I’ve always seen fall as a time for reflection. Even if you’re no longer going back to school, the change in season and the crispness in the air makes September feel like the start of a new year. This is always when I make new goals (both reading and personal) and re-evaluate how my year has been so far. Essay collections are the perfect kind of read for this season. The good ones are chock full of the lessons other people have learned, goals they’ve set and accomplished, and wisdom that can help you level up to that “new year, new me” person that fall makes you want to become. In light of that, here are five essay collections that are essential reading for the new season.
What Are We Doing Here?, Marilyn Robinson
Synopsis: Marilynne Robinson has plumbed the human spirit in her renowned novels, including Lila, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In this new essay collection she trains her incisive mind on our modern political climate and the mysteries of faith. Whether she is investigating how the work of great thinkers about America like Emerson and Tocqueville inform our political consciousness or discussing the way that beauty informs and disciplines daily life, Robinson’s peerless prose and boundless humanity are on full display. What Are We Doing Here? is a call for Americans to continue the tradition of those great thinkers and to remake American political and cultural life as “deeply impressed by obligation [and as] a great theater of heroic generosity, which, despite all, is sometimes palpable still.”
What makes it essential?: What Are We Doing Here? was cited as one of the most anticipated books of 2018, and for good reason. Marilyn Robinson is one of the 21st century’s most acclaimed writers – she always, always challenges her readers to think deeply about their understanding of the world and their place in it. This essay collection is no exception. Robinson tackles issues like faith, politics and humanity, arguing that each of us is solely responsible for ourselves and for the shaping of our independent beliefs and consciousness. It’s a dense read, so don’t pick this up if you’re looking for something light and breezy, but moving through What Are We Doing Here? at a slow and steady pace will allow you to think deeply about issues that really matter and the many and varied things that shape you.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
Synopsis: Whether she is contemplating the history of walking as a cultural and political experience over the past two hundred years (Wanderlust), or using the life of photographer Eadweard Muybridge as a lens to discuss the transformations of space and time in late nineteenth-century America (River of Shadows), Rebecca Solnit has emerged as an inventive and original writer whose mind is daring in the connections it makes. A Field Guide to Getting Lost draws on emblematic moments and relationships in Solnit’s own life to explore the issues of wandering, being lost, and the uses of the unknown. The result is a distinctive, stimulating, and poignant voyage of discovery.
What makes it essential?: Rebecca Solnit has always been the perfect fall essayist for me. I picked up my first Solnit collection while browsing at The Strand one October Saturday, and have read something from her every fall since. My hands-down favorite book of hers is A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The essays are almost all autobiographical, and they cover topics ranging from memory and place, to loss and uncertainty. She also ties her personal stories to much bigger ones– the book touches on everything from the use of blue in medieval paintings, to encounters with monks, to the movie Vertigo – which gives the reader an additional education in random subjects. It’s a read that’s sure to leave you thinking deeply and feeling strongly.
Magic Hours, Tom Bissell
Synopsis: In Magic Hours, award-winning essayist Tom Bissell explores the highs and lows of the creative process. He takes us from the set of The Big Bang Theory to the first novel of Ernest Hemingway to the final work of David Foster Wallace; from the films of Werner Herzog to the film of Tommy Wiseau to the editorial meeting in which Paula Fox’s work was relaunched into the world. Originally published in magazines such as The Believer, The New Yorker, and Harper’s, these essays represent ten years of Bissell’s best writing on every aspect of creation—be it Iraq War documentaries or video-game character voices—and will provoke as much thought as they do laughter.
What are sitcoms for exactly? Can art be both bad and genius? Why do some books survive and others vanish? Bissell’s exploration of these questions make for gripping, unforgettable reading.
What makes it essential?: If you’re looking for something a little lighter and more entertaining than Robinson and Solnit’s heavy musings, then Magic Hours by Tom Bissell is the perfect choice. These essays were all originally published elsewhere (Harper’s, The New Yorker, etc.), but this fresh collection brings them together in the best way. The book focuses on creations (like The Big Bang Theory and Ernest Hemingway‘s first novel) and their creators (notable inclusions are Tommy Wiseau and the voice actors who bring life to video game characters). It’s delightful, funny and totally absorbing.
Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, Ada Calhoun
Synopsis: We hear plenty about whether or not to get married, but much less about what it takes to stay married. Clichés around marriage—eternal bliss, domestic harmony, soul mates—leave out the real stuff. After marriage you may still want to sleep with other people. Sometimes your partner will bore the hell out of you. And when stuck paying for your spouse’s mistakes, you might miss being single.
In Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, Ada Calhoun presents an unflinching but also loving portrait of her own marriage, opening a long-overdue conversation about the institution as it truly is: not the happy ending of a love story or a relic doomed by high divorce rates, but the beginning of a challenging new chapter of which “the first twenty years are the hardest.”
Calhoun’s funny, poignant personal essays explore the bedrooms of modern coupledom for a nuanced discussion of infidelity, existential anxiety, and the many other obstacles to staying together. Both realistic and openhearted, Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give offers a refreshing new way to think about marriage as a brave, tough, creative decision to stay with another person for the rest of your life. “What a burden,” Calhoun calls marriage, “and what a gift.”
What makes it essential?: Fall marks the official beginning of cuffing season. And while you may be swiping right on Tinder a little more than usual (or accepting that blind date you’d never thought you’d go on), chances are you probably aren’t thinking about getting into something that will last a lifetime. You’re probably more worried about now through February. Ada Calhoun‘s Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give looks at what happens when cuffing season relationships end up lasting a lifetime. She looks at the nitty-gritty of relationships, the obstacles couples must overcome to stay together for life. Whether you’re currently booed up or not, this book is great for anyone who has ever been in a relationship or who ever hopes to be. It’s an honest, laugh out loud funny look at what it means to be a partner.
We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Synopsis: “We were eight years in power” was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. Now Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fueled the election of the man Coates argues is America’s “first white president.”
But the story of these present-day eight years is not just about presidential politics. This book also examines the new voices, ideas, and movements for justice that emerged over this period–and the effects of the persistent, haunting shadow of our nation’s old and unreconciled history. Coates powerfully examines the events of the Obama era from his intimate and revealing perspective–the point of view of a young writer who begins the journey in an unemployment office in Harlem and ends it in the Oval Office, interviewing a president.
What makes it essential?: Racial tensions in America are running high right now. While the tension itself isn’t new (it is, in fact, as old as the country itself), the discussion surrounding it is getting more heated and divisive as time goes by. Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses all of this in his 2017 collection We Were Eight Years in Power. It’s a stunning look at race, politics and the ongoing issues of a country that’s never been able to face up to its own past. This one will literally knock your socks off– it should be required reading for every American– and it will make you take a deep and honest look at the beliefs you hold (and the ones that you should hold, but maybe don’t).