Essays

  • Bad Feminist

    Roxane Gay

    Roxane Gay is a brilliant writer, and I’m glad to see this book with its hot pink title on the front tables in bookstores, where perhaps people who think they don’t need feminism* might see it. Gay is razor smart and genuine; she has a witty and light-handed writing style, even when digging into complicated issues.

    She writes some simple but important bits about privilege, like: “Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”

    And she talks about feminism’s bad reputation:...more

  • The Empathy Exams

    Leslie Jamison

    The essays in the book range widely in scope, from very personal to more critical to more journalistic, though a theme of understanding others’ pain loosely lassos them together. Often this manifests as her own attempt to understand, like her profile of people with Morgellons Disease, who believe that fibers are expelled from their skin and become so obsessed with the delusion they end up isolated from feeling so misunderstood. She wants to understand them, even though it’s so difficult to believe. Sometimes she even dissects her desire to feel others’ pain, as when her brother is diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and she imagines herself in his shoes so completely that it becomes more about her than him, leading her...more

  • White Girls

    Hilton Als

    Just after I started reading this book, I had a conversation in which someone said that inaccessible art can’t possibly be good art, with a side note about how some people may appreciate art solely because they can’t immediately understand it as they assume it’s smarter than they are. The discussion partially came from me describing my struggle through The Luminaries, not entirely enjoying it, but finding the structure of it compelling from a technical standpoint. The essays in White Girls vary in their accessibility, and since I was reading primarily for entertainment, I skimmed through the ones that didn’t draw me in enough. In this opinion, it can’t be a “good” book, because it was too much work...more

  • Against Interpretation

    Susan Sontag

    From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practices.

    This is the case, today, with the very idea of content itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism.

    Despite being fascinated by Susan Sontag, I haven’t actually read much of her work, so it was inevitable that at some point I would end up with three of her...more

  • All Things Glorious and True

    Kat Asharya

    I met Kat back in zine times, when people made friends through trades and letters, and those friends were often a combination of allies, collaborators, and maybe even the cool cousins you might not have had in your given family. As such I distinctly remember getting one of Kat’s zines and going to rent Breathless because she used stills from the film as background art — a quietly expansive moment in my film appreciation history. It was telling reading this collection of essays from Kat’s departed blog NOGOODFORME that I was familiar with most of the films she mentions either because I reflexively continued following her suggestions or I developed similar interests.

    NOGOODFORME started as a fashion blog but...more

  • Storming the Gates of Paradise

    Rebecca Solnit

    I started reading Storming the Gates of Paradise early last year, but since it’s not a light read, the library wound up wanting it back before I could finish. Only thanks to having added it as my “currently reading” book on Goodreads was my memory jogged enough times to get another copy and finally read the rest. An anthology of essays over a number of years, the book is grouped by subject matter with a fair amount of overlap — each essay was originally written to stand alone, so key facts or concepts tend to get rephrased across them. Some subjects drew me in deeper than others; I found myself relating parts of the “Borders and Crossers” essays in casual conversation,...more

  • Consider the Lobster

    David Foster Wallace

    After reading Infinite Jest two years ago, I didn’t become a DFW fanatic, settling instead for a measured respect for a writer who manages to be incredibly brilliant and hilarious at the same time. I’ve been meaning to get to this collection of essays, especially since I’m not sure when I’ll embark on another epic novel, namely his posthumously published Pale King.

    My favorite here by far is “Authority and American Usage” (originally published in Harper’s as “Tense present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage”), which is ostensibly a review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but turns into a sort of treatise on language usage comparing other texts and...more

  • Plainwater

    Anne Carson

    After Anne Carson won me over at her Nox reading, I finally put this collection of poetry and essays on hold. It seems like several people have noted it as their favorite volume of hers. Right now I was drawn more to her essays than the various sections of verse, especially the two pilgrammages within “The Anthropology of Water.” But there was also this afterword to “Canicula di Anna”:

    After a story is told there are some moments of silence. Then words begin again. Because you would always like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis. Just something to go on with. After all, stories end but you have to

    ...more
  • Ways of Seeing

    John Berger

    Kind of the Camera Lucida on fine art, this book is based on the BBC documentary of the same name. Seven essays, three composed entirely of images and four primarily of text that aren’t too heavy with the theory. Of those that are textual, they look at the mystification of art —

    Many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is. (The world-as-it-is is more than pure objective facts, it includes consciousness.) Out of true with the present, these assumptions obscure the past. They mystify rather than clarify. The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its

    ...more
  • Ex Libris: confessions of a common reader

    Anne Fadiman

    I got this book out from the library the same day as The Book of the Bookshelf, and Petroski makes several references to this book, so that was a kind of odd coincidence. I can’t remember now what made me seek out these two books specifically. Then I was also thinking about “books about books” and whether I should integrate it as a category. This one ends with a short chapter of recommending reading that begins, “Most good secondhand bookstores have a shelf labeled ‘Books About Books.’” Not particularly earth-shattering, but it’s always interesting when synchronicity abounds, especially around a common locus.

    Fadiman’s collection of personal essays about reading were originally published in the Library of Congress magazine Civilization—which...more

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