Must-read Contemporary Essays

While perusing The New Yorker website a while ago, I came across a piece on the nature of the American essay by Vinson Cunningham. Cunningham argues that what makes an essay uniquely American is its sermonizing nature – the way there is always an argument being put forth for the reader to consider and be converted to. Cunningham traces this quality back to America’s most famous essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s an interesting assertion, although there are certainly many molds for the contemporary essay. Following is a consideration of several recent essay collections by American authors. You can find these collections as well as others, here as a list in Seattle Public Library’s catalog.

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After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays 
This unique collection has contemporary essayists cover Montaigne’s essays, the way the Beatles covered Chuck Berry. At the end of each essay, the writer provides a coda, their reasoning for covering a particular piece. It’s an interesting take on the progenitor of all essays, American or otherwise, and a unique way to bring Montaigne back into focus.

Violation by Sallie Tisdale
The essays collected in Violation span Tisdale’s entire career and include some of her best known works. Like Montaigne, her writing often circles around its subject, poking, prodding, testing. Each essay has a short retake by Tisdale, letting the reader see how an author’s feelings about an intensely personal work changes over time.

White Girls by Hilton Als
Als, a long-time cultural critic and New Yorker writer, shimmers on the page with electric language that pulls the reader along. White Girls was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and in 2016, Als was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism. The essays in White Girls consider race and gender in America in a fiercely unique voice that is a joy to read.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Nelson is another eminent cultural critic, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism for this collection. Nelson’s writing is personal yet culturally aware, with references from ancient philosophers to Taylor Swift.

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Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
Hurley is an outspoken and necessary voice in the science fiction and fantasy community with a well-read blog and several excellent books to her name. This brand-new book collects some of her best work on writing, culture, and the politics of geekdom.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Gay gave a TEDx talk in relation to this book and sparked a huge national conversation about divisions in feminism, intersectionality, and what it means to be a feminist in America today. Her writing is pointed, funny, and brutally honest. She will be speaking at Seattle Town Hall as part of the SAL Presents series in February 2017.

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s essays are just as beautiful and lyrical as her prose fiction. In her newest collection of essays, the Emerson strain is more apparent than with the other essayists listed here. She writes about spirituality and politics, culture and philosophy with beauty, grace and deep wisdom.

~ posted by Veronica H.

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