense? I got to *choose* to spend my life with him after getting to know him, after getting to learn how capable we are of fulfilling so many of one another's needs. I get to choose to stay with him every single day. And yes, I chose to have kids but I didn't get to choose *who* they are. Not that I'd want to, of course. I want them to be who they are--I didn't have them to be "something" for me! *sigh* I don't think I'm explaining myself very well here. But as you know me so well, I'm guessing you get what I'm saying anyway.

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