100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Essays
21 October 2011
Welcome to another day of our alternative "best-ish" nonfiction book lists, in response to Time magazine's 100 Best Nonfiction Titles list.
The other day it took me a while to post because I couldn't think of any titles that corresponded with one of the headings chosen by the Time listmakers, "Culture." With this post I had the opposite problem: I love essay collections. I'm supposed to narrow it down to just four titles? Impossible!
So here's what Time had to say:
Against Interpretation, and Other Essays, by Susan Sontag
A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
Actually, I can't really argue with any of those four. I've tried and failed to read the Sontag, but I think the failing there was on my part, not Sontag's (I was giving it neither the time nor attention it deserved, and I probably never will; I wish I'd studied it in college when I had time. I do think Sontag is a skilled writer.). I also can't quibble with the choice of Woolf, although I've never made it through that book either. And I'm pretty firmly on the record as loving both Didion and Wallace (not his fiction, can't do it; just his essays) and thinking they are both important contributors to American writing of the last fifty years. So whatever I suggest today is simply in the spirit of additional suggestions.
The Braindead Megaphone, by George Saunders. Remember, we read this one for a Book Menage? It remains one of my favorite collections ever. I love Saunders's voice: smart, but somewhat frustrated; interested, but sometimes stymied by the world around him. I can't get into his fiction but this is a neat group of essays that deserved a wider reading audience.
Anything, (not a title, just any essay collection you can get your hands on) by E. B. White. Of course the man who co-wrote The Elements of Style was a master of essay style.
The Long-Legged House, by Wendell Berry. Really, any of Berry's essay collections are books you wouldn't mind having if you were stuck on a desert island. They're easy to read but you find new things in them every time. This collection is particularly noteworthy for Berry's essay opposing the Vietnam War (a timely issue, then; the book was first published in 1969).
Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell. If you love New York City you've got to read this classic.
I know I'm blanking on titles right now; it feels like I should have at least one woman author on there (although if Time hadn't done it I would have listed something of Didion's). Anyone have any suggestions for must-read essay titles?
It's been fun to think about this category. I love, love, LOVE essays. I wanted to have a chapter of nothing but essay collections in my second reference book, The Inside Scoop, but I lost that battle, and I'm still a little cheesed about it, if you must know. Sure, there's essay collections scattered throughout the book (and indexed under "essays") but I maintain that good essay titles can be a challenge to find, particularly in libraries, where they tend to get all jumbled up together in the Dewey graveyard of the 800s, somewhere in among the poems and the plays where only the hardiest readers wander. Hmm. Maybe someday I'll make a list of 100 essay titles, just for giggles.