“Atchafalaya” by John McPhee - This essay changed the way I felt about essays. I have always loved the form: it’s capacity for loopiness, it’s friendliness to digression, the space it made for beautiful language. But here, McPhee proves that the essay can do so much more: it can build worlds.
“Mister Lytle” by John Jeremiah Sullivan - There was a time in which I worked at a job that did not require me to do very much at all, and so I spent my time, tucked away in a tiny corner cubicle, reading. I cried when I read this, and my coworkers thought something terrible had happened to me, but it was just Mister Lytle, raccoon’s sharpened bone-penis and all. John Jeremiah Sullivan writes about the South like a native who’s stricken by amnesia: he has no shortage of not only familiar affection but also bewilderment, even wonder.
“What We Hunger For” by Roxane Gay - I’ve been reading Roxane Gay since she took on the overwhelming whiteness of the Best American Short Stories series in 2010 over at HTML Giant. (She was, delightfully, included in this past year’s edition.) However, this essay—one, if you follow Roxane’s work, you’ve probably read too—was a game changer. There are lines that when I reread them give me goosebumps. “Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods” and “You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you.” How many girls thought they were alone until they found an essay like this one?
“Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed - I am a member of the church of Sugar. I regularly quote her in long, tough, sad conversations with my friends; and they quote her back at me. This essay of her’s is one of the most important to me. (Little surprise: I have seen it make a whole room full of young women weep.) Everything in it, from “Stop worrying about whether you’re fat” to “Be brave enough to break your own heart,” from “Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet” to, especially, “Acceptance is a small, quiet room” speaks plainly and bravely and with heart. There is really nothing else like it.
“The Unlikely Influence of Dungeons & Dragons” by TNC - The reasons I love Ta-Nehisi Coates are too numerous to list here, but suffice it to say I’ve always felt he was a nerdy, inner-city kindred spirit: him reading the Monsters Manual in 1980s Baltimore, me reading Volo’s Guide to the Sword Coast in 1990s DC. I love this post (even though its really a transcript) in particular because he articulates what “high” and “low” culture have in common: beauty.
“The Death of the Moth” by Virginia Woolf - I read this in high school and it remains one of my favorite things by Virginia Woolf. It is aggressively lovely, a kind of poem. “What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.”
“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences” by Mark Twain - There are few things in this world I love as much as a really (effectively) mean review, and this is perhaps the finest of the form. This take down of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, which Mark Twain clearly loathed, is epic. “Personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others,” he explains, “this detail has often been overlooked” in Deerslayer.
“My Dungeon Shook” by James Baldwin - I love the love in this essay, the love and pain that seeps out of Baldwin’s letter: love for a brother, love for a nephew, pain for what the world has done to them, for what they have lost because of it. Here he says about his brother, “No one’s hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today which one hears in his laughter and in his speech and in his songs.”
“Chamber of Secrets: The Sorcery of Angela Carter” by Marina Werner - I love fairy tales, literary criticism, and sonorous, pulpy prose. This essay, about Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, has it all: “What reader does not explore with her these passages and woodland tracks? Who does not feel the Beast’s dark carriage like a hearse rumbling towards his eerily uninhabited domain? And who does not sense, through her powerful evocations, the pricking of thorns, the jaw-cracking stringiness of granny, the jangling of bed springs, the licking of a big cat’s tongue, the soft luxurious furs and velvets and skin, and the piercing contrasts with ice, glass, metal?”
“How Men Fight for Their Lives” by Saeed Jones - This is a story I first heard my friend Saeed tell at a party. He held the room with it, it tilted on his axis. It was supposed to be wild, something crazy and, because crazy, funny—but there was always this dark, unsettling thread running through it, even during his magnetic, hilarious jujitsu demonstration. Here the darkness is not a thread but the fabric. Who reading this hasn’t felt the same way, when Saeed says (my favorite line): “I need you to know that, in that unlit, wood-floored room, I was more interested in the story of my life than my life.”
Over at The Electric Typewriter, I pick 10 of my favorite essays. Plus, an exclusive picture of me circa 2008 sleeping on my copy of War and Peace. It may or may not have been taken in Romania.