As fall settles in around us, the air gets chillier and the desire to curl up with a good book gets stronger. Beach-reading season has come and gone, and maybe you’re looking for something deeper and more provocative to occupy your nightstand. Here at the Reading Group Center, we think there’s no better way to enjoy the coziness of fall than by reading thoughtful essays while pondering existence. To give you a head start, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite essay collections about humanity, faith, literature, culture, and everything in between. Enjoy!
Thin Skin by Jenn Shapland
Examining capitalism’s toxic creep into the land, our bodies, and our thinking, this incisive new work is “a visceral exploration” (Katherine May, author of Wintering) from a National Book Award finalist and a powerful literary mind.
In this collection of essays, Jenn Shapland weaves together historical research, interviews, and her everyday life in New Mexico to probe the lines between self and work, human and animal, need and desire. She traces the legacies of nuclear weapons development on Native land, unable to let go of her search for contamination until it bleeds out into her own family’s medical history. She questions the toxic myth of white womanhood and the fear of traveling alone that she’s been made to feel since girlhood. And she explores her desire to build a creative life as a queer woman, asking whether such a thing as a meaningful life is possible under capitalism.
What If This Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky
A Bustle Best Nonfiction Book of the Year and one of Chicago Tribune’s Favorite Books by Women in the Year
By the acclaimed critic, memoirist, and advice maven behind the popular “Ask Polly” column, an impassioned collection tackling our obsession with self-improvement and urging readers to embrace the imperfections of our everyday.
These timely, provocative, and often hilarious essays suggest an embrace of the flawed, a connection with what already is, who we already are, what we already have. She asks us to consider: What if this were enough? Our salvation, Havrilesky says, can be found right here, right now, in this imperfect moment.
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
“Transfixing. . . . A mystical howl, a thrumming, piercing reminder of how very closely we all exist alongside what could have happened, but didn’t.” —The New York Times Book Review
On seventeen occasions, Maggie O’Farrell has stared death in the face—and lived to tell the tale. In this astonishing memoir, she shares the near-death experiences that have punctuated and defined her life: The childhood illness that left her bedridden for a year, which she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. An encounter with a disturbed man on a remote path. And, most terrifying of all, an ongoing, daily struggle to protect her daughter from a condition that leaves her unimaginably vulnerable to life’s myriad dangers. In taut prose that vibrates with electricity and restrained emotion, she captures the perils running just beneath the surface, and illuminates the preciousness, beauty, and mysteries of life itself.
See What Can Be Done by Lorrie Moore
A New York Times Critics’ Top Pick of the Year
This essential, enlightening, truly delightful collection shows one of our greatest writers parsing the political, artistic, and media landscape of the past three decades. These sixty-six essays and reviews, culled from the pages of The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, among others, find Lorrie Moore turning her discerning eye on everything from Philip Roth to Margaret Atwood, from race in America to the shocking state of the GOP, from celebrity culture to the wilds of television, from Stephen Sondheim to Barack Obama. See What Can Be Done is a perfect blend of craft, brains, and a knowing, singular take on life, liberty, and the pursuit of (some kind of) happiness.
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
“You’ll love Traveling Mercies for Lamott’s unblinking confrontation with God’s love, and you’ll buy copies for all your friends struggling with faith.” —USA Today
Despite—or because of—her irreverence, faith is a natural subject for Anne Lamott. Since Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird her fans have been waiting for her to write the book that explained how she came to the big-hearted, grateful, generous faith that she so often alluded to in her two earlier nonfiction books.
Lamott’s faith isn’t about easy answers, which is part of what endears her to believers as well as nonbelievers. Against all odds, she came to believe in God and then, even more miraculously, in herself. As she puts it, “My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers.” At once tough, personal, affectionate, wise, and very funny, Traveling Mercies tells in exuberant detail how Anne Lamott learned to shine the light of faith on the darkest part of ordinary life, exposing surprising pockets of meaning and hope.
The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison
A New York Times Bestseller
“Dazzlingly heady and deeply personal—a rumination on her literary career and artistic mission, which is to reveal and honor the aching beauty and unfolding drama of African American life.” —O., The Oprah Magazine
Arguably the most celebrated and revered writer of our time has given us a new nonfiction collection—a rich gathering of her essays, speeches, and meditations on society, culture, and art spanning four decades.
The Source of Self-Regard is brimming with all the elegance of mind and style, the literary prowess and moral compass that are Toni Morrison’s inimitable hallmark. It is divided into three parts: the first is introduced by a powerful prayer for the dead of 9/11; the second by a searching meditation on Martin Luther King, Jr., and the last by a heart-wrenching eulogy for James Baldwin. In the writings and speeches included here, Morrison takes on contested social issues: the foreigner, female empowerment, the press, money, “black matter(s),” and human rights. She looks at enduring matters of culture: the role of the artist in society, the literary imagination, the Afro-American presence in American literature, and in her Nobel lecture, the power of language itself.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
A National Bestseller
“Basically the finest essay I’ve ever read. . . . Baldwin refused to hold anyone’s hand. He was both direct and beautiful all at once. He did not seem to write to convince you. He wrote beyond you.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates
When it first appeared in 1963, The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document. It consists of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism. Described by The New York Times Book Review as “sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle all presented in searing, brilliant prose,” The Fire Next Time stands as a classic of our literature.