contemporary essays

50 Must-Read Contemporary Essay Collections

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Liberty Hardy

Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading. Twitter: @MissLiberty

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I feel like essay collections don’t get enough credit. They’re so wonderful! They’re like short story collections, but TRUE. It’s like going to a truth buffet. You can get information about sooooo many topics, sometimes in one single book! To prove that there are a zillion amazing essay collections out there, I compiled 50 great contemporary essay collections, just from the last 18 months alone.  Ranging in topics from food, nature, politics, sex, celebrity, and more, there is something here for everyone!

I’ve included a brief description from the publisher with each title. Tell us in the comments about which of these you’ve read or other contemporary essay collections that you love. There are a LOT of them. Yay, books!

Must-Read Contemporary Essay Collections

They can’t kill us until they kill us  by hanif abdurraqib.

“In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.”

Would Everybody Please Stop?: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas  by Jenny Allen

“Jenny Allen’s musings range fluidly from the personal to the philosophical. She writes with the familiarity of someone telling a dinner party anecdote, forgoing decorum for candor and comedy. To read  Would Everybody Please Stop?  is to experience life with imaginative and incisive humor.”

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Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds  by Yemisi Aribisala

“A sumptuous menu of essays about Nigerian cuisine, lovingly presented by the nation’s top epicurean writer. As well as a mouth-watering appraisal of Nigerian food,  Longthroat Memoirs  is a series of love letters to the Nigerian palate. From the cultural history of soup, to fish as aphrodisiac and the sensual allure of snails,  Longthroat Memoirs  explores the complexities, the meticulousness, and the tactile joy of Nigerian gastronomy.”

Beyond Measure: Essays  by Rachel Z. Arndt

“ Beyond Measure  is a fascinating exploration of the rituals, routines, metrics and expectations through which we attempt to quantify and ascribe value to our lives. With mordant humor and penetrating intellect, Arndt casts her gaze beyond event-driven narratives to the machinery underlying them: judo competitions measured in weigh-ins and wait times; the significance of the elliptical’s stationary churn; the rote scripts of dating apps; the stupefying sameness of the daily commute.”

Magic Hours  by Tom Bissell

“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.”

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession  by Alice Bolin

“In this poignant collection, Alice Bolin examines iconic American works from the essays of Joan Didion and James Baldwin to  Twin Peaks , Britney Spears, and  Serial , illuminating the widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster men’s stories. Smart and accessible, thoughtful and heartfelt, Bolin investigates the implications of our cultural fixations, and her own role as a consumer and creator.”

Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life  by Jenny Boully

“Jenny Boully’s essays are ripe with romance and sensual pleasures, drawing connections between the digression, reflection, imagination, and experience that characterizes falling in love as well as the life of a writer. Literary theory, philosophy, and linguistics rub up against memory, dreamscapes, and fancy, making the practice of writing a metaphor for the illusory nature of experience.  Betwixt and Between  is, in many ways, simply a book about how to live.”

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give by Ada Calhoun

“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.’”

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays  by Alexander Chee

“ How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel,  Edinburgh , and the election of Donald Trump.”

Too Much and Not the Mood: Essays  by Durga Chew-Bose

“ Too Much and Not the Mood is a beautiful and surprising exploration of what it means to be a first-generation, creative young woman working today. On April 11, 1931, Virginia Woolf ended her entry in A Writer’s Diary with the words ‘too much and not the mood’ to describe her frustration with placating her readers, what she described as the ‘cramming in and the cutting out.’ She wondered if she had anything at all that was truly worth saying. The attitude of that sentiment inspired Durga Chew-Bose to gather own writing in this lyrical collection of poetic essays that examine personhood and artistic growth. Drawing inspiration from a diverse group of incisive and inquiring female authors, Chew-Bose captures the inner restlessness that keeps her always on the brink of creative expression.”

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy  by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“‘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. In this sweeping collection of new and selected essays, 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.’”

Look Alive Out There: Essays by Sloane Crosley

“In  Look Alive Out There,  whether it’s scaling active volcanoes, crashing shivas, playing herself on  Gossip Girl,  befriending swingers, or squinting down the barrel of the fertility gun, Crosley continues to rise to the occasion with unmatchable nerve and electric one-liners. And as her subjects become more serious, her essays deliver not just laughs but lasting emotional heft and insight. Crosley has taken up the gauntlets thrown by her predecessors—Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, David Sedaris—and crafted something rare, affecting, and true.”

Fl â neuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London  by Lauren Elkin

“Part cultural meander, part memoir,  Flâneuse  takes us on a distinctly cosmopolitan jaunt that begins in New York, where Elkin grew up, and transports us to Paris via Venice, Tokyo, and London, all cities in which she’s lived. We are shown the paths beaten by such  flâneuses  as the cross-dressing nineteenth-century novelist George Sand, the Parisian artist Sophie Calle, the wartime correspondent Martha Gellhorn, and the writer Jean Rhys. With tenacity and insight, Elkin creates a mosaic of what urban settings have meant to women, charting through literature, art, history, and film the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes fraught relationship that women have with the metropolis.”

Idiophone  by Amy Fusselman

“Leaping from ballet to quiltmaking, from the The Nutcracker to an Annie-B Parson interview,  Idiophone  is a strikingly original meditation on risk-taking and provocation in art and a unabashedly honest, funny, and intimate consideration of art-making in the context of motherhood, and motherhood in the context of addiction. Amy Fusselman’s compact, beautifully digressive essay feels both surprising and effortless, fueled by broad-ranging curiosity, and, fundamentally, joy.”

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture  by Roxane Gay

“In this valuable and revealing anthology, cultural critic and bestselling author Roxane Gay collects original and previously published pieces that address what it means to live in a world where women have to measure the harassment, violence, and aggression they face, and where they are ‘routinely second-guessed, blown off, discredited, denigrated, besmirched, belittled, patronized, mocked, shamed, gaslit, insulted, bullied’ for speaking out.”

Sunshine State: Essays  by Sarah Gerard

“With the personal insight of  The Empathy Exams , the societal exposal of  Nickel and Dimed , and the stylistic innovation and intensity of her own break-out debut novel  Binary Star , Sarah Gerard’s  Sunshine State  uses the intimately personal to unearth the deep reservoirs of humanity buried in the corners of our world often hardest to face.”

The Art of the Wasted Day  by Patricia Hampl

“ The Art of the Wasted Day  is a picaresque travelogue of leisure written from a lifelong enchantment with solitude. Patricia Hampl visits the homes of historic exemplars of ease who made repose a goal, even an art form. She begins with two celebrated eighteenth-century Irish ladies who ran off to live a life of ‘retirement’ in rural Wales. Her search then leads to Moravia to consider the monk-geneticist, Gregor Mendel, and finally to Bordeaux for Michel Montaigne—the hero of this book—who retreated from court life to sit in his chateau tower and write about whatever passed through his mind, thus inventing the personal essay.”

A Really Big Lunch: The Roving Gourmand on Food and Life  by Jim Harrison

“Jim Harrison’s legendary gourmandise is on full display in  A Really Big Lunch . From the titular  New Yorker  piece about a French lunch that went to thirty-seven courses, to pieces from  Brick ,  Playboy , Kermit Lynch Newsletter, and more on the relationship between hunter and prey, or the obscure language of wine reviews,  A Really Big Lunch  is shot through with Harrison’s pointed aperçus and keen delight in the pleasures of the senses. And between the lines the pieces give glimpses of Harrison’s life over the last three decades.  A Really Big Lunch  is a literary delight that will satisfy every appetite.”

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me  by Bill Hayes

“Bill Hayes came to New York City in 2009 with a one-way ticket and only the vaguest idea of how he would get by. But, at forty-eight years old, having spent decades in San Francisco, he craved change. Grieving over the death of his partner, he quickly discovered the profound consolations of the city’s incessant rhythms, the sight of the Empire State Building against the night sky, and New Yorkers themselves, kindred souls that Hayes, a lifelong insomniac, encountered on late-night strolls with his camera.”

Would You Rather?: A Memoir of Growing Up and Coming Out  by Katie Heaney

“Here, for the first time, Katie opens up about realizing at the age of twenty-eight that she is gay. In these poignant, funny essays, she wrestles with her shifting sexuality and identity, and describes what it was like coming out to everyone she knows (and everyone she doesn’t). As she revisits her past, looking for any ‘clues’ that might have predicted this outcome, Katie reveals that life doesn’t always move directly from point A to point B—no matter how much we would like it to.”

Tonight I’m Someone Else: Essays  by Chelsea Hodson

“From graffiti gangs and  Grand Theft Auto  to sugar daddies, Schopenhauer, and a deadly game of Russian roulette, in these essays, Chelsea Hodson probes her own desires to examine where the physical and the proprietary collide. She asks what our privacy, our intimacy, and our own bodies are worth in the increasingly digital world of liking, linking, and sharing.”

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.: Essays  by Samantha Irby

“With  We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. , ‘bitches gotta eat’ blogger and comedian Samantha Irby turns the serio-comic essay into an art form. Whether talking about how her difficult childhood has led to a problem in making ‘adult’ budgets, explaining why she should be the new Bachelorette—she’s ’35-ish, but could easily pass for 60-something’—detailing a disastrous pilgrimage-slash-romantic-vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father’s ashes, sharing awkward sexual encounters, or dispensing advice on how to navigate friendships with former drinking buddies who are now suburban moms—hang in there for the Costco loot—she’s as deft at poking fun at the ghosts of her past self as she is at capturing powerful emotional truths.”

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America  by Morgan Jerkins

“Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality. In  This Will Be My Undoing , Jerkins becomes both narrator and subject to expose the social, cultural, and historical story of black female oppression that influences the black community as well as the white, male-dominated world at large.”

Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays  by Fenton Johnson

“Part retrospective, part memoir, Fenton Johnson’s collection  Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays  explores sexuality, religion, geography, the AIDS crisis, and more. Johnson’s wanderings take him from the hills of Kentucky to those of San Francisco, from the streets of Paris to the sidewalks of Calcutta. Along the way, he investigates questions large and small: What’s the relationship between artists and museums, illuminated in a New Guinean display of shrunken heads? What’s the difference between empiricism and intuition?”

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays  by Scaachi Koul

“In  One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter , Scaachi Koul deploys her razor-sharp humor to share all the fears, outrages, and mortifying moments of her life. She learned from an early age what made her miserable, and for Scaachi anything can be cause for despair. Whether it’s a shopping trip gone awry; enduring awkward conversations with her bikini waxer; overcoming her fear of flying while vacationing halfway around the world; dealing with Internet trolls, or navigating the fears and anxieties of her parents. Alongside these personal stories are pointed observations about life as a woman of color: where every aspect of her appearance is open for critique, derision, or outright scorn; where strict gender rules bind in both Western and Indian cultures, leaving little room for a woman not solely focused on marriage and children to have a career (and a life) for herself.”

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions  by Valeria Luiselli and jon lee anderson (translator)

“A damning confrontation between the American dream and the reality of undocumented children seeking a new life in the U.S. Structured around the 40 questions Luiselli translates and asks undocumented Latin American children facing deportation,  Tell Me How It Ends  (an expansion of her 2016 Freeman’s essay of the same name) humanizes these young migrants and highlights the contradiction between the idea of America as a fiction for immigrants and the reality of racism and fear—both here and back home.”

All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers  by Alana Massey

“Mixing Didion’s affected cool with moments of giddy celebrity worship, Massey examines the lives of the women who reflect our greatest aspirations and darkest fears back onto us. These essays are personal without being confessional and clever in a way that invites readers into the joke. A cultural critique and a finely wrought fan letter, interwoven with stories that are achingly personal, All the Lives I Want is also an exploration of mental illness, the sex industry, and the dangers of loving too hard.”

Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays  by Tom McCarthy

“Certain points of reference recur with dreamlike insistence—among them the artist Ed Ruscha’s  Royal Road Test , a photographic documentation of the roadside debris of a Royal typewriter hurled from the window of a traveling car; the great blooms of jellyfish that are filling the oceans and gumming up the machinery of commerce and military domination—and the question throughout is: How can art explode the restraining conventions of so-called realism, whether aesthetic or political, to engage in the active reinvention of the world?”

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America  by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding

“When 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump and 94 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton, how can women unite in Trump’s America? Nasty Women includes inspiring essays from a diverse group of talented women writers who seek to provide a broad look at how we got here and what we need to do to move forward.”

Don’t Call Me Princess: Essays on Girls, Women, Sex, and Life  by Peggy Orenstein

“Named one of the ’40 women who changed the media business in the last 40 years’ by  Columbia Journalism Review , Peggy Orenstein is one of the most prominent, unflinching feminist voices of our time. Her writing has broken ground and broken silences on topics as wide-ranging as miscarriage, motherhood, breast cancer, princess culture and the importance of girls’ sexual pleasure. Her unique blend of investigative reporting, personal revelation and unexpected humor has made her books bestselling classics.”

When You Find Out the World Is Against You: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments  by Kelly Oxford

“Kelly Oxford likes to blow up the internet. Whether it is with the kind of Tweets that lead  Rolling Stone  to name her one of the Funniest People on Twitter or with pictures of her hilariously adorable family (human and animal) or with something much more serious, like creating the hashtag #NotOkay, where millions of women came together to share their stories of sexual assault, Kelly has a unique, razor-sharp perspective on modern life. As a screen writer, professional sh*t disturber, wife and mother of three, Kelly is about everything but the status quo.”

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman  by Anne Helen Petersen

“You know the type: the woman who won’t shut up, who’s too brazen, too opinionated—too much. She’s the unruly woman, and she embodies one of the most provocative and powerful forms of womanhood today. In  Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud , Anne Helen Petersen uses the lens of ‘unruliness’ to explore the ascension of pop culture powerhouses like Lena Dunham, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, exploring why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures. With its brisk, incisive analysis,  Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud  will be a conversation-starting book on what makes and breaks celebrity today.”

Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist  by Franchesca Ramsey

“In her first book, Ramsey uses her own experiences as an accidental activist to explore the many ways we communicate with each other—from the highs of bridging gaps and making connections to the many pitfalls that accompany talking about race, power, sexuality, and gender in an unpredictable public space…the internet.”

Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls  by Elizabeth Renzetti

“Drawing upon Renzetti’s decades of reporting on feminist issues,  Shrewed  is a book about feminism’s crossroads. From Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign to the quest for equal pay, from the lessons we can learn from old ladies to the future of feminism in a turbulent world, Renzetti takes a pointed, witty look at how far we’ve come—and how far we have to go.”

What Are We Doing Here?: Essays  by Marilynne Robinson

“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.”

Double Bind: Women on Ambition  by Robin Romm

“‘A work of courage and ferocious honesty’ (Diana Abu-Jaber),  Double Bind  could not come at a more urgent time. Even as major figures from Gloria Steinem to Beyoncé embrace the word ‘feminism,’ the word ‘ambition’ remains loaded with ambivalence. Many women see it as synonymous with strident or aggressive, yet most feel compelled to strive and achieve—the seeming contradiction leaving them in a perpetual double bind. Ayana Mathis, Molly Ringwald, Roxane Gay, and a constellation of ‘nimble thinkers . . . dismantle this maddening paradox’ ( O, The Oprah Magazine ) with candor, wit, and rage. Women who have made landmark achievements in fields as diverse as law, dog sledding, and butchery weigh in, breaking the last feminist taboo once and for all.”

The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life  by Richard Russo

“In these nine essays, Richard Russo provides insight into his life as a writer, teacher, friend, and reader. From a commencement speech he gave at Colby College, to the story of how an oddly placed toilet made him reevaluate the purpose of humor in art and life, to a comprehensive analysis of Mark Twain’s value, to his harrowing journey accompanying a dear friend as she pursued gender-reassignment surgery,  The Destiny Thief  reflects the broad interests and experiences of one of America’s most beloved authors. Warm, funny, wise, and poignant, the essays included here traverse Russo’s writing life, expanding our understanding of who he is and how his singular, incredibly generous mind works. An utter joy to read, they give deep insight into the creative process from the prospective of one of our greatest writers.”

Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum

“Curry is a dish that doesn’t quite exist, but, as this wildly funny and sharp essay points out, a dish that doesn’t properly exist can have infinite, equally authentic variations. By grappling with novels, recipes, travelogues, pop culture, and his own upbringing, Naben Ruthnum depicts how the distinctive taste of curry has often become maladroit shorthand for brown identity. With the sardonic wit of Gita Mehta’s  Karma Cola  and the refined, obsessive palette of Bill Buford’s  Heat , Ruthnum sinks his teeth into the story of how the beloved flavor calcified into an aesthetic genre that limits the imaginations of writers, readers, and eaters.”

The River of Consciousness  by Oliver Sacks

“Sacks, an Oxford-educated polymath, had a deep familiarity not only with literature and medicine but with botany, animal anatomy, chemistry, the history of science, philosophy, and psychology.  The River of Consciousness  is one of two books Sacks was working on up to his death, and it reveals his ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless project to understand what makes us human.”

All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World: Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom (Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God)  by Deborah Santana and America Ferrera

“ All the Women in My Family Sing  is an anthology documenting the experiences of women of color at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It is a vital collection of prose and poetry whose topics range from the pressures of being the vice-president of a Fortune 500 Company, to escaping the killing fields of Cambodia, to the struggles inside immigration, identity, romance, and self-worth. These brief, trenchant essays capture the aspirations and wisdom of women of color as they exercise autonomy, creativity, and dignity and build bridges to heal the brokenness in today’s turbulent world.”

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America  by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page

“For some, ‘passing’ means opportunity, access, or safety. Others don’t willingly pass but are ‘passed’ in specific situations by someone else.  We Wear the Mask , edited by  Brando Skyhorse  and  Lisa Page , is an illuminating and timely anthology that examines the complex reality of passing in America. Skyhorse, a Mexican American, writes about how his mother passed him as an American Indian before he learned who he really is. Page shares how her white mother didn’t tell friends about her black ex-husband or that her children were, in fact, biracial.”

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

“Since she burst spectacularly into view with her debut novel almost two decades ago, Zadie Smith has established herself not just as one of the world’s preeminent fiction writers, but also a brilliant and singular essayist. She contributes regularly to  The New Yorker  and the  New York Review of Books  on a range of subjects, and each piece of hers is a literary event in its own right.”

The Mother of All Questions: Further Reports from the Feminist Revolutions  by Rebecca Solnit

“In a timely follow-up to her national bestseller  Men Explain Things to Me , Rebecca Solnit offers indispensable commentary on women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more. In characteristic style, Solnit mixes humor, keen analysis, and powerful insight in these essays.”

The Wrong Way to Save Your Life: Essays  by Megan Stielstra

“Whether she’s imagining the implications of open-carry laws on college campuses, recounting the story of going underwater on the mortgage of her first home, or revealing the unexpected pains and joys of marriage and motherhood, Stielstra’s work informs, impels, enlightens, and embraces us all. The result is something beautiful—this story, her courage, and, potentially, our own.”

Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms  by Michelle Tea

“Delivered with her signature honesty and dark humor, this is Tea’s first-ever collection of journalistic writing. As she blurs the line between telling other people’s stories and her own, she turns an investigative eye to the genre that’s nurtured her entire career—memoir—and considers the price that art demands be paid from life.”

A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause  by Shawn Wen

“In precise, jewel-like scenes and vignettes,  A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause  pays homage to the singular genius of a mostly-forgotten art form. Drawing on interviews, archival research, and meticulously observed performances, Wen translates the gestural language of mime into a lyric written portrait by turns whimsical, melancholic, and haunting.”

Acid West: Essays  by Joshua Wheeler

“The radical evolution of American identity, from cowboys to drone warriors to space explorers, is a story rooted in southern New Mexico.  Acid West  illuminates this history, clawing at the bounds of genre to reveal a place that is, for better or worse, home. By turns intimate, absurd, and frightening,  Acid West  is an enlightening deep-dive into a prophetic desert at the bottom of America.”

Sexographies  by Gabriela Wiener and Lucy Greaves And jennifer adcock (Translators)

“In fierce and sumptuous first-person accounts, renowned Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener records infiltrating the most dangerous Peruvian prison, participating in sexual exchanges in swingers clubs, traveling the dark paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the company of transvestites and prostitutes, undergoing a complicated process of egg donation, and participating in a ritual of ayahuasca ingestion in the Amazon jungle—all while taking us on inward journeys that explore immigration, maternity, fear of death, ugliness, and threesomes. Fortunately, our eagle-eyed voyeur emerges from her narrative forays unscathed and ready to take on the kinks, obsessions, and messiness of our lives.  Sexographies  is an eye-opening, kamikaze journey across the contours of the human body and mind.”

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative  by Florence Williams

“From forest trails in Korea, to islands in Finland, to eucalyptus groves in California, Florence Williams investigates the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain. Delving into brand-new research, she uncovers the powers of the natural world to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and strengthen our relationships. As our modern lives shift dramatically indoors, these ideas—and the answers they yield—are more urgent than ever.”

Can You Tolerate This?: Essays  by Ashleigh Young

“ Can You Tolerate This?  presents a vivid self-portrait of an introspective yet widely curious young woman, the colorful, isolated community in which she comes of age, and the uneasy tensions—between safety and risk, love and solitude, the catharsis of grief and the ecstasy of creation—that define our lives.”

What are your favorite contemporary essay collections?

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The Best Reviewed Essay Collections of 2021

Featuring joan didion, rachel kushner, hanif abdurraqib, ann patchett, jenny diski, and more.

Book Marks logo

Well, friends, another grim and grueling plague year is drawing to a close, and that can mean only one thing: it’s time to put on our Book Marks stats hats and tabulate the best reviewed books of the past twelve months.

Yes, using reviews drawn from more than 150 publications, over the next two weeks we’ll be revealing the most critically-acclaimed books of 2021, in the categories of (deep breath): Memoir and Biography ; Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror ; Short Story Collections ; Essay Collections; Poetry; Mystery and Crime; Graphic Literature; Literature in Translation; General Fiction; and General Nonfiction.

Today’s installment: Essay Collections .

Brought to you by Book Marks , Lit Hub’s “Rotten Tomatoes for books.”

These Precious Days

1. These Precious Days by Ann Patchett (Harper)

21 Rave • 3 Positive • 1 Mixed Read Ann Patchett on creating the work space you need, here

“… excellent … Patchett has a talent for friendship and celebrates many of those friends here. She writes with pure love for her mother, and with humor and some good-natured exasperation at Karl, who is such a great character he warrants a book of his own. Patchett’s account of his feigned offer to buy a woman’s newly adopted baby when she expresses unwarranted doubts is priceless … The days that Patchett refers to are precious indeed, but her writing is anything but. She describes deftly, with a line or a look, and I considered the absence of paragraphs freighted with adjectives to be a mercy. I don’t care about the hue of the sky or the shade of the couch. That’s not writing; it’s decorating. Or hiding. Patchett’s heart, smarts and 40 years of craft create an economy that delivers her perfectly understated stories emotionally whole. Her writing style is most gloriously her own.”

–Alex Witchel ( The New York Times Book Review )

2. Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (Knopf)

14 Rave • 12 Positive • 6 Mixed Read an excerpt from Let Me Tell You What I Mean here

“In five decades’ worth of essays, reportage and criticism, Didion has documented the charade implicit in how things are, in a first-person, observational style that is not sacrosanct but common-sensical. Seeing as a way of extrapolating hypocrisy, disingenuousness and doubt, she’ll notice the hydrangeas are plastic and mention it once, in passing, sorting the scene. Her gaze, like a sentry on the page, permanently trained on what is being disguised … The essays in Let Me Tell You What I Mean are at once funny and touching, roving and no-nonsense. They are about humiliation and about notions of rightness … Didion’s pen is like a periscope onto the creative mind—and, as this collection demonstrates, it always has been. These essays offer a direct line to what’s in the offing.”

–Durga Chew-Bose ( The New York Times Book Review )

3. Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (Viking)

12 Rave • 13 Positive • 1 Mixed Read an excerpt from Orwell’s Roses here

“… on its simplest level, a tribute by one fine essayist of the political left to another of an earlier generation. But as with any of Solnit’s books, such a description would be reductive: the great pleasure of reading her is spending time with her mind, its digressions and juxtapositions, its unexpected connections. Only a few contemporary writers have the ability to start almost anywhere and lead the reader on paths that, while apparently meandering, compel unfailingly and feel, by the end, cosmically connected … Somehow, Solnit’s references to Ross Gay, Michael Pollan, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Peter Coyote (to name but a few) feel perfectly at home in the narrative; just as later chapters about an eighteenth-century portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds and a visit to the heart of the Colombian rose-growing industry seem inevitable and indispensable … The book provides a captivating account of Orwell as gardener, lover, parent, and endlessly curious thinker … And, movingly, she takes the time to find the traces of Orwell the gardener and lover of beauty in his political novels, and in his insistence on the value and pleasure of things .”

–Claire Messud ( Harper’s )

4. Girlhood by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury)

16 Rave • 5 Positive • 1 Mixed Read an excerpt from Girlhood here

“Every once in a while, a book comes along that feels so definitive, so necessary, that not only do you want to tell everyone to read it now, but you also find yourself wanting to go back in time and tell your younger self that you will one day get to read something that will make your life make sense. Melissa Febos’s fierce nonfiction collection, Girlhood , might just be that book. Febos is one of our most passionate and profound essayists … Girlhood …offers us exquisite, ferocious language for embracing self-pleasure and self-love. It’s a book that women will wish they had when they were younger, and that they’ll rejoice in having now … Febos is a balletic memoirist whose capacious gaze can take in so many seemingly disparate things and unfurl them in a graceful, cohesive way … Intellectual and erotic, engaging and empowering[.]”

–Michelle Hart ( Oprah Daily )

Why Didn't You Just Do What You Were Told?

5. Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury)

14 Rave • 7 Positive

“[Diski’s] reputation as an original, witty and cant-free thinker on the way we live now should be given a significant boost. Her prose is elegant and amused, as if to counter her native melancholia and includes frequent dips into memorable images … Like the ideal artist Henry James conjured up, on whom nothing is lost, Diski notices everything that comes her way … She is discerning about serious topics (madness and death) as well as less fraught material, such as fashion … in truth Diski’s first-person voice is like no other, selectively intimate but not overbearingly egotistic, like, say, Norman Mailer’s. It bears some resemblance to Joan Didion’s, if Didion were less skittish and insistently stylish and generated more warmth. What they have in common is their innate skepticism and the way they ask questions that wouldn’t occur to anyone else … Suffice it to say that our culture, enmeshed as it is in carefully arranged snapshots of real life, needs Jenny Diski, who, by her own admission, ‘never owned a camera, never taken one on holiday.’” It is all but impossible not to warm up to a writer who observes herself so keenly … I, in turn, wish there were more people around who thought like Diski. The world would be a more generous, less shallow and infinitely more intriguing place.”

–Daphne Merkin ( The New York Times Book Review )

6. The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020 by Rachel Kushner (Scribner)

12 Rave • 7 Positive Listen to an interview with Rachel Kushner here

“Whether she’s writing about Jeff Koons, prison abolition or a Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem, [Kushner’s] interested in appearances, and in the deeper currents a surface detail might betray … Her writing is magnetised by outlaw sensibility, hard lives lived at a slant, art made in conditions of ferment and unrest, though she rarely serves a platter that isn’t style-mag ready … She makes a pretty convincing case for a political dimension to Jeff Koons’s vacuities and mirrored surfaces, engages repeatedly with the Italian avant garde and writes best of all about an artist friend whose death undoes a spell of nihilism … It’s not just that Kushner is looking back on the distant city of youth; more that she’s the sole survivor of a wild crowd done down by prison, drugs, untimely death … What she remembers is a whole world, but does the act of immortalising it in language also drain it of its power,’neon, in pink, red, and warm white, bleeding into the fog’? She’s mining a rich seam of specificity, her writing charged by the dangers she ran up against. And then there’s the frank pleasure of her sentences, often shorn of definite articles or odd words, so they rev and bucket along … That New Journalism style, live hard and keep your eyes open, has long since given way to the millennial cult of the personal essay, with its performance of pain, its earnest display of wounds received and lessons learned. But Kushner brings it all flooding back. Even if I’m skeptical of its dazzle, I’m glad to taste something this sharp, this smart.”

–Olivia Laing ( The Guardian )

7. The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia Srinivasan (FSG)

12 Rave • 7 Positive • 5 Mixed • 1 Pan

“[A] quietly dazzling new essay collection … This is, needless to say, fraught terrain, and Srinivasan treads it with determination and skill … These essays are works of both criticism and imagination. Srinivasan refuses to resort to straw men; she will lay out even the most specious argument clearly and carefully, demonstrating its emotional power, even if her ultimate intention is to dismantle it … This, then, is a book that explicitly addresses intersectionality, even if Srinivasan is dissatisfied with the common—and reductive—understanding of the term … Srinivasan has written a compassionate book. She has also written a challenging one … Srinivasan proposes the kind of education enacted in this brilliant, rigorous book. She coaxes our imaginations out of the well-worn grooves of the existing order.”

–Jennifer Szalai ( The New York Times )

8. A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House)

13 Rave • 4 Positive Listen to an interview with Hanif Abdurraqib here

“[A] wide, deep, and discerning inquest into the Beauty of Blackness as enacted on stages and screens, in unanimity and discord, on public airwaves and in intimate spaces … has brought to pop criticism and cultural history not just a poet’s lyricism and imagery but also a scholar’s rigor, a novelist’s sense of character and place, and a punk-rocker’s impulse to dislodge conventional wisdom from its moorings until something shakes loose and is exposed to audiences too lethargic to think or even react differently … Abdurraqib cherishes this power to enlarge oneself within or beyond real or imagined restrictions … Abdurraqib reminds readers of the massive viewing audience’s shock and awe over seeing one of the world’s biggest pop icons appearing midfield at this least radical of American rituals … Something about the seemingly insatiable hunger Abdurraqib shows for cultural transaction, paradoxical mischief, and Beauty in Blackness tells me he’ll get to such matters soon enough.”

–Gene Seymour ( Bookforum )

9. On Animals by Susan Orlean (Avid Reader Press)

11 Rave • 6 Positive • 1 Mixed Listen to an interview with Susan Orlean here

“I very much enjoyed Orlean’s perspective in these original, perceptive, and clever essays showcasing the sometimes strange, sometimes sick, sometimes tender relationships between people and animals … whether Orlean is writing about one couple’s quest to find their lost dog, the lives of working donkeys of the Fez medina in Morocco, or a man who rescues lions (and happily allows even full grown males to gently chew his head), her pages are crammed with quirky characters, telling details, and flabbergasting facts … Readers will find these pages full of astonishments … Orlean excels as a reporter…Such thorough reporting made me long for updates on some of these stories … But even this criticism only testifies to the delight of each of the urbane and vivid stories in this collection. Even though Orlean claims the animals she writes about remain enigmas, she makes us care about their fates. Readers will continue to think about these dogs and donkeys, tigers and lions, chickens and pigeons long after we close the book’s covers. I hope most of them are still well.”

–Sy Montgomery ( The Boston Globe )

10. Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South  by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions)

9 Rave • 5 Positive Read Margaret Renkl on finding ideas everywhere, here

“Renkl’s sense of joyful belonging to the South, a region too often dismissed on both coasts in crude stereotypes and bad jokes, co-exists with her intense desire for Southerners who face prejudice or poverty finally to be embraced and supported … Renkl at her most tender and most fierce … Renkl’s gift, just as it was in her first book Late Migrations , is to make fascinating for others what is closest to her heart … Any initial sense of emotional whiplash faded as as I proceeded across the six sections and realized that the book is largely organized around one concept, that of fair and loving treatment for all—regardless of race, class, sex, gender or species … What rises in me after reading her essays is Lewis’ famous urging to get in good trouble to make the world fairer and better. Many people in the South are doing just that—and through her beautiful writing, Renkl is among them.”

–Barbara J. King ( NPR )

Our System:

RAVE = 5 points • POSITIVE = 3 points • MIXED = 1 point • PAN = -5 points

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contemporary essays

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The Contemporary American Essay

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The cover to The Contemporary American Essay

TITLES CAN BE MISLEADING.  In one sense, The Contemporary American Essay is perfectly chosen. It describes with commendable exactitude the nature of this volume. But though it pinpoints period, country, and genre, its matter-of-fact plainness belies the verve and color of the contents. What Phillip Lopate has so skilfully assembled is “a vast and variegated treasure.” That description is taken from another brilliant anthology, Lydia Fakundiny’s The Art of the Essay (1991). Fakundiny says that essays “make the language of the day” perform the essential task of “saying where we are in the moment of writing.” In so doing, she reckons that—over the centuries—this form of writing has done no less than amass “the memorabilia of individual responsiveness to all that is.” This is the treasure she talks about and that anthologists tap into. Even limiting himself to a fraction of it—just one nation’s essays, written between 2000 and the present—Lopate lays a rare trove of riches before readers.

There are forty-nine essays. To attempt to list—still less summarize—them would be inappropriate in a review. In any case, essays are resistant to summary. While academic articles submit to abstracts of their main points, essays, where the voice of the individual is paramount, are a different matter. Reading a book like this is not dissimilar to taking a long, invigorating walk that winds its way through a variety of fascinating terrains. Without attempting to condense its 600-plus pages into a paragraph, noting a few of the landmarks that particularly struck this reader should give some indication of the ground covered.

Lina Ferreira, in “CID-LAX-BOG,” talks about taking part in medical trials that involve being injected with the rabies virus—and through this unlikely lens gives considerable insight into issues of immigration, deportation, and belonging, in particular as these affect international students in America who wish to prolong their stay. Floyd Skloot, in “Gray Area: Thinking with a Damaged Brain,” touches on the nature of mind, brain, and consciousness. He considers how boxing inflicted serious brain injury on his childhood hero, Floyd Patterson. With considerable honesty, courage, and self-awareness, his essay shows how he’s come to terms with his own neurological impairment. Meghan O’Gieblyn’s “Homeschool” poses a whole catalog of questions about education, particularly the ideas behind homeschooling. Her presentation of Rousseau’s Émile as “the vade mecum of modern homeschooling” is particularly revealing—and it’s useful to be reminded that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written in part “as a critique of Rousseau’s pedagogy” rather than being simply the “parable about technological hubris” that it’s often presented as.

Aleksandar Hemon writes a heartbreaking account of a daughter’s death from a rare and virulent form of cancer, showing the power of words in a situation where they may seem powerless. Thomas Beller gives a luminously affectionate and atmospheric memoir about working in a bagel factory. Patricia Hampl’s “Other People’s Secrets” is an at times uncomfortable meditation on the ethics of writing. Joyce Carol Oates, in a rawly disturbing piece about imprisonment and execution, recounts her visit to San Quentin. Rebecca Solnit’s “Cassandra among the Creeps” deftly explores gender inequalities. There are also essays about disfigurement, revenge, race, vaccination, interior design, domestic abuse, and failure. And this is merely to skate over a fraction of what’s offered. Naturally, some essays appeal more than others. But all are finely written pieces. Lest the fluency of the writing make it seem easy, it’s good to have John McPhee’s “Draft No. 4,” a reminder of the sheer hard work involved in writing, and the many revisions that will have happened before each of these impressively polished essays emerged into publication.

In his short and moving “Invitation,” in which he reflects on what he learned from his years of traveling with Indigenous people, Barry Lopez suggests that “perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention.” All of the pieces in The Contemporary American Essay are written by individuals who have followed that rule. Whatever their subject, no matter what stance they take, regardless of their background, or the cadence of the voice they elect to use, these essays are exercises in paying attention. Indeed, it’s almost as if Phillip Lopate used this first rule as his criterion for choosing what to include. It’s sad that Barry Lopez—surely one of the most accomplished nature essayists of our time—died before the book he contributed to appeared.

Unsurprisingly, given the quality of the writing that’s been assembled, the volume beautifully exemplifies many of the key features of the genre. In his influential book The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay , Graham Good argues that “anyone who can look attentively, think freely, and write clearly can be as essayist.” The forty-nine essays in Lopate’s selection are pleasingly varied—this is a richly diverse collection—but they all exhibit the attentive looking, freethinking, and clear writing that Good identifies as essential prerequisites. In another well-known characterization of the genre, Edward Hoagland says that essays “hang somewhere on a line between two sturdy poles: this is what I think, and this is what I am.” Again, these forty-nine essays could be arranged on precisely the line Hoagland identifies, some inclining more to one pole, some to the other, some almost dead center between them.

Many readers will be familiar with Phillip Lopate’s landmark 1994 anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay , which—deservedly—remains a key text. Putting it alongside his The Glorious American Essay: One Hundred Essays from Colonial Times to the Present (2020), The Golden Age of the American Essay, 1945–1970 (2021), and now The Contemporary American Essay makes for an impressive quartet. Each volume puts a treasury of first-rate writing before readers. Cumulatively, they constitute an important literary milestone, celebrating—demonstrating—the history, development, and present vigor of this mercurial genre. They also suggest a topic for a future essay: “On the Art of the Anthologist.” It is an art in which Phillip Lopate clearly excels.

Chris Arthur St. Andrews, Scotland

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The Contemporary American Essay

By phillip lopate, category: essays & literary collections | world history.

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About The Contemporary American Essay

A dazzling anthology of essays by some of the best writers of the past quarter century—from Barry Lopez and Margo Jefferson to David Sedaris and Samantha Irby—selected by acclaimed essayist Phillip Lopate. The first decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a blossoming of creative nonfiction. In this extraordinary collection, Phillip Lopate gathers essays by forty-seven of America’s best contemporary writers, mingling long-established eminences with newer voices and making room for a wide variety of perspectives and styles. The Contemporary American Essay is a monument to a remarkably adaptable form and a treat for anyone who loves fantastic writing.   Hilton Als • Nicholson Baker • Thomas Beller • Sven Birkerts • Eula Biss • Mary Cappello • Anne Carson • Terry Castle • Alexander Chee • Teju Cole • Bernard Cooper • Sloane Crosley • Charles D’Ambrosio • Meghan Daum • Brian Doyle • Geoff Dyer • Lina Ferreira • Lynn Freed • Rivka Galchen • Ross Gay • Louise Glück • Emily Fox Gordon • Patricia Hampl • Aleksandar Hemon • Samantha Irby • Leslie Jamison • Margo Jefferson • Laura Kipnis • David Lazar • Yiyun Li • Phillip Lopate • Barry Lopez • Thomas Lynch • John McPhee • Ander Monson • Eileen Myles • Maggie Nelson • Meghan O’Gieblyn • Joyce Carol Oates • Darryl Pinckney • Lia Purpura • Karen Russell • David Sedaris • Shifra Sharlin • David Shields • Floyd Skloot • Rebecca Solnit • Clifford Thompson • Wesley Yang An Anchor Original.

Also by Phillip Lopate

The Glorious American Essay

About Phillip Lopate

PHILLIP LOPATE is the author of the essay collections Against Joie de Vivre, Bachelorhood, and Portrait of My Body. He has also written the novels The Rug Merchant and Confessions of a Summer. Lopate is the editor of The Art of the Personal Essay and the Library of America’s Writing… More about Phillip Lopate

Product Details

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“What’s marvelous is the way Lopate’s anthologies . . . manage to be not only comprehensive monuments of deep expertise, but such continuously fresh and thrilling reading companions.” — Jonathan Lethem, author of The Feral Detective   “Phillip Lopate is one of the most brilliant and original essayists now working.” — Louise Glück, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature  

Table Of Contents

Introduction by Phillip Lopate “I Am the Happiness of This World” by Hilton Als “One Summer” by Nicholson Baker ”Portrait of the Bagel as a Young Man” by Thomas Beller  “Brave Face” by Sven Birkerts        Excerpt from “On Immunity” by Eula Biss      “Tactless” by Mary Cappello           “Decreation” by Anne Carson          “Home Alone” by Terry Castle        “Girl” by Alexander Chee         “Black Body” by Teju Cole “Greedy Sleep” by Bernard Cooper “The Doctor Is a Woman” by Sloane Crosley       “Loitering” by Charles D’Ambrosio             “Matricide” by Meghan Daum         “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (with particular reference to Doughnut Plant doughnuts)” by Geoff Dyer           “CID–LAX–BOG” by Lina Ferreira                 “Doing No Harm: Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing in the Age of Umbrage” by Lynn Freed  “The Case of the Angry Daughter” by Rivka Galchen       “Scat” by Ross Gay     “On Revenge” by Louise Glück       “Faculty Wife” by Emily Fox Gordon     “Other People’s Secrets” by Patricia Hampl           “The Aquarium” by Aleksandar Hemon      “The Terror of Love” by Samantha Irby     “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison     “Negroland” by Margo Jefferson     “Domestic Gulags” by Laura Kipnis           “Ann: Death and the Maiden” by David Lazar            “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” by Yiyun Li       “Experience Necessary” by Phillip Lopate             “The Invitation” by Barry Lopez     “Bodies in Motion and at Rest” by Thomas Lynch            “Draft No. 4” by John McPhee         “Failure: A Meditation, Another Iteration (With Interruptions)” by Anders Monson “Live Through That?!” by Eileen Myles       Excerpt from The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson    “Homeschool” by Meghan O’Gieblyn         “A Visit to San Quentin” by Joyce Carol Oates     “Busted in New York” by Darryl Pinckney            “Against ‘Gunmetal’” by Lia Purpura         “Beeper World” by Karen Russell   “This Old House” by David Sedaris            “Differences: Sex, Separateness & Marriage” by Shifra Sharlin “Information Sickness” by David Shields         “Gray Area: Thinking With a Damaged Brain” by Floyd Skloot       “Cassandra Among the Creeps” by Rebecca Solnit           “Eric Garner and Me” by Clifford Thompson         “We Out Here” by Wesley Yang

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Contemporary Essays

THE English periodical owes its existence to the essay, the Spectator and Tatler having been the magazines of their day as well as the classics of their century, and it is by a sort of alternate generation in literature that the periodical in turn brings forth essays after its kind ; of all kinds, rather, for there are few topics that are not touched upon nowadays in neat little volumes of mosaic contents. With some readers, this connection of essay and periodical exposes the former to a certain disfavor, of the sort with which yesterday’s baking is regarded in the South. It is hard to judge rightly of a literature that is slipping past us, and it is well to keep a little of it, if only to find out whether it is worth keeping. Sir Edward Strachey, in the November Atlantic, quotes Maurice as saying “ that a man might bring greater honor to his name by writing a great book, . . . yet that he believed more real work was done in the world by having a part in, and writing on, the actual controversies of the day in which men were taking a practical interest.” Here the consideration is an ethical one, but even from a literary standpoint there is something to be said in favor of writing on a small scale and for the present moment. In an age when the creative gift is rare and the affirmative force weakened, some of the best and truest work can be done in a loose literary form like the essay, which is without pretension, almost in fact apologetic, lending itself equally to directness or subtlety of treatment. The form may be regarded simply as a vehicle for the expression of the thought, as is commonly the case with the political or speculative essay; or it may be cultivated daintily and for its own sake, as is more apt to be done in the social essay, which demands for its perfection something of the novelist’s outfit, or in the personal essay, which is next door to the journal or autobiography, but lays its author under less rigid vows as to accuracy of statement.

Many of the best modern essays are in the line of criticism, and here the supremacy of the French is incontestable. The English miscellaneous writers excel in the discussion of topics political, social, or speculative. The monthly and weekly reviews in England, manned by sturdy, well-informed writers, surpass the French, and leave our performance in that kind far behind. In our own literature, which is still, as a whole, pretty desultory, and about which it behooves us, under Mr. Gosse’s recent judgments, to be modest, the essay pure and simple, after the old models, seems to have found a congenial soil. Our high-water mark of thought or literary achievement is Emerson’s Essays ; and since Addison undertook to bring philosophy down to the club and the tea-table no one has brewed a finer combination of philosophy and tea than Dr. Holmes.

Mr. Myers 1 comes to hand as an example of the sturdiness of treatment which we have cited as an English trait. Even when he handles such an impalpable, not to say unprofitable subject as the ghost of psychological research, he does so with a definiteness, vigor, and intellectual conscientiousness that go far to clothe that marrowless creation with dignity, if they do not invest it with life. To speak first of sturdiness, however, in connection with Mr. Myers is to give a wrong impression of his literary personality. He is not a mere topical writer, but a man of letters, who began as a poet, and in whom the poet is still alive. His Saint Paul has passed a little out of sight, but still lingers in many memories. His Classical Essays are more widely known, and have a similar haunting attractiveness. In the present volume, which is made up of essays on both literary and speculative topics, or rather, on one subject viewed in both lights, the literary interest is throughout intended to be subordinate ; but the literary spirit is still dictator, giving to the book the stamp of individual charm, and of another unity than that of theme. It has the high earnestness of the author’s Saint Paul ; the intelligence, at once active and meditative, of the Classical Essays.

The spiritual attitude which it reveals is in a way a remarkable one. The melancholy but admirable essay on The Disenchantment of France shows how profoundly and sympathetically Mr. Myers has felt that spiritual void and desolation of which, as he acknowledges, France offers a spectacle, not solitary, but more complete than the rest of the world. The paper is poignant with the feeling of one to whom the loss of faith in the world at large is the subject of as deep a regret as the loss of his own. Science is the cause of this misery. Mr. Myers does not attack science nor revolt against its conclusions ; he does not, like Signor Valdes’s Father Gil, look to faith to give it the lie ; he does not, like Robert Elsmere or Mark Rutherford, cling to the best thought that disenchantment has left to him, and make of it a sort of Spartan broth for the nourishment of the spirit. He recognizes that one aspect of the later phases of skepticism is the distrust of emotional guidance, and the very energy of his own emotions quickens this distrust. “ Faith, the clinging of the soul to the beliefs and ideals which she feels as spiritually the highest,” he considers indispensable ; but he goes on to say, “ Whereas in all ages a certain nucleus of ascertained fact has been regarded as faith’s needful prerequisite, the only difference is that, in our own day, so much of that ancient nucleus has shriveled away that some fresh accession is needed before the flower of faith can spring from it and shed fragrance on the unseen.” In other words, it is not religion, but what he calls material for religion, that Mr. Myers feels to be lacking. This material he is determined to wrest from science. Science speaks now the only recognized language of authority. The highest science is psychology. In the study of psychology, therefore, lies the cure for our ills, and in psychological research, in scientific evidence of a return to this world after death, Mr. Myers sees the substantial nucleus needed for faith, and an encouragement for hope to spring eternal, as it has temporarily ceased to spring, in the human breast. A new cosmic law, that of interpenetration of spirit and matter, is to bring salvation, and Mr. Myers is confident that the proper material will at once produce the religion. He declares, with a gravity that is disturbed by no undertone of humor, “ The negative presumption will therefore be shaken if accepted notions as to man’s personality are shown to he gravely defective, while it will be at once overthrown ” (his own italics) “ if positive evidence to man’s survival of bodily death can in any way be acquired.” Without attempting to argue on supernatural grounds with the discoverer of a new cosmic law, we would venture to indicate the superiority in point of knowledge of the world of another prediction, made two thousand years ago, which says, “ Neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

Nothing could be more unlike Mr. Myers’s lofty sadness and visionary ardor of hope than the temper with which Mr. Balfour 2 surveys the world as it is, and reckons the probabilities of its future. He, too, insists upon belief in immortality as necessary to stimulate energy and make life worth living, but he does not press the question of how this belief is to be maintained in a disenchanted world. The world is. after all, not so very disenchanted, to his mind. To Mr. Myers, who is a poet and a man of sentiment, science seems to have said the irrefutable word. Mr. Balfour, who has a more practical mind, finds assurance in an attitude of doubt, in the conviction that science has not yet proved her points; in other words, he keeps his mental balance by being skeptical as to skepticism. His Defence of Philosophic Doubt was a brilliant arraignment of scientific infallibility, an employment of the Scotch philosophers’ dialectic of common sense for ends the opposite to theirs, and with far more effect. Mr. Balfour does not discuss what would happen if a traveler were to return with absolute proof of immortality, because his interest in the future is in ratio to its probability. Such a traveler would have to deal, however, with human nature, and the Fragment on Progress, which formed Mr. Balfour’s rectorial address at Glasgow, shows what he thinks of the likelihood that any argument or proof would essentially alter that leaven. It is interesting, in this and in the entertaining essay on Berkeley, to note the interaction and harmony of the author’s political and philosophical creeds and observations. For Berkeley Mr. Balfour has a strong admiration, for which there is every reason, and a peculiar sympathy, for which there are perhaps two special reasons. Berkeley was the author of a system of philosophy which showed that the existence of matter could not be proved, and of a book on Ireland which proved that the Irish question did not exist.

The present collection of addresses and essays is a less elaborate performance than Mr. Balfour’s former book, although there are plenty of evidences of the same philosophic acuteness. The leisure product of a mind active in other directions, these essays are at once very able and very light in weight ; extremely well written without indicating any special literary gift. They are much more rational than the essays of Mr. Myers, but the impression which they leave upon the mind is much slighter. There is something a trifle Macaulayan in the extraneous and orderly manner in which. Mr. Balfour marshals his ideas; there is a touch of finality in the ideas themselves. He states available but not always over-popular truths dispassionately, and without flinching ; he utters with great readiness neat sayings which are compact morsels of good sense rather than brilliant witticisms ; and he is always readable and entertaining.

‘ In the first essay of the book, The Pleasures of Reading, he is on Miss Repplier’s familiar ground, making a plea for pure pleasure in reading, a protest againt university courses of literature, and an onslaught upon all who make their intercourse with books a mere means towards ambition, duty, or any other end. The arguments put forth are similar to those employed by Miss Repplier, 3 and the cause defended is practically the same as hers ; but the lady is the more stimulating and persuasive of the two writers,—partly, perhaps, because she is the more unreasonable.

Miss Repplier’s powers of persuasion are of the autocratic sort. She commands us to take pleasure in reading, and she summons so stirringly before us the old delights of romance, she brings up with such intimate touches those little joys of literature which, as Jean Paul says, “refresh us constantly, like house bread, and never bring disgust,” she speaks her mind in such a whole-hearted, racy, piquant way, that she bestows the pleasure in formulating the law. But if we presume to wander farther, and to take pleasure after our own fashion in other fields of literature, we are instantly made to feel as deserters from the flag. We must agree with the writer quickly, while we are in the way; and if our disagreement were to go so far as to impair the keenness and sympathy of our delight in her work, the penalty would certainly be ours, and the cost the loss of one of the choicest enjoyments that current literature in our own land and hour has to give.

Miss Repplier’s papers on literary subjects are hardly to be classed as critical essays. They belong rather to another genre which we may term the bookish essay. Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt wrote essays of this sort, the harvest of book-browsings, the distillation of individual perfumes from quiet gardens of literature, with no attempt at criticism beyond the report of the effect of a volume upon the personality of the essayist. It is in the lines of this bookish and personal tradition that Miss Repplier works. She has not the equipment for a critic, the perspective, the perception of relations; the power of being lost in other minds, and those the most widely divergent, without losing one’s literary bearings ; the sense of literature as an organic whole, and of its dependence upon life. She does not synthesize, nor find underlying agreement “ in many a heart-perplexing opposite.” She loves much, but not widely, and will neither run after new gods herself, nor allow her readers to do so. She is audaciously conservative, a free lance for the preservation of bounds. But in her own line, as a book-lover and personal essayist, she is admirable in endowment and performance. She has originality and art. She understands the manipulation of the essay, the amount of negligence permissible and even effective, and the requisite amount, of care. She says the most delightful and unexpected things, and says them in the happiest manner, with the exact measure of deliberation and unconsciousness, of humor and conviction. She quotes, as some of the old essayists loved to quote, with just that little stress of personality which is a new interpretation, an addition to the meaning such as may be given by a voice. It is probably one of the consequences of that decay in romantic interest for which Miss Repplier upbraids her public that our pleasure in reading has come to depend very much upon the stimulus of the moment, upon the turn of the phrase, the attitude of the author, upon the conversational powers of the hero and heroine rather than upon our hope of their ultimate happiness. Miss Repplier ministers to this pleasure in the detail. She is not always strong in construction. Her essay as a whole sometimes lacks backbone ; her phrase never does : it has strength, suppleness, precision ; moreover, it is a live phrase. To watch its movements, its dignity, its reserve, and its spring, above all to see these movements accommodated to those of Agrippina, is to get a little unstrenuous enjoyment out of the printed page. To find anything as good as Agrippina in the reproduction of cat attitude and of the mental domain of Tabhyland, one would have to turn to Gautier and to Pierre Loti; and in sheer litheness of description one would not find in their pages anything better. Agrippina is, on the whole, the deftest achievement of Miss Repplier’s vocabulary ; but we still remember Pleasure : a Heresy, as one of her most original and characteristic papers, and the one on Ennui, in the present volume, in which occurs the description of that “ small, compact, and enviable minority among us ” (a writer with less humor might easily have fallen into the blunder of calling it a majority) “ who, through no merit of their own, are incapable of being bored,” is a bit of writing calculated to afford satisfaction to the literary conscience of its author. The danger which seems to lie in the way of a writer like Miss Repplier is that of exhausting by limitation her range of subjects ; but the essential thing, after all, is to have found the right sphere, and Miss Repplier is by this time sufficiently mistress of her domain to extend it at her pleasure.

The want of material, of a substantial harvest of knowledge, with ideas vigorous enough to thresh and winnow it, has always been felt, and will long continue to exist in our literature, though it is a defect which time will probably make right. But if our prayer for more matter were granted with the condition of less art, we should be unfortunate. If Mr. James had gone into business in literature, and given up the unprofitable pursuit of writing as a fine art, we should have had less literature than we have had, although Mr. James’s own reputation might have been increased to an imposing extent by the sacrifice of a little subtlety, and the addition of some sawdust to his work. Mr. Barrett Wendell, in a volume of essays with the title Stelligeri, 4 taken from the mention of deceased alumni in the old Harvard catalogue, deals with the American literature of the past, and in his principal essay devotes himself to proving that there is no American literature, that our stars are all excellent rushlights. His main point, that we have no literature, is easily proved, but the test which he applies to each author in turn seems to us a doubtful one. The fact that we have produced nothing which Englishmen, living under less crowded conditions in a new country, could not have produced does not of itself prove that we have no literature. Is there any reason why we should have produced a literature Contradictory to our history, why we should write as Choctaws or redeemed Africans? Yet this is Mr. Wendell’s touchstone. Nor is there much light thrown upon individuals by this line-and-rule method of criticism. Emerson is not merely a mild, good man like Whittier, nor does Hawthorne come under the same head as Longfellow. They might, for the sake of the argument, be left temporarily in the same category, though it seems hardly worth while in this case. We cannot help thinking that Mr. Wendell lays too much stress upon the minor fact that our literature is not American, whereas the real trouble is that it is not a literature.

To Mr. James the publishing of many books, the daily reviewing, and the rarity of real literary interest are as melancholy signs of the times as the decay of faith is to Mr. Myers. “ The bewildered spirit,” he writes, “ may well ask itself, without speedy answer, What is the function in the life of man of such a periodicity of platitude and irrelevance ? ” But Mr. James’s courage and literary faith hold firm. From his point of view the prospect is most cheering in Paris, where Mr. Myers finds it most depressing; and as in times of unbelief the men who cling to work and to duty are the most inspiring, so there is cheer in the provisional creed, rather breathed than expressed in Mr. James’s work, that the way to get a literature is not to advertise for it as original or American, but to learn to look at things truly, and to write as well as possible. There are ethical as well as literary lessons in his essay on Criticism, a paper which goes very near to the heart of the subject, although its author has felt, obliged to employ part of his space in defending to his audience the very existence of his art.

Mr. James is so perfectly at home in criticism that we almost forget how small a portion of his work lies technically within this province. In reality it all belongs there. As a novelist, his achievement is all in the line of what we may call critical fiction, in which the same processes of analysis, comprehension, and restatement applied in literary criticism to books are brought to bear directly upon life. Mr. James can hardly be called the discoverer of this vein, but he has certainly worked it more consistently and thoroughly than anybody else. To appreciate his success in it we have only to remember how almost invariably true, from a critical point of view, are those scenes and personages in his books which, judged by a purely dramatic standard, are so easily found wanting. His characters talk too uniformly well for dramatic truth ; they are framed, the fine and the vulgar, in a setting of culture which is sometimes too rich for realism. But how exactly the right critical light is thrown upon them, how carefully the type and the variety are selected, what an immersion in observation and the study of life is shown on every page ! The dramatic power, that of bringing real living creatures into a book, must always be counted as the supreme gift in fiction ; but if we demand, with impartial rigor, from every writer the same forms of truth, we shall lose many truths, and get mostly conventionalities.

Mr. James’s literary criticism cannot be considered superior to his novels, for there is more room for originality in working from life, but it is submitted to the same law of literary progress which is to he seen in his novels. His work has always been abundantly clever, but he has constantly turned his cleverness to more and more account. The present volume 5 shows an advance upon Partial Portraits, not in brightness, but in mellowness, and in the power so essential to a critic of finding the true equilibrium of his subject. The essay on Pierre Loti is an admirable example of the qualities which Mr. James has cited in the paper on Criticism as forming the special outfit of the critic. It is an illustration of that interpretation and recasting of the work of another which make criticism analogous to acting as an art. It is at once sympathetic and unexaggerated, and it gives in passing a general picture of the French literature of the day, of its qualities and tendencies, which has a truth and justness of perception not often arrived at in our much writing about that literature. Of Flaubert Mr. James, of course, writes with appreciation, though his optimism is a little severe upon Flaubert’s boisterous melancholy. The paper on the Goncourt Journals is a just and gentlemanly notice of a performance neither gentlemanly nor just. That on Ibsen is probably the most complete and illuminating that has been written about that much discussed and not easily understood dramatist. There are two biographical sketches (we had almost added London as a third, she is so personified) which are among the best things in the book : one, originally printed in The Atlantic, on James Russell Lowell, in which Mr. James shows how possible it is to write with affection and admiration of a man without lending him all the virtues that any other man ever possessed; the other on Fanny Kemble, written con amore and con brio , and giving us a sense as of the whole vivid presence of that great personality. One has something of the pleasure in reading it that there would be in coming across a Landor conversation that had really taken place. In his representation of another lady of great traditions, London, Mr. James seems to us a little perfunctory, as a man almost inevitably must be now and then who writes so much and so well.

Folia Litteraria 6 is made up largely of short reviews on points of literary scholarship which have no direct connection, but are strung along on a straight chronological line from the old romances to the nineteenth century, giving the reader the feeling of going through a familiar country on a train that stops only at way stations. They are written in a pleasant tone of light scholarship, and with a warm feeling for poetry. Sometimes the points discussed are tolerably slight, as in an unexplained passage in Comus, where the subject is Miltonreason for having made Echo dwell

Mr. Hales sets down as far fetched Keightley’s suggestion that the winding course of the river resembles the repercussion of an echo, and with justice; but his own interpretation, that the Meander was a classic haunt of the swan, the bird of sweet song in the ancient poets, seems, though certainly less absurd, hardly more conclusive. Tennyson, when asked by Mr. Knowles what he meant by the lines in Maud,

made the grave reply, gravely accepted by Mr. Knowles, that a daisy trodden upon would be turned over, bringing the rosy under petals uppermost. The older poets are not on hand gently to extract the poetry from their lines for the benefit of prosaic commentators and friends ; else Milton might have told Mr. Hales that his allusion to Echo meant the song of the swan. But was he not as capable as Leconte de Lisle of bringing in a name for the sake of its sound ? And is not classic association joined here to one of the most beguiling bits of alliteration in literature ? If the verse brings up to the reader the thought of a river in a lovely vale, with now and then an echo flying from hill to hill across its waters, is there any reason why it should have meant something more recondite to the poet ? In the essay on Milton’s Macbeth, showing that Milton had planned a tragedy of Macbeth, and discussing his probable reasons for wishing to enter the lists against Shakespeare, Mr. Hales seems to us to have found a more tangible theme, and executed a careful piece of conjectural criticism.

The volume contains two longer papers, — one on The Last Decade of the Eighteenth Century, a very happily chosen subject, the other on Victorian Literature. Both bear the mark of the lecture in the ground covered and the necessity of constant summarizing, but they are very well arranged, critically sound, and pleasantly written. Folia Litteraria is a book to keep on hand as a collection of extra notes with which to interleave other books rather than one to be taken up and re-read for its own sake. And that, after all, is the best test of essays. They may or may not be classics, but they must prove themselves good comrades.

  • Science and a Future Life . With Other Essays. By FREDERICK W. H. MYERS. London and New York: Macmillan. 1893. ↩
  • Essays and Addresses . By the Right Hon. ARTHUR J. BALFOUR, M. P. Edinburgh: David Douglas. 1893. ↩
  • Essays in Idleness . By AGNES REPPLIER. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893. ↩
  • Stelligeri, and Other Essays concerning America . By BAEKETT WEXDELL. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1893. ↩
  • Essays in London and Elsewhere . By HENBY JAMES. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1893. ↩
  • Folia Litteraria . Essays and Notes on English Literature. By W. W. M. M. A., Professor of English Literature in King’s College. New York : Macmillan. 1893. ↩

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  • Contemporary Literature

About this Journal

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Contemporary Literature publishes scholarly essays on contemporary writing in English, interviews with established and emerging authors, and reviews of recent critical books in the field. The journal welcomes articles on multiple genres, including poetry, the novel, drama, creative nonfiction, new media and digital literature, and graphic narrative. Contemporary Literature published the first articles on Thomas Pynchon and Susan Howe and the first interviews with Margaret Drabble and Don DeLillo; it also helped to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro, Eavan Boland, and J. M. Coetzee to American readers. As a forum for discussing issues animating the range of contemporary literary studies, Contemporary Literature features the full diversity of critical practices. The editors seek articles that frame their analysis of texts within larger literary historical, theoretical, or cultural debates.

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contemporary essays

The 25 Greatest Essay Collections of All Time

Today marks the release of Aleksandar Hemon’s excellent book of personal essays, The Book of My Lives , which we loved, and which we’re convinced deserves a place in the literary canon. To that end, we were inspired to put together our list of the greatest essay collections of all time, from the classic to the contemporary, from the personal to the critical. In making our choices, we’ve steered away from posthumous omnibuses (Michel de Montaigne’s Complete Essays , the collected Orwell, etc.) and multi-author compilations, and given what might be undue weight to our favorite writers (as one does). After the jump, our picks for the 25 greatest essay collections of all time. Feel free to disagree with us, praise our intellect, or create an entirely new list in the comments.

contemporary essays

The Book of My Lives , Aleksandar Hemon

Hemon’s memoir in essays is in turns wryly hilarious, intellectually searching, and deeply troubling. It’s the life story of a fascinating, quietly brilliant man, and it reads as such. For fans of chess and ill-advised theme parties and growing up more than once.

contemporary essays

Slouching Towards Bethlehem , Joan Didion

Well, obviously. Didion’s extraordinary book of essays, expertly surveying both her native California in the 1960s and her own internal landscape with clear eyes and one eyebrow raised ever so slightly. This collection, her first, helped establish the idea of journalism as art, and continues to put wind in the sails of many writers after her, hoping to move in that Didion direction.

contemporary essays

Pulphead , John Jeremiah Sullivan

This was one of those books that this writer deemed required reading for all immediate family and friends. Sullivan’s sharply observed essays take us from Christian rock festivals to underground caves to his own home, and introduce us to 19-century geniuses, imagined professors and Axl Rose. Smart, curious, and humane, this is everything an essay collection should be.

contemporary essays

The Boys of My Youth , Jo Ann Beard

Another memoir-in-essays, or perhaps just a collection of personal narratives, Jo Ann Beard’s award-winning volume is a masterpiece. Not only does it include the luminous, emotionally destructive “The Fourth State of the Matter,” which we’ve already implored you to read , but also the incredible “Bulldozing the Baby,” which takes on a smaller tragedy: a three-year-old Beard’s separation from her doll Hal. “The gorgeous thing about Hal,” she tells us, “was that not only was he my friend, he was also my slave. I made the majority of our decisions, including the bathtub one, which in retrospect was the beginning of the end.”

contemporary essays

Consider the Lobster , David Foster Wallace

This one’s another “duh” moment, at least if you’re a fan of the literary essay. One of the most brilliant essayists of all time, Wallace pushes the boundaries (of the form, of our patience, of his own brain) and comes back with a classic collection of writing on everything from John Updike to, well, lobsters. You’ll laugh out loud right before you rethink your whole life. And then repeat.

contemporary essays

Notes of a Native Son , James Baldwin

Baldwin’s most influential work is a witty, passionate portrait of black life and social change in America in the 1940s and early 1950s. His essays, like so many of the greats’, are both incisive social critiques and rigorous investigations into the self, told with a perfect tension between humor and righteous fury.

contemporary essays

Naked , David Sedaris

His essays often read more like short stories than they do social criticism (though there’s a healthy, if perhaps implied, dose of that slippery subject), but no one makes us laugh harder or longer. A genius of the form.

contemporary essays

Against Interpretation , Susan Sontag

This collection, Sontag’s first, is a dazzling feat of intellectualism. Her essays dissect not only art but the way we think about art, imploring us to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” It also contains the brilliant “Notes on ‘Camp,'” one of our all-time favorites.

contemporary essays

The Common Reader , Virginia Woolf

Woolf is a literary giant for a reason — she was as incisive and brilliant a critic as she was a novelist. These witty essays, written for the common reader (“He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole- a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing”), are as illuminating and engrossing as they were when they were written.

contemporary essays

Teaching a Stone to Talk , Annie Dillard

This is Dillard’s only book of essays, but boy is it a blazingly good one. The slender volume, filled with examinations of nature both human and not, is deft of thought and tongue, and well worth anyone’s time. As the Chicago Sun-Times ‘s Edward Abbey gushed, “This little book is haloed and informed throughout by Dillard’s distinctive passion and intensity, a sort of intellectual radiance that reminds me both Thoreau and Emily Dickinson.”

contemporary essays

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man , Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In this eloquent volume of essays, all but one of which were originally published in the New Yorker , Gates argues against the notion of the singularly representable “black man,” preferring to represent him in a myriad of diverse profiles, from James Baldwin to Colin Powell. Humane, incisive, and satisfyingly journalistic, Gates cobbles together the ultimate portrait of the 20th-century African-American male by refusing to cobble it together, and raises important questions about race and identity even as he entertains.

contemporary essays

Otherwise Known As the Human Condition , Geoff Dyer

This book of essays, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in the year of its publication, covers 25 years of the uncategorizable, inimitable Geoff Dyer’s work — casually erudite and yet liable to fascinate anyone wandering in the door, witty and breathing and full of truth. As Sam Lipsyte said, “You read Dyer for his caustic wit, of course, his exquisite and perceptive crankiness, and his deep and exciting intellectual connections, but from these enthralling rants and cultural investigations there finally emerges another Dyer, a generous seeker of human feeling and experience, a man perhaps closer than he thinks to what he believes his hero Camus achieved: ‘a heart free of bitterness.'”

contemporary essays

Art and Ardor , Cynthia Ozick

Look, Cynthia Ozick is a genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s favorite writers, and one of ours, Ozick has no less than seven essay collections to her name, and we could have chosen any one of them, each sharper and more perfectly self-conscious than the last. This one, however, includes her stunner “A Drugstore in Winter,” which was chosen by Joyce Carol Oates for The Best American Essays of the Century , so we’ll go with it.

contemporary essays

No More Nice Girls , Ellen Willis

The venerable Ellen Willis was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker , and a rollicking anti-authoritarian, feminist, all-around bad-ass woman who had a hell of a way with words. This collection examines the women’s movement, the plight of the aging radical, race relations, cultural politics, drugs, and Picasso. Among other things.

contemporary essays

The War Against Cliché , Martin Amis

As you know if you’ve ever heard him talk , Martin Amis is not only a notorious grouch but a sharp critical mind, particularly when it comes to literature. That quality is on full display in this collection, which spans nearly 30 years and twice as many subjects, from Vladimir Nabokov (his hero) to chess to writing about sex. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that he’s a brilliant old grump.

contemporary essays

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts , Clive James

James’s collection is a strange beast, not like any other essay collection on this list but its own breed. An encyclopedia of modern culture, the book collects 110 new biographical essays, which provide more than enough room for James to flex his formidable intellect and curiosity, as he wanders off on tangents, anecdotes, and cultural criticism. It’s not the only who’s who you need, but it’s a who’s who you need.

contemporary essays

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman , Nora Ephron

Oh Nora, we miss you. Again, we could have picked any of her collections here — candid, hilarious, and willing to give it to you straight, she’s like a best friend and mentor in one, only much more interesting than any of either you’ve ever had.

contemporary essays

Arguably , Christopher Hitchens

No matter what you think of his politics (or his rhetorical strategies), there’s no denying that Christopher Hitchens was one of the most brilliant minds — and one of the most brilliant debaters — of the century. In this collection, packed with cultural commentary, literary journalism, and political writing, he is at his liveliest, his funniest, his exactingly wittiest. He’s also just as caustic as ever.

contemporary essays

The Solace of Open Spaces , Gretel Ehrlich

Gretel Ehrlich is a poet, and in this collection, you’ll know it. In 1976, she moved to Wyoming and became a cowherd, and nearly a decade later, she published this lovely, funny set of essays about rural life in the American West.”Keenly observed the world is transformed,” she writes. “The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient.”

contemporary essays

The Braindead Megaphone , George Saunders

Saunders may be the man of the moment, but he’s been at work for a long while, and not only on his celebrated short stories. His single collection of essays applies the same humor and deliciously slant view to the real world — which manages to display nearly as much absurdity as one of his trademark stories.

contemporary essays

Against Joie de Vivre , Phillip Lopate

“Over the years,” the title essay begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre , the knack of knowing how to live.” Lopate goes on to dissect, in pleasantly sardonic terms, the modern dinner party. Smart and thought-provoking throughout (and not as crotchety as all that), this collection is conversational but weighty, something to be discussed at length with friends at your next — oh well, you know.

contemporary essays

Sex and the River Styx , Edward Hoagland

Edward Hoagland, who John Updike deemed “the best essayist of my generation,” has a long and storied career and a fat bibliography, so we hesitate to choose such a recent installment in the writer’s canon. Then again, Garrison Keillor thinks it’s his best yet , so perhaps we’re not far off. Hoagland is a great nature writer (name checked by many as the modern Thoreau) but in truth, he’s just as fascinated by humanity, musing that “human nature is interstitial with nature, and not to be shunned by a naturalist.” Elegant and thoughtful, Hoagland may warn us that he’s heading towards the River Styx, but we’ll hang on to him a while longer.

contemporary essays

Changing My Mind , Zadie Smith

Smith may be best known for her novels (and she should be), but to our eyes she is also emerging as an excellent essayist in her own right, passionate and thoughtful. Plus, any essay collection that talks about Barack Obama via Pygmalion is a winner in our book.

contemporary essays

My Misspent Youth , Meghan Daum

Like so many other writers on this list, Daum dives head first into the culture and comes up with meat in her mouth. Her voice is fresh and her narratives daring, honest and endlessly entertaining.

contemporary essays

The White Album , Joan Didion

Yes, Joan Didion is on this list twice, because Joan Didion is the master of the modern essay, tearing at our assumptions and building our world in brisk, clever strokes. Deal.

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University Writing: Contemporary Essays

Course description.

University Writing : Contemporary Essays, the general, unthemed version of UW, is designed to help undergraduates read and write essays in order to participate in the academic conversations that form Columbia's intellectual community. The course gives special attention to the practices of close reading, rhetorical analysis, research, collaboration, and substantive revision. By writing multiple drafts of essays typically ranging from three to ten pages, students will learn that writing is a process of forming and refining their ideas and their prose. Rather than approaching writing as an innate talent, the course teaches writing as a unique skill that can be practiced and developed.

These classes will have section numbers in the range of CC/GS1010.001 to CC/GS1010.069.

Each semester approximately 30 sections are offered in the College/SEAS and 15 in General Studies.

The Core Curriculum

  • Art Humanities
  • Contemporary Civilization
  • Frontiers of Science
  • Literature Humanities
  • Music Humanities
  • Contemporary Essays
  • International Students
  • Readings in American Studies
  • Readings in Climate Humanities
  • Readings in Film and Performing Arts
  • Readings in Gender and Sexuality
  • Readings in Law & Justice
  • Readings in Medical Humanities
  • Readings in Race and Ethnicity
  • Readings in Urban Studies
  • Core as Praxis

Become a Writer Today

Essays About the Contemporary World: Top 5 Examples

We live in a very different world from the one our parents lived in; if you are writing essays about the contemporary world, you can start by reading essay examples.

The contemporary world refers to the circumstances and ideas of our current time. From costly conflicts to tremendous political developments to a global pandemic, it is safe to say that the 21st century has been quite chaotic. Recent events have put various issues including bodily autonomy, climate change, and territorial sovereignty, at the forefront of the global discussion.

A good understanding of the contemporary world helps us become more conscious, responsible citizens, no matter what country we are from. Therefore, many schools have included subjects such as “the contemporary world” or “contemporary issues” in their curricula. 

If you wish to write essays about the contemporary world, here are five essay examples to help you. 

You might also be interested in these essays about engineering and essays about cooperation .

1. Our Future Is Now by Francesca Minicozzi

2. what it may be like after the chaos by kassidy pratt, 3. does social media actually reflect reality by kalev leetaru.

  • 4.  Importance of English by Terry Walton

5. The Meaning of Life in Modern Society (Author Unknown)

Top prompts on essays about the contemporary world, 1. the effects of technology, 2. why you should keep up with current events, 3. college education: is it essential, 4. politics in the contemporary world, 5. modern contemporary issues.

“Our globe is in dire need of help, and the coronavirus reminds the world of what it means to work together. This pandemic marks a turning point in global efforts to slow down climate change. The methods we enact towards not only stopping the spread of the virus, but slowing down climate change, will ultimately depict how humanity will arise once this pandemic is suppressed. The future of our home planet lies in how we treat it right now.”

Minicozzi discusses the differences in the U.K.’s and her native U.S.’s approaches to one of today’s greatest issues: climate change. The U.K. makes consistent efforts to reduce pollution, while the U.S., led by President Donald Trump, treats the issue with little to no regard. She laments her homeland’s inaction and concludes her essay with suggestions for Americans to help fight climate change in their way. 

“College began, in-person classes were allowed, but with half the students, all social distanced, wearing a mask at all times. Wearing a mask became natural, where leaving without one felt like I was leaving without my phone. It is our normal for now, and it has worked to slow the spread. With the vaccines beginning to roll out, we all hope that soon things will go back to the way

we remember them a year ago before the pandemic began.”

Pratt reflects on her school life throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in this short essay. She recalls the early days of class suspension, the lockdowns, and the social distancing and mask guidelines. She understands why it has to be this way but remains hopeful that things will return as they once were. 

You might be interested in these essays about cheating .

“While a tweet by Bieber to his tens of millions of followers will no doubt be widely read, it is unlikely that his musings on the Syrian peace process will suddenly sway the warring factions and yield overnight peace. In fact, this is a common limitation of many social analyses: the lack of connection between social reality and physical reality. A person who is highly influential in the conversation on Twitter around a particular topic may or may not yield any influence in the real world on that topic.”

Leetaru criticizes the perception that social media gives users that what they see is an accurate representation of contemporary worldviews. However, this is not the case, as the content that social media shows you are based on your interactions with other content, and specific demographics dominate these platforms. As a result, people should be more aware that not everything they read on social media is accurate. 

4.   Importance of English by Terry Walton

“We can use English to develop ourselves culturally and materially so that we can compete with the best side in the world of mind and matter. We can say that English language is our window to the world. One of advantage is that it is the world most used business and political language. Those who are still unaware about the importance of English. They should start learning English as a time come when everything would be understood spoken and written in English.”

According to author Terry Walton, proficiency in the English language is vital in today’s world. He discusses its status as a lingua franca used by people worldwide. He also lists some of the ways English is used today, such as in business, science and technology, and education. 

“The socialites have ensured the meaning of life is to push their followers beyond their healthy lives by making them feel that they are only worthy of keeping tabs on the next big thing that they are engaging. These socialites have ensured that life has been reduced to the detrimental appraisal of egos. They have guaranteed that the experience of social media is the only life worth living in the modern society.”

This essay describes the idea in contemporary culture that prioritizes social media image over well-being. People have become so obsessed with monitoring likes and follow that their lives revolve around social media. We seldom genuinely know a person based on their online presence. The meaning of life is reduced to the idea of a “good” life rather than the true reality. 

Essays About the Contemporary World: The effects of technology

Technology is everywhere in our life –  in social media, internet services, and artificial intelligence. How do you think technology affects the world today, and how will it affect the future? If this topic seems too broad, you can focus on technology in one particular sector, such as education or medicine. Describe the common technologies used in everyday life, and discuss the benefits and disadvantages of relying on these technologies.

In your essay, you can write about the importance of being aware of whatever is happening in the contemporary world. Discuss lessons you can learn from current events and the advantages of being more conscious or knowledgeable in day-to-day life.

In the 21st century, we have heard many success stories of people who dropped out or did not attend college. In addition, more and more job opportunities no longer require a college degree. Decide whether or not a college education is still necessary in the contemporary world and discuss why. Also include context, such as reasons why people do not attend college.

Many countries have undergone drastic political changes, from coups d’état to wars to groundbreaking elections. In your essay, write about one important political event, global or in your home country, in the contemporary world. Provide context by giving the causes and effects of your chosen event. 

From vaccination to the racial justice movement to gun control. For your essay, you can pick a topic and explain your stance on it. Provide a defensible argument, and include ample evidence such as statistics, research, and news articles. 

Tip: If writing an essay sounds like a lot of work, simplify it. Write a simple 5 paragraph essay instead.

If you’d like to learn more, check out our guide on how to write an argumentative essay .

contemporary essays

Martin is an avid writer specializing in editing and proofreading. He also enjoys literary analysis and writing about food and travel.

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  • © 2013

The Postcolonial Short Story

Contemporary Essays

  • Maggie Awadalla (Coordinator of Arabic) 0 ,
  • Paul March-Russell 1

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Table of contents (13 chapters)

Front matter, introduction: the short story and the postcolonial.

Maggie Awadalla, Paul March-Russell

‘Times are different now’: The Ends of Partition in the Contemporary Urdu Short Story

  • Alex Padamsee

‘Sheddings of light’: Patricia Grace and Māori Short Fiction

  • Michelle Keown

Unmaking Sense: Short Fiction and Social Space in Singapore

  • Philip Holden

Vancouver Stories: Nancy Lee and Alice Munro

‘and did those feet’ mapmaking london and the postcolonial limits of psychogeography.

  • Paul March-Russell

The Short Story in Articulating Diasporic Subjectivities in Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Antara Chatterjee

The Contemporary Egyptian Maqāma or Short Story Novel as a Form of Democracy

  • Caroline Rooney

Topographies and Textual Negotiations: Arab Women’s Short Fiction

Maggie Awadalla

At the Interstices of Diaspora: Queering the Long Story Short in Caribbean Literature by Women

  • M. Catherine Jonet

‘They can fly’: The Postcolonial Black Body in Nalo Hopkinson’s Speculative Short Fiction

  • Lee Skallerup Bessette

Threshold People: Liminal Subjectivity in Etienne van Heerden, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer

  • Barbara Cooke

African Short Stories and the Online Writing Space

  • Shola Adenekan, Helen Cousins

Back Matter

  • critical theory
  • English literature
  • Postcolonial Studies
  • British and Irish Literature

Imperial College, London, UK

Book Title : The Postcolonial Short Story

Book Subtitle : Contemporary Essays

Editors : Maggie Awadalla, Paul March-Russell


Publisher : Palgrave Macmillan London

eBook Packages : Palgrave Language & Linguistics Collection , Education (R0)

Copyright Information : Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2013

Hardcover ISBN : 978-0-230-31338-5 Published: 23 October 2012

Softcover ISBN : 978-1-349-33930-3 Published: 01 January 2013

eBook ISBN : 978-1-137-29208-7 Published: 23 October 2012

Edition Number : 1

Number of Pages : X, 227

Topics : Postcolonial/World Literature , Twentieth-Century Literature , Literary Theory , Cultural Theory , British and Irish Literature , African Literature

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How Wall Street Funded Slavery

The New York Stock Exchange Following News Of Federal Reserve March Cut Unlikely

I n 1855, when Stephen Duncan, the largest enslaver in the United States, reaped a windfall from his cotton plantations across Mississippi, he tasked his banker to ship the crops North, to sell the cotton for cash, and to invest the proceeds into Northern corporate stocks, plucking up prized Manhattan real estate on the side. He had made such investments for almost 30 years. Duncan, who enslaved as many as 2,200 Black people, including many hundreds of children, died after the Civil War a very rich man, his reviled fortune handsomely intact, passed on to his heirs. Duncan’s banker was Charles P. Leverich, Vice President of the Bank of New York, a Wall Street tycoon. In fact, it was Leverich who managed the sumptuous riches of Mississippi’s other leading enslavers, ensuring that their vast fortunes—the proceeds of slavery laundered into coin and currency—endured well after the war, into the 20 th century.

As a researcher of Wall Street’s role in financing slavery, I spent the last three years tracking that there were hundreds of New York and Boston bankers like this, not to mention industrial magnates and corporate directors—Northern men who, working hand-in-glove with Southern enslaving families, crystallize a crucial history: that contrary to popular belief, the wealth of slavery did not disappear after the Civil War, burned in the fires of conflict; it endured, in the form of private and public wealth, in the form of institutional fortunes. The wealth that many corporations and banks enjoy today is directly derived from this stolen wealth. As such, corporations, including many of our nation’s leading banks, have a critical obligation not only to acknowledge this history—something most have not done—but to outline meaningful ways to address these wounds through reparations to Black Americans.

Many are the myths that warp America’s history of slavery, one of which is the failure to identify that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. It’s an equally self-deluding myth for some to think that the fortune of slavery, all the tremendous wealth that white people sieved for generations from enslaved Black people, from decimated families and stolen children, could vanish into thin air. Consider how that defies logic: according to U.S. Treasury figures , enslaved Black people in the South produced, in the period between 1851 and 1860 alone, a bounty of cotton amounting to $1.5 billion then ($54 billion today)—and we are speaking only of cotton, and only one decade. The amount of wealth that enslaved peoples generated throughout the life of the Republic before Emancipation, though difficult to precisely detail, surely amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars then, and likely trillions today.

Read More: Colonial America Is a Myth

Though the supposition that it “disappeared” seems, practically speaking, preposterous, it lives on, as a kind of emotional, psychological crutch. It would mean that nothing from slavery had been gained in the end, that any sense of white guilt, of accountability and culpability, should vanish too. Leading corporations, certainly, have adopted this mindset. Side-stepping their accountability first in the horrors of enslavement, in the nation’s original sin, has only snowballed a deeper corporate culture of avoiding accountability, when what we need and expect today is the opposite: ethical standards, and fiscal responsibility toward the communities from which they derive their wealth.

The origins of the myth of disappeared slavery wealth are to be found in the Lost Cause, that falsified mythology of the Old South, which, in seeking to ennoble the dehumanizing greed of slavery, widely broadcast how Southern “planters” were reduced to ruin by Northern aggression. The same myth still holds up a cornerstone of Civil War history, positing that the war obliterated the southern aristocracy, and that, as postwar historian C. Vann Woodward, put it  “no ruling class of our history ever found itself so completely stripped of its economic foundations as did that of the South in this period.” And though he extrapolated his claim from a single survey, conducted in 1920, no less, and using a sample of just 254 southern industrialists, Woodward’s rendering came to dominate our view of history for generations.

Naturally, Woodward did have a point. Of course, it is true that during the Great Conflict parts of the South burned; that during his famous march to the sea, Union general William Sherman confiscated 400 thousand acres of land and caused $2 billion worth of damage in today’s dollars. And yet, in 2019, a groundbreaking study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found, using US Census data, that white slave-holding families had dramatically reinvented themselves after the Civil War and recovered their wealth. They did so in just one generation, the study found, redirecting their capital into the modern economy. These findings help amplify the larger point: that the vast portion of American wealth generated by enslavement did not go up in smoke.

The story of Duncan and Leverich shows why: the riches that Black people created for white Americans, though physically produced in the South, were not ultimately reaped by the South, nor invested into the South. Abolitionists at that time, Northern observers, and even Southern enslavers all knew this to be true: that Northern merchants owned the greatest shipping fleets of their commercial age, causing the prodigious output wrought by Black people’s labor—billions of pounds of cotton, sugar and rice, not to mention turpentine, hemp, and gin—to flow North, to be sold, to be transmuted from agricultural wealth into many other things. And there, in the vaults of Wall Street, and invested into the coal fields of Pennsylvania, into the corporate bedrock of America’s Industrial Age, this money, stolen from the energy of Black people’s hearts, hands, and minds, took on a new life, and grew.

At the famous City Bank of New York, President Moses Taylor conducted immense sums of money from slavery—both in the South but also Cuba—into industrial development and modern corporations, including many, like Consolidated Edison, that still exist today. This is history that echoes. Leading corporations, having based their models of success on ruthless exploitation back then, continue to do so now, though, rather than exploiting workers for the benefit of executives and stockholders, they should be accountable as much to the citizens and communities whose lives and labor make possible their wealth.

The figures who peopled America’s repugnant history of slavery, as with the institution of slavery itself, may all be gone, but it is the wealth that remains. Our failure to recognize so is dangerous, the breeding ground of inequality and myth. Projecting that the vast contributions of enslaved people are gone, that nothing remains, makes it easier today for corporations to side-step their ethical obligations, to downplay what’s in need of repair, and to dismiss what Black people are owed.

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Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays

Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays

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This volume presents twelve original essays by contemporary natural law theorists and their critics. Natural law theory is enjoying a revival of interest today in a variety of disciplines, including law, philosophy, political science, and theology and religious studies. These essays offer readers a sense of the lively contemporary debate among natural law theorists of different schools, as well as between natual law theorists and their critics.

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Modern Essays

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Christopher Morley

Modern Essays Paperback – June 18, 2014

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  • Print length 120 pages
  • Language English
  • Publication date June 18, 2014
  • Dimensions 6 x 0.28 x 9 inches
  • ISBN-10 1497574013
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All the Little Raindrops: A Novel

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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (June 18, 2014)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 120 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1497574013
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1497574014
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 6.1 ounces
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About the author

contemporary essays

Christopher Morley

Christopher Morley (1890–1957) was an American novelist, essayist, journalist, and poet. He began his literary career at Oxford University as an editor of The Haverfordian and published his first novel, Parnassus on Wheels, in 1917. Its sequel, The Haunted Bookshop (1919), is one of the most beloved mystery novels ever written. Morley also edited the Saturday Review and cofounded the Baker Street Irregulars, a literary society dedicated to the study of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

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  11. Modern Essays: Modern Essays: A Compelling Collection of Essays Edited

    Modern Essays: Harry Morgan Ayres and others curate a captivating collection of thought-provoking essays, offering diverse perspectives on contemporary issues. Key Points: Varied viewpoints: Modern Essays brings together a compilation of essays by different authors, providing a range of perspectives on topics such as society, culture, politics, and more.

  12. Project MUSE

    Contemporary Literature publishes scholarly essays on contemporary writing in English, interviews with established and emerging authors, and reviews of recent critical books in the field. The journal welcomes articles on multiple genres, including poetry, the novel, drama, creative nonfiction, new media and digital literature, and graphic narrative.

  13. Globalizing Transitional Justice: Contemporary Essays

    Abstract. Whether one thinks of the Middle East, South Africa, the Balkans, Latin America, or Cambodia, an extraordinary amount of experience and experimentation has by now occurred with transitional justice. In the latest of transitions, transitional justice is no longer a by-product or afterthought, but rather, the driver of political change.

  14. The 25 Greatest Essay Collections of All Time

    After the jump, our picks for the 25 greatest essay collections of all time. Feel free to disagree with us, praise our intellect, or create an entirely new list in the comments. The Book of My ...

  15. University Writing: Contemporary Essays

    Course Description. University Writing: Contemporary Essays, the general, unthemed version of UW, is designed to help undergraduates read and write essays in order to participate in the academic conversations that form Columbia's intellectual community.The course gives special attention to the practices of close reading, rhetorical analysis, research, collaboration, and substantive revision.

  16. Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality: Contemporary Essays

    `These essays reveal George to be an honourable, passionate, and intelligent defender of a moral and political theory which, both in its foundations and its understanding of law and policy presents liberalism with an oponent it cannot ignore.' MIND 7/1/2000. About the Author.

  17. Essays About The Contemporary World: Top 5 Examples

    Essays About the Contemporary World: Top 5 Examples January 15, 2024 / 6 minutes of reading We live in a very different world from the one our parents lived in; if you are writing essays about the contemporary world, you can start by reading essay examples. The contemporary world refers to the circumstances and ideas of our current time.

  18. The Postcolonial Short Story: Contemporary Essays

    This book puts the short story at the heart of contemporary postcolonial studies and questions what postcolonial literary criticism may be. Focusing on short fiction between 1975 and today - the period in which critical theory came to determine postcolonial studies - it argues for a sophisticated critique exemplified by the ambiguity of the form.

  19. The Contemporary Essay

    The Essays by Amy Tan and Richard Rodriguez are particularly powerful because they deal in large part with the children of immigrants struggling to reconcile their parents cultures with their own American identity, which often leads them to disregard or look down upon their parents because their parents represent the old culture and ways of ...

  20. The Contemporary American Essay

    While the influence of poetic technique on the lyric essay has been largely acknowledged, less recognized is the short story's impact on the contemporary essay. Many memoir essays exist in a kind of fictive space, progressing through scene and dialogue and a sensory-laden mood that stays tied to the moment by moment.

  21. How Wall Street Funded Slavery

    At the famous City Bank of New York, President Moses Taylor conducted immense sums of money from slavery—both in the South but also Cuba—into industrial development and modern corporations ...

  22. Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays

    Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays Get access Robert P George (ed.) Published: 27 October 1994 Cite Permissions Share Abstract This volume presents twelve original essays by contemporary natural law theorists and their critics.

  23. Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality : Contemporary Essays

    Clarendon Press, 1996 - Law - 311 pages. Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality brings together leading defenders of Natural Law and Liberalism for a series of frank and lively exchanges touching upon critical issues of contemporary moral and political theory. The book is an outstanding example of the fruitful engagement of traditions of thought ...

  24. Modern Essays: Morley, Christopher, Various: 9781497574014:

    Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was an American novelist, essayist, journalist, and poet. He began his literary career at Oxford University as an editor of The Haverfordian and published his first novel, Parnassus on Wheels, in 1917. Its sequel, The Haunted Bookshop (1919), is one of the most beloved mystery novels ever written.