The Art of Essay

Frank and I were sipping rosé with a friend this weekend and talking about genres of writing and reading. I was saying how much I love reading essays and that a goal of mine is to get better at writing longer essays. I think there’s something powerful in saying something in limited space but that is more formal than a simple blog post.

Frank’s favorite collection of essays is Down the River by Edward Abbey. (Most likely because he has gone down that same river quite a number of times, always relishing in the quiet adventure.) I thought this was interesting, as another friend just last week recommended Abbey’s collection, Beyond the Wall.

I started thinking about collections of essays that I love and thought I’d share just five of my favorites. There is a trend to compile a collection of essays, but often these feel like a series of blog posts (and sometimes, these books are literally taken from the author’s personal blog and compiled.) What I love about the following collections is that they feel intentional to the book. Which makes sense, because for three of these authors, the world of blogging played no role in their writing lives.

71nhadCDSTLEverbloom edited by Shayne Moore
I received an advanced copy of this collection by the talented women of the Redbud Writers Guild. It releases today and I’m excited to share the news of this book. I knew these women were incredible writers, but the stories of rootedness and faith, of solidarity and doubt have made me read these essays slowly. I want to savor the words and I think anyone who is looking for a powerful series on faith will enjoy this collection. Bonus? Each essay ends with a reflective question, which as allowed me to continue the conversation, in a way.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
I am a fan of Gay’s writing style and this collection of witty, honest commentaries on culture had me nodding and laughing. I appreciate her point of view and journey that she brings to these essays. However, I recommended this to a friend who did not connect at all. I suppose, as with any of these authors, time and place and voice all play into our experience. But this is a collection I find myself recommending to all sorts of people.

Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
My college years were spent trying to emulate Annie Dillard and this is my favorite of her collections. These essays captured my imagination and Dillard’s descriptive language is unparalleled. I find myself drawn to authors who connect our humanity to nature and this series makes me want to rediscover myself on a trail.

You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt
I read this collection while pregnant with Elle (and thus, her namesake) and I connected with Roosevelt’s observations on life, mothering, and being a thoughtful human. Some of her lessons sound a bit dated to modern thought but the underlying themes are timeless and solid.

Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle
I first read this collection before I even thought to claim creativity as my own. L’Engle talks about the blurred area between being an artist who is Christian and a Christian-artist. Like so much of life and faith, L’Engle argues that one need not Write About God to write about God. Really, I could pick any of L’Engle’s collections but this one in particular has stood out as a pivotal read on my journey.

I was reviewing Book Riot’s 100 Must-Read Essay Collections and realized how few I’ve actually read. (And, upon reflection, how few men I’ve read…) So, my new reading goal is to always have a collection of essays on my nightstand. Whether by all the same author or a collection of voices, the essay format remains a powerful form of expression.

Do you enjoy essays? What are some of your favorite collections? What are your thoughts on blogs-turned-books?

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9 thoughts on “The Art of Essay

  1. Thank you for this! I just bought Walking on Water! I, too, love collections of essays. I like the idea of a cohesive theme as you said rather than a compilation of sporadic thoughts. I just purchased the book The Magic of Motherhood (a blog turned book, I think), and it is wonderful. Each essay is connected in its honesty about motherhood but also focused on the positives–the ways we are changed and bettered because of this season.

  2. Teaching a Stone to Talk is one of my favorites too. I remember liking a collection of essays I read a few years ago by Alan Jacobs called A Visit to Vanity Fair. I’ve got Montaigne’s essays on my Kindle because he’s supposed to be the father of essays, but haven’t read that yet–one of these days. I’m not sure what makes a collection of essays work for me, but it’s kind of a tricky thing. Maybe a combination of thoughtfulness/reflection and a consistent voice even when the author is addressing a variety of topics. Maybe the reason I don’t like when a book feels like a collection of blogs is that the reflection part isn’t there–blogs often have the feel of the “now” versus something you’ve chewed on for a while and followed the various rabbit trails that lead to a discovery. I don’t know. Anyway, thanks for giving a shout-out to essays. And rose. Looking forward to reading yours in the years ahead!

    1. Yes! The timelessness of an essay rather than the immediacy of a blog is what draws me to them. I’ll check out Alan Jacobs and definitely Montaigne! (Maybe over the summer? I feel like summertime is for reading harder things…) Thanks for rose-ing and talking books and things. My favorites!

  3. I read Walking on Water when I was a young mother. I will find it on my shelf and read it again with more hindsight. Thank-you for your reminder of good essays.

    1. I need to reread it. I love finding new wisdom. I read A Circle of Quiet right after Elle was born (not that long ago!) and it so resonated with busy and new motherhood!

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