The top ten essays since 1950

November 6, 2014 • 2:49 pm

I love essays, as I know when you have a nice glass of wine and a book of them before me, I’ll be able to digest an entire piece or more instead of making a small inroad in a big book. And so I love reading the collected essays of, say, George Orwell or Christopher Hitchens.

Publisher’s Weekly has done us the favor of compiling “The top 10 essays since 1950“. Or rather, Robert Atwan has, and explains his criteria:

I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism–Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.

To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process–reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

You can quibble with his choices, of course but the ones I have read (with asterisks before them) are truly remarkable. I’ve found links where Atwan hasn’t provided them, but not all essays are available on the Internet.

*James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”(originally appeared in Harper’s, 1955). Read the essay here.

*Norman Mailer, “The White Negro” (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957). Read the essay here.

Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp'” (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964). Read the essay here.

*John McPhee, “The Search for Marvin Gardens” (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972). Read the essay here.

*Joan Didion, “The White Album” (originally appeared in New West, 1979)

Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse” (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982). Read the essay here.

Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre” (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986). Read the essay here.

Edward Hoagland, “Heaven and Nature” (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988).

Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter” (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996). Read the essay here.

*David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004).
Read the essay here. (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)

McPhee’s collections of essays are fantastic, as is Didion’s book The White Album, from which the essay above was extracted.

Feel free to list your favorite essays below. I have to say that some of the New Journalism Essays, like Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, might deserve inclusion.



37 thoughts on “The top ten essays since 1950

  1. Nice selection! Funny, a co-worker the other day happened to mention the Wallace essay.

    I also love essays. I think my favorite essayist from recent years is Arthur Krystal. The first of his three collection is my favorite:

    I particularly love “Who Speaks for the Lazy?”, which appears in, I think, the second collection.

  2. The Creation Myths of Cooperstown by Stephen Jay Gould
    Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford (expanded into a book which doesn’t add much to the essay)
    Bop by Langston Hughes
    Also, the tributes in Rolling Stone (despite the always annoying “100 Best” list format) written by one musician about another. Not “deep” per Mr. Atwan’s, but I gain appreciation of and insight into the work of both the subject and the writer. Also a great way to find new/old music I may be missing!

  3. Excellent choices( amazon, here I come). Have read many of them through the years. Love anything McPhee writes ( I could read him describing paint drying). Ditto Didion. Have Foster Wallace’s Lobster still unread.
    Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and his book on modern art, The Painted Word ( not a big fan of his fiction). Have probably read the Hoagland, as I’ve subscribed to Harper’s since 1964, but don’t remember the essay.

    (Slightly OT, 2 excellent recent NF books: Evan Osnos The Age of Ambition ( present-day China) and Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson ( Jon Lee’s brother)

      1. Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951 p.67 (out of print).

        However, the quote is needed in context…

        “I do not believe in belief. But this is an age of faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self-defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper, and sympathy are no longer enough in a world which is rent by religious and racial persecution, in a world were ignorance rules, and science, who ought to have ruled, plays the subservient pimp.”

        For a version of this essay (first appearing in The Nation on July 16th 1938) – how accurate I know not – see this page which however uses American spelling -

        Thanks for pointing it out – I shall do what Prof CC suggests & read it with a glass of wine or ale!

        1. “where ignorance rules”! Duh! I am doing exactly what the people I am shortlisting do when they tell you how accurate they are & drop a typo or spelling mistake into the next sentence!

          That is why I mistrust a lot of web pages & why you should always try to go to the original source where possible, for the interweb is full of Chinese whispers…

  4. I’d like to pose a question for the commenters and host: what essays/essayists would you recommend for a young person, in the age range of 10-14?

    1. what essays/essayists would you recommend for a young person, in the age range of 10-14?

      See Michael’s first suggestion at #6 above.

  5. I haven’t read all of these but heartily applaud the inclusion of Mailer’s “The White Negro”, Baldwin’s “Native Son”, and Didion’s “White Album”. I’ve read a modest amount of Sontag but not the one listed.

    1. Considering that this was written 25 years ago, and “gay marriage” (please excuse this if it irks you, but it’s a convenient phrase) is now the law in all but the 6th Circuit as of today (at least as far as federal appeals courts go), it’s a great essay on why gay marriage is a good thing.

  6. So I apologize, but I can’t get out of this “What do you think people should read” thing. For a very recent essay that I think everybody should read, if you haven’t already, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations. You will be amazed at what you don’t know about very recent history.

  7. Eugene Wigner’s The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

    More or less anything by Stephen Jay Gould (after all, he did write 300 of them, and I’ve read them all!). How about this one: “Evolution as Fact and Theory” which I didn’t have any luck finding on-line.

    Hitchen’s anthology The Portable Atheist has quite a few excellent essays; ones I highly recommend are George Eliot’s insanely great Evangelical Teaching, Leslie Stephens’ An Agnostic’s Apology, Carl Van Doren’s Why I Am an Unbeliever, Bertrand Russell’s An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, and Elizabeth Anderson’s If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted? Some of these are available on-line, but I greatly recommend the entire anthology, as well as a similar tome, Atheism edited by S. T. Joshi.

    Something that will make me more of a minoritarian here will be my recommendation of Massimo Pigliucci’s books of essays, mostly on the interface of science and philosophy. I love ’em; as always, your mileage may vary.

    And finally, don’t forget about Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll’s Does the Universe Need God?

  8. Just read Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre”. This was one of the bits that I found surprising but agreeable, mostly because I hadn’t so much as thought about it before:

    We are told that to be disappointed is immature, in that it presupposes having unrealistic expectations, whereas the wise man meets each moment head-on without preconceptions, with freshness and detachment, grateful for anything it offers. However,
    this pernicious teaching ignores everything we know of the world. If we continue to
    expect what turns out to be not forthcoming, it is not because we are unworldly in our
    expectations, but because our very worldliness has taught us to demand of an unjust
    world that it behave a little more fairly. The least we can do, for instance, is to register
    the expectation that people in a stronger position be kind and not cruel to those in a
    weaker, knowing all the while that we will probably be disappointed.

  9. What? Nothing my Edward Abby or Wallace Stegner or Oliver Sacks? Humpf!

    Yes, I agree these are well chosen.

    I recommend:

    Any essay collection by Edward Abbey; but especially Down the River and One Life at a Time Please.

    The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

    Listening Point by Sigurd Olson

    A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

    The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

    The Sound of Mountain Water by Wallace Stegner

    By Line by Ernest Hemingway (not really essays; but newspaper articles from his long reporting career)

    And, of course, Orwell’s essays, anything by John McPhee.

    Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

    Many others, can’t thin of them now.

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