I love essays. My favourites I read again and again, letting whole chunks of text leech into my blood. Many of the writers on this list are, or would rather have been, known as great novelists but for me, the mixture of unfiltered insight and immaculate prose found in their essays sings higher.
Joan Didion – Slouching Towards Bethlehem I am baffled by the hostility Didion rouses in many commentators. She is berated for writing about silk curtains and sundresses from Madeira, accused in so many words of being brittle and elitest. Reading Slouching I am sure there is no potential criticism, just or otherwise, Didion failed to consider. Her outstanding characteristic is gleaming honesty, and her ruthlessness begins at home.
Hunter S Thompson – The Great Shark Hunt HST is so much more than Fear & Loathing and I love this collection of his early writings. The dispatches he filed during his year in South America have all his acid humour and righteous outrage, along with a keen moral sensibility that was later blurred by drugs and frustration.
EM Forster – Two Cheers for Democracy Reading Forster essays in bulk is like eating ice cream, there is a point where it gets sickly, but its so delicious you press on. What shines through is his refusal to accept “how things are” and his absolute prioritisation of the personal over the ideological. If it is a choice between betraying my friend or my country, he writes, I hope I have the guts to betray my country.
Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own Simply one of the finest essays about writing ever written. Beautiful, biting, and superbly argued. The image she evokes of an Oxford dinner is one of my favourite pieces of descriptive writing.
George Orwell – Facing Unpleasant Facts Forster, a contemporary of Orwell, noted that George found many things to be unhappy about with the world, and wanted to share them. Something for which the world should be grateful, because Orwell’s ire was never expressed in less than astonishing prose. Who else could write that the Christian conception of heaven resembles “choir practice in a jewellery shop”?
Truman Capote – Portraits and Observations Truman Capote is a descriptive genius and an unsparing chronicler of human emotion. Reading his essays is like watching Muhammad Ali warm up. The profile of Marlon Brando is particularly audacious and brilliant.
Natalia Ginzburg – The Little Virtues I only “met” Natalia in a writing seminar last year, but she is already an old friend. The essays collected here include Silence, Human Relationships and the title piece, which is probably the best child-rearing advice I’ve ever encountered.
Martha Gellhorn – The Face of War Gellhorn was a heroic war correspondent. She covered every major 20th century conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the Central American conflicts of the 1980s. Fierce, fearless, and apolitical in the best way, she excoriates war without sloppy pacifism or jingoism.
Germaine Greer – The Madwoman’s Underclothes Germaine Greer is so provocative people feel the hard edge but tend to miss the sparkle of her diamond sentences. These short pieces are more personal than the majesterial The Female Eunuch, but equally blunt, polemic and rewarding.
Michel de Montaigne – Complete Essays Last but far from least, the daddy of all essayists, Michel de Montaigne. I picked him up on the recommendation of Virginia Woolf and there was an instant flash of recognition. He writes about love, fear, sex and death with remarkably modern, mordant glee.
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