Books

17 of the Best Essay Collections of 2016

It’s a great time to be a reader of essays. As has been noted by many writers and critics, the form has risen in popularity and visibility in recent years, and the result has been an abundance of fantastically written nonfiction on a variety of topics, from the personal to the political to the aesthetic.

Whether you, as a reader, are looking for an incisive take on a universal subject, an idiosyncratic look at a specific corner of the world, an insightful look at a piece of recent history, or a powerful explanation of the self, odds are that you can find a fantastic essay on that very topic — if not several.

What follows is as look at some of the best essay collections released this year. Some take a very personal view; others come at their subjects from the societal angle. Some will leave you in hysterics; others might bring you to tears. At the end of a chaotic and unpredictable year, one of these books might be exactly what you need to explore a new corner of the world or have a breakthrough in some quotidian part of your own life. Or maybe the narrative contained within it will give you a few hours of delight as you get lost in its pages.

Essays are, after all, capable of many things.

  • The cover of the book The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

    The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

    Questions of family, children, and science are familiar subjects for many a nonfiction writer. In her new book, Belle Boggs explores a series of big ideas, from the variety of emotions that surround parenthood to how questions of having children (or not having children) are addressed in fiction and pop culture.

     
  • The cover of the book Uproot: Travels in Twenty-First-Century Music & Global Digital Culture

    Uproot: Travels in Twenty-First-Century Music & Global Digital Culture

    The questions posed by writer and musician Jace Clayton in his book Uproot are some of the most central to ongoing discussions of culture, borders, and geography. Clayton explores what it means to be a global artist in the current century, and also delves into thornier issues around cultural appropriation and the ways in which music is marketed to different audiences around the world. This is a book that leaves the reader with plenty to ponder–as well as a sizable list of music that they might want to explore.

     
  • The cover of the book The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New

    The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New

    Annie Dillard’s powerful, frequently pastoral nonfiction has floored readers since her monumental 1974 book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The Abundance brings together some of the short-form highlights of her body of work, along with several essays appearing in book form for the first time here. This serves as a fine introduction to Dillard’s resonant style and areas of interest.

     
  • The cover of the book Known and Strange Things

    Known and Strange Things

    Essays

    Readers who have experienced Teju Cole’s fiction are familiar with the precise way in which he uses language, often to devastating ends. But he’s also written an extensive amount of nonfiction, including a regular column on photography for The New York Times Magazine. Known and Strange Things collects a host of his essays on topics as wide-ranging as art, the nature of national identity, literature, and more.

     
  • The cover of the book Pieces of Soap

    Pieces of Soap

    Stanley Elkin’s writing is often memorably absurdist and can be disarmingly funny, even as it deals with offbeat and sometimes harrowing subjects. (The novel The Magic Kingdom and the collection Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers give a good sense of his approach.)  This collection of his essays was first published in 1992, and the new edition has an introduction by Sam Lipsyte, a writer who knows a thing or two about bitterly funny fiction that can prompt discomfort and humor in equal measure.

     
  • The cover of the book White Sands

    White Sands

    Experiences from the Outside World

    Never predictable, Geoff Dyer’s writings push at the boundaries of what the essay can do, defying expectations along the way. As with some of his best work, Dyer himself is a constant presence in these works, which touch on issues of art, geography, and landscapes, and his thoroughly fallible nature lends to the anything-goes mood.

     
  • The cover of the book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters

    Pretentiousness: Why It Matters

    Dan Fox does not set himself an easy task with this book, an examination of, well, why what’s generally thought of as a bad thing is actually vitally important to culture and our sense of self. This isn’t, mind you, a contrarian-for-the-sake-of-it argument; instead, it’s a measured, nuanced approach to a debate that has applications both within the realm of culture and in larger debates as well.

     
  • The cover of the book Everything We Don’t Know

    Everything We Don’t Know

    Some essayists take us to unexpected corners of the world. Such is the case with Aaron Gilbreath, who has written memorably about topics as disparate as capsule hotels and Californian honky-tonks. Everything We Don’t Know is Gilbreath’s first collection of essays, and it promises to provide a fine window into his rigorous, expansive view of the world.

     
  • The cover of the book Everywhere I Look

    Everywhere I Look

    This new collection of essays from the acclaimed Australian writer Helen Garner covers topics as vast as aging, her relationship to her mother, and her impressions of the films of Russell Crowe. The result is a book with a big scope, both in terms of the subjects covered and of the stylistic approaches used to discuss them — a great reminder of the range of the essay as form.

     
  • The cover of the book Rules for Others to Live By

    Rules for Others to Live By

    Comments and Self-Contradictions

    Richard Greenberg may be best-known for his work as a playwright and director: his plays Take Me Out and Three Days of Rain have both been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, with the former also winning the Tony Award. In the essays collected in this volume, he examines a range of topics encompassing everything from life in New York to the process of aging, giving a window into his life along the way.

     
  • The cover of the book Against Everything

    Against Everything

    Essays

    Last year brought with it The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America 1933-1973, a towering work of cultural criticism by Mark Greif, also known for his work as a founder of the magazine n+1. At his best, he combines an astute eye for detail with a wide-ranging historical sensibility. This year brings with it a new book by Greif, this one collecting a number of his essays on American society and pop culture.

     
  • The cover of the book Sprinkle Glitter on My Grave

    Sprinkle Glitter on My Grave

    Observations, Rants, and Other Uplifting Thoughts About Life

    Jill Kargman is the author of several novels, one of which, Momzillas, was adapted as the show Odd Mom Out, in which Kargman writes and stars. The essays in the memorably-titled Sprinkle Glitter On My Grave take on everything from social dynamics to the habit of reading obituaries to her approach to parenting.

     
  • The cover of the book Upstream

    Upstream

    Selected Essays

    Some of the most memorable essays in recent years have come from the minds of poets, and this collection from Mary Oliver looks to be no exception. Like her poetry, the focus here is on the natural world, with nods to questions of place and the literary legacy in which her work often falls (Walt Whitman is just one of the figures alluded to).

     
  • The cover of the book Thrill Me

    Thrill Me

    Benjamin Percy’s writing is often gripping, whether he’s telling stories of violent obsessions (The Wilding), retelling history in a science-fictional context (The Dead Lands), or venturing into shared universes inhabited by superheroes (his recent work on Green Arrow). In this collection, he explores his own thoughts on fiction and storytelling, sharing valuable advice on the craft with a larger community of readers and writers.

     
  • The cover of the book The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race

    The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race

    Discussions of race and racism in contemporary American society have become and more and more prevalent. This new anthology, edited by Jesmyn Ward, brings together writings on the subject by a great group of writers, including Kiese Laymon, Wendy S. Walters, Edwidge Danticat, and Mitchell S. Jackson.

     
  • The cover of the book The Terror Years

    The Terror Years

    From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State

    Whether he’s examining American foreign policy or the unsettling history of Scientology, Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction can make the familiar feel new again. One of his strengths as a writer is his ability to find new angles on long-running issues — a skill that should be put to good use in The Terror Years, a look at the rise of terrorism in the Middle East from the 1990s on.

     
  • The cover of the book The View from the Cheap Seats

    The View from the Cheap Seats

    This volume collects a host of Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction, written over the course of several decades. The topics are varied, from the ways in which he developed his love of reading as a child to the process by which he came up with the ideas for books like Stardust and American Gods. It’s a powerful and charming guide to one author’s literary life. And a section dedicated to remembrances of figures from Gaiman’s life after their deaths contains some of the most moving work in the book.