Harry Mount is a journalist, author and editor of the Notting Hill Editions Journal, which commissions a new essay every week. The latest series of essays are published this month.
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"There's not much point in trying to define an essay. Its parameters are so broad and slack that they encompass practically any shortish passage of non-fiction which makes a general argument.
"As a rough rule of thumb, I'd say anything that creeps over 40,000 words is entering book territory; and anything too autobiographical strays into memoir. But, still, you could write 50,000 words about yourself, and it could be an essay in every regard.
"It sounds banal, but all that matters is quality of writing and thought. Here are 10 that are exceptional in both departments."
1. George Orwell, Why I Write (1946)
Not an original choice of writer, or of essay. But it would be churlish not to include the man who, more than any other writer over the last century, fine-tuned the form. He applied his essayistic touch to an extreme variety of subjects – the ideal pub, school stories, what makes England England - but this one, on how he became a writer, is my favourite.
The word "intellectual" often brings a lot of dull baggage with it. But Orwell's honesty and humour mean that you're never in danger of being bored. His four reasons for writing - aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, political purpose, sheer egoism - still seem unassailably true today.
2. Martha Gellhorn, Eichmann and the Private Conscience (1962)
You might call Gellhorn's account of Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem reportage. But that just shows up the flexibility of the essay. A routine bit of reportage remains reportage; brilliant reportage leaps its chains and becomes an essay.
Gellhorn's essay begins with a straight description of the conditions in the court, albeit an atmospheric, closely-observed description: "The air conditioning was too cold, and yet one sweated." But she constantly jumps from factual observation to general, philosophical thought. The seamlessly stitched combination of facts and thoughts becomes a compulsive essay.
3. Evelyn Waugh, A Call to the Orders (1938)
Evelyn Waugh considered life as a printer, cabinet-maker and carpenter before becoming a novelist. He maintained an interest in the visual arts throughout his life; this plea in defence of the classical orders of architecture appeared some time after his literary success began.
The essay is full of angry argument, deep architectural knowledge and lyrical description. "The baroque has never had a place in England; its brief fashion was of short duration; it has been relegated to the holidays – a memory of the happy days in sunglasses, washing away the dust of the southern roads with heady southern wines."
You don't have to agree with the argument to be compelled by it – a rare thing in an essay.
4. Michel de Montaigne, On the Cannibals (1595)
Montaigne is regularly wheeled out as the father of the essay. Debatable, I'd say – the baggy definition of the essay includes much older works.
Still, as well as being early on the essay scene, Montaigne was a natural essay-writer. His essay on cannibalism introduces devices that crop up again and again among the essayists that followed through the centuries. Taking the cannibalism of the Tupinamba tribesmen of Brazil, he uses it as a general analogy for barbarism. "Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to," he writes, expanding the subject into a discussion on the ideas of primitivism, natural purity and perfection.
5. JM Barrie, Courage (1922)
If you thought Steve Jobs's address to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005 was impressive, prepare to be even more deeply moved by Barrie's speech to the students of St Andrews University in 1922, where he had been voted rector.
Ostensibly about courage, the essay is really about how to deal with the loss of friends and brothers in the first world war; it's aimed at those "who still hear their cries [of the war dead] being blown across the links".
It opens up from the particular to the general, to the qualities needed to deal with such loss, and all with astonishing prescience: "By the time the next eruption comes it may be you who are responsible for it and your sons who are in the lava."
6. Truman Capote, The Duke in his Domain (1957)
Capote is best remembered for his novels, but his non-fiction was exceptional: acidly witty, to the point of nastiness; hyper-observational, to the point of even deeper nastiness. But what is more enjoyable – or, often, truer – than nastiness?
This is the essay-as-interview - in this case with Marlon Brando, at the height of his fame. There's a good deal of nastiness, and racism – "You come see Marron?" says Capote's Japanese guide. But it also gives a rare insight into the perils of celebrity: of too big an entourage, of isolation, of too many appetites being too readily satisfied.
For dinner, Brando, on a diet, orders soup, beefsteak with French-fried potatoes, three supplementary vegetables, a side dish of spaghetti, rolls and butter, a bottle of sake, salad, and cheese and crackers.
7. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729)
Extremely well-known, but that doesn't take away from the effectiveness of Swift's satirical suggestion that the way for the Irish to beat their poverty was to sell their children to the rich as meat and leather.
The best essays, like Swift's, use wit – not just to sugar the pill of heavy prose, but also to ramp up the argument beyond the merely prosaic statement of a thesis.
8. Thomas Paine, Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects (1776)
Paine's pamphlet, anonymous at the time of publication, had a direct effect on the Declaration of Independence.
An argument in the real sense of an argument, it's as if Paine is shouting at you as he rips into the unfairness of a king on one island ruling a continent on the other side of an ocean: "If we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English Constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new Republican materials."
The course of a couple of centuries often turns writing a bit Olde Worlde and quaint. Not here.
9. Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953)
For all his reputation as the planet-sized brain of the 20th century, Isaiah Berlin was better at the short sprint than the magnum opus. His lectures stick in the minds of those who heard them half a century ago. This essay is just as memorable.
The inspiration came from the Ancient Greek idiom: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
Berlin then sifts through his storage room of a brain to divide writers into one or the other category. Tolstoy, who forms the heart of the essay, wanted to be a hedgehog but was really a fox. Other foxes include Aristotle, Montaigne and Shakespeare. Plato and Proust are hedgehogs.
All a bit reductive perhaps, but really enjoyable, and a useful boilerplate when it comes to considering the ideas of other writers.
10. AN Wilson, In Defence of Gay Priests (2003)
Normally, a newspaper comment piece would never be long, or substantial, enough to constitute an essay. But this article – justifying the appointment of Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, as Bishop of Reading – went way beyond tomorrow's-chip-wrapper material. The personal anecdote and light, jokey manner disguise serious thought and a deeply convincing argument; and the article becomes an essay.
There’s something about a shiny new collection of essays that makes my heart beat a little faster. If you feel the same way, can we be friends? If not, might I suggest that perhaps you just haven’t found the right collection yet? I don’t expect everyone to love the thought of sitting down with a nice, juicy personal essay, but I also think the genre gets a bad rap because people associate it with the kind of thing they had to write in school.
Well, essays don’t have to be like the kind of thing you wrote in school. Essays can be anything, really. They can be personal, confessional, argumentative, informative, funny, sad, shocking, sexy, and all of the above. The best essayists can make any subject interesting. If I love an essayist, I’ll read whatever they write. I’ll follow their minds anywhere. Because that’s really what I want out of an essay — the sense that I’m spending time with an interesting mind. I want a companionable, challenging, smart, surprising voice in my head.
So below is my list, not of essay collections I think everybody “must read,” even if that’s what my title says, but collections I hope you will consider checking out if you want to.
1. Against Interpretation — Susan Sontag
2. Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere — André Aciman
3. American Romances — Rebecca Brown
4. Art and Ardor — Cynthia Ozick
5. The Art of the Personal Essay — anthology, edited by Phillip Lopate
6. Bad Feminist — Roxane Gay
7. The Best American Essays of the Century — anthology, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
8. The Best American Essays series — published every year, series edited by Robert Atwan
9. Book of Days — Emily Fox Gordon
10. The Boys of My Youth — Jo Ann Beard
11. The Braindead Megaphone — George Saunders
12. Broken Republic: Three Essays — Arundhati Roy
13. Changing My Mind — Zadie Smith
14. A Collection of Essays — George Orwell
15. The Common Reader — Virginia Woolf
16. Consider the Lobster — David Foster Wallace
17. The Crack-up — F. Scott Fitzgerald
18. Discontent and its Civilizations — Mohsin Hamid
19. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric — Claudia Rankine
20. Dreaming of Hitler — Daphne Merkin
21. Self-Reliance and Other Essays — Ralph Waldo Emerson
22. The Empathy Exams — Leslie Jameson
23. Essays After Eighty — Donald Hall
24. Essays in Idleness — Yoshida Kenko
25. The Essays of Elia— Charles Lamb
26. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader — Anne Fadiman
27. A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit
28. Findings — Kathleen Jamie
29. The Fire Next Time — James Baldwin
30. The Folded Clock — Heidi Julavits
31. Forty-One False Starts — Janet Malcolm
32. How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America — Kiese Laymon
33. I Feel Bad About My Neck — Nora Ephron
34. I Just Lately Started Buying Wings — Kim Dana Kupperman
35. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction — anthology, edited by Lee Gutkind
36. In Praise of Shadows — Junichiro Tanizaki
37. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens — Alice Walker
38. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? — Mindy Kaling
39. I Was Told There’d Be Cake — Sloane Crosley
40. Karaoke Culture — Dubravka Ugresic
41. Labyrinths — Jorge Luis Borges
42. Living, Thinking, Looking — Siri Hustvedt
43. Loitering — Charles D’Ambrosio
44. Lunch With a Bigot — Amitava Kumar
45. Madness, Rack, and Honey — Mary Ruefle
46. Magic Hours — Tom Bissell
47. Meatless Days — Sara Suleri
48. Meaty — Samantha Irby
49. Meditations from a Movable Chair — Andre Dubus
50. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood — Mary McCarthy
51. Me Talk Pretty One Day — David Sedaris
52. Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal — Wendy S. Walters
53. My 1980s and Other Essays — Wayne Koestenbaum
54. The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay, and The Making of the American Essay — anthologies, edited by John D’Agata
55. The Norton Book of Personal Essays — anthology, edited by Joseph Epstein
56. Notes from No Man’s Land — Eula Biss
57. Notes of a Native Son — James Baldwin
58. Not That Kind of Girl — Lena Dunham
59. On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry
60. Once I Was Cool — Megan Stielstra
61. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write — Sarah Ruhl
62. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored — Adam Phillips
63. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence — Adrienne Rich
64. The Opposite of Loneliness — Marina Keegan
65. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition — Geoff Dyer
66. Paris to the Moon — Adam Gopnik
67. Passions of the Mind — A.S. Byatt
68. The Pillow Book — Sei Shonagon
69. A Place to Live — Natalia Ginzburg
70. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination — Toni Morrison
71. Pulphead — John Jeremiah Sullivan
72. Selected Essays — Michel de Montaigne
73. Shadow and Act — Ralph Ellison
74. Sidewalks — Valeria Luiselli
75. Sister Outsider — Audre Lorde
76. The Size of Thoughts — Nicholson Baker
77. Slouching Towards Bethlehem — Joan Didion
78. The Souls of Black Folk — W. E. B. Du Bois
79. The Story About the Story — anthology, edited by J.C. Hallman
80. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — David Foster Wallace
81. Ten Years in the Tub — Nick Hornby
82. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man — Henry Louis Gates
83. This Is Running for Your Life — Michelle Orange
84. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage — Ann Patchett
85. Tiny Beautiful Things — Cheryl Strayed
86. Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture — Gerald Early
87. Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints — Joan Acocella
88. The Unspeakable — Meghan Daum
89. Vermeer in Bosnia — Lawrence Weschler
90. The Wave in the Mind — Ursula K. Le Guin
91. We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think— Shirley Hazzard
92. We Should All Be Feminists — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
93. What Are People For? — Wendell Berry
94. When I Was a Child I Read Books — Marilynne Robinson
95. The White Album — Joan Didion
96. White Girls — Hilton Als
97. The Woman Warrior — Maxine Hong Kinston
98. The Writing Life — Annie Dillard
99. Writing With Intent — Margaret Atwood
100. You Don’t Have to Like Me — Alida Nugent
If you have a favorite essay collection I’ve missed here, let me know in the comments!
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