When you think of essay collections, the image that comes to mind may be cumbersome compendiums of scholarly compositions. But personal essays banish the academic connotation of the word, and can provide some of the funniest, most sincere, most illuminating, and most genuinely affecting reading you can ever experience. Here are some great collections to start with.
The hilarious and iconic first collection by the indomitable Sloane Crosley earned her a rightful place as one of the modern masters of the form. I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE is a comedy of manners as Crosley tries—and often fails—to navigate the rigid customs of upper-middle-class society in endearing tales of fumbling through everything from social functions to a disastrous volunteer experience at the Museum of Natural History. Crosley is something of a cosmopolitan iconoclast, because through her essays, she exposes the inherent ridiculousness of adhering to the script of etiquette at all costs.
Sloane Crosley is different from Abbi and Ilana in a lot of ways. She can uphold a professional career, for one. She calls Manhattan home, whereas the Broad City stars reside in grungier Gowanus. But even when she’s being a bridesmaid or volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History, Crosley’s experiences always have an amusing twist and usually end in disaster. She’s also really funny.
From the creator of the Twitter account of the same name, SO SAD TODAY is a deeply moving series of essays on the loneliness and isolation that lingers beneath social media, texting, online avatars, and just being a person in the modern world. Melissa Broder offers an unflinchingly candid and achingly honest mediation that, despite her trademark style of writing in Internet shorthand and slang, is remarkably profound.
In SUNSHINE STATE, Sarah Gerald blends personal pieces about her childhood and adolescence on Florida’s Gulf Coast, with gonzo journalism–style essays—where she inserts herself and her own experiences in the reporting—on the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Florida’s overlooked homeless population, and other issues the titular Sunshine State faces. She brings humanity to a place often separated from the realm of real life, cast off as a mere vacationland or “America’s basement.” The overall effect is a nuanced portrait of Florida, so deeply defined you can almost feel the humid, salty air crackle the pages against your fingers.
When Olivia Laing moved to New York City, she found herself enveloped in a seemingly constant loneliness, despite residing in one of the most populated metropolises in the entire world. But, as she demonstrates in THE LONELY CITY, this is a city built by lonely people. In a series of thought-provoking essays, she examines cities from the point of view of various iconic artists, from Edward Hopper to Andy Warhol. Laing shares how their experiences of isolation and seclusion were pivotal to their work, which in turn, has become part of the fabric of New York itself. By exploring the lives of others, Laing finds connections to her own life in the most intimate of ways, and finally discovers a kinship with the world around her.
Blending personal memoir with cultural criticism, HOW TO FALL IN LOVE WITH ANYONE examines the scripts of finding love we pass down through our society—in romantic comedies, social media posts, stories of other people’s lives—and questions if clinging to these myths prevents us from realizing our own authentic relationships. Inspired by her parent’s divorce and her own breakup, journalist Mandy Len Catron shares her experiences of traveling to the Appalachian coal mining town where her parents met, using literary theory to examine love stories, and using a 36-question quiz to create intimacy with anyone. The result is a vulnerable and insightful collection that digs deep into a subject that affects us all.
Aleksander Hemon’s first book of nonfiction is as introspective as you might expect from the title. Following Hemon from Sarajevo to Chicago, THE BOOK OF MY LIVES chronicles the experience of feeling like an outsider even when you’ve made it to the place you think you want to be—whether that be a new city, adulthood, or anything in between.
For celebrated essayist Chuck Klosterman, it’s hard to determine the line between his personal life and his writing life. Anyone who’s read Klosterman’s work knows how passionate and curious he is about writing about pop culture. But KILLING YOURSELF TO LIVE—a journal of Klosterman’s cross-country journey to view the sites where rock stars have died—is the collection where he finally inserts himself into his work, and shares with readers how he found himself. From snorting cocaine in a graveyard to ending three relationships in 21 days, KILLING YOURSELF TO LIVE is a behind-the-scenes look at rock journalism like no other.