The Best American Essays 2023

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The cover to The Best American Essays 2023

For any essay lover , a highlight of the literary calendar is the publication of the year’s Best American Essays volume. The 2023 edition is the thirty-eighth in the series, and it matches the standard of excellence set by its predecessors. While every year’s selection is different, the organizing principle behind each one remains the same. Series editor Robert Atwan scans the periodical literature for what he describes as “a selection of the year’s outstanding essays.” He’s looking for “works of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and a forcefulness of thought.” A list of around one hundred possibilities is then passed on to a guest editor, who decides what should be included in the volume. 

Vivian Gornick, 2023’s guest editor, is the most recent in a long line of distinguished literary figures who have taken on this role. As well as making their selections, guest editors contribute an introduction that says something about how they handled their assignment, and their take on the mercurial genre with which the series is concerned. In fact, it would be hard to find a better introduction to the art of the essay than what is provided in the guest editors’ introductions (and the series editor’s forewords) over the course of the years. Cumulatively, they cast a great deal of light on the nature of the essay form.

To say what an essay is “about” always undersells it. Yes, in one sense, The Best American Essays 2023 contains essays that are about addiction, adoption, aging, anorexia, Bambi, bereavement, concision, gender, Los Alamos, marriage, mental illness, prison life, racism, sex, and writing. Although giving such a raw listing of subject matter may indicate the volume’s pleasingly diverse spread of material, it also risks creating a kind of Procrustean bed—where the idea of an essay is stretched or trimmed to fit a topic, with the expectation that it will address it in the manner of an article. That essays, whatever they are (and they are notoriously hard to define), are not articles becomes quickly evident when you read good ones, like the selection offered here.

In the preface to what remains a key reference book for the genre—the Encyclopedia of the Essay , edited by Tracy Chevalier—Graham Good suggests that “at heart, the essay is the voice of the individual.” That catches something important about the nature of this kind of writing. It is the individuality—and authenticity—of the voices speaking to us, the particular personal perspectives they offer on whatever it is their speakers are concerned with, that gives the twenty-one essays in The Best American Essays 2023 their power, rather than their topics per se. Echoing Good’s point, Vivian Gornick ends her introduction by assuring readers that the selection she has chosen is full of voices, “ real voices.” Listening to them is like being invited to share in a whole range of conversations. The turns they take are enlightening, amusing, unexpected, and sometimes shocking. The talk is easy and informal, always clear, often lyrical—a world away from the specialized jargon of a scholarly article. The authors are from all sorts of backgrounds. They represent a very varied range of interests and insights. But they share one vital characteristic: they know what they’re talking about and have the ability to share it in an engaging and accessible manner. Without exception, these are voices worth listening to.

Robert Atwan notes in his foreword that “literary magazines form the foundation of our creative writing.” In addition to showcasing twenty-one fine pieces of prose, The Best American Essays 2023 , like its sister volumes, provides readers with a stimulating sampler from the many literary magazines that flourish in North America. The twenty-one essays selected for reprinting in the volume are drawn from eighteen different magazines (with two essays apiece coming from the Chicago Quarterly Review , New England Review , and Sewanee Review ). The selection of the year’s “Notable Essays and Literary Fiction,” compiled by Robert Atwan and occupying the final pages of the book, identifies many more of the magazines that play such an important role in fostering good essay writing. World Literature Today is, unsurprisingly, among the publications listed.

After initiating the series in 1986 and overseeing its publication every year since then, Robert Atwan is finally stepping down. The 2024 volume will see Kim Dana Kupperman taking over as the new series editor. To have guided the series so successfully over so many years is an impressive literary achievement. One hopes that retirement from his editorial role may allow Mr. Atwan time to write more on a form that’s obviously close to his heart and about which he has unrivaled knowledge.

Looking back to the first volume in the series, The Best American Essays 1986 , Elizabeth Hardwick—the inaugural guest editor—made the point that the word “best” in the book’s title should be thought of as “some of the best.” The same point is echoed by the present guest editor, who is pleasingly open about the fact that the essays chosen “are simply the ones that gave me great pleasure, or moved me for reasons I can’t readily articulate, or were so indisputably well written I had no choice but to include them.” Vivian Gornick surely speaks for any of the series’ thirty-eight guest editors when she stresses that “another editor might, with equal justification, have chosen an entirely different set of selections that would have been as satisfying as this one.” This, she says, is because we’re fortunate to be living at a time when “there is an abundance of superior essay writing being done.” 

Robert Atwan can, I think, take some of the credit for fostering this abundance and, through the pages of this splendid series, bringing it to the attention of a wider audience.

Chris Arthur St. Andrews, Scotland

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11 fascinating new memoirs to add to your reading list

From reflections on the black experience to joan didion’s musings, these powerful memoirs will supercharge your book list.

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By Jess Kelham-Hohler

Arts & Culture | 14th January 2021

With lockdowns leaving us craving human interaction, a gripping memoir or collection of essays can be the perfect source of connection and inspiration. This January and February sees the release of a host of compelling options, ranging from astonishing deep dives into family histories to first person accounts from famous voices like Joan Didion and Cicely Tyson. Plus, following last year’s protests, memoirs about race and the Black experience are certainly taking centre stage, with Nadia Owusu and Georgina Lawton’s works drawing particular attention. Here, discover the most exciting new memoirs to add to your book shelf. 

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

From the pioneer of New Journalism and iconic writer Joan Didion comes this new collection of twelve essays pulled together from her early years. The topics and events she covers are wide-ranging, from a Gamblers Anonymous meeting to a reunion of WWII veterans in Las Vegas, but all are captured in her distinctive, sharp style.

With other subjects including Martha Stewart, Nancy Reagan and Ernest Hemmingway (who Didion later cited as a major influence on her writing style), these early essays, published together here for the first time, offer a fascinating insight into the mind and process of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

A brutally honest and tenderly intimate examination of race, fatherhood and sexism, Nikesh Shukla’s memoir offers a search for hope in a time of uncertainty. Dedicated to his two daughters, Shukla’s work dives into his questions around how to raise children in a world that is racist, sexist and facing a catastrophic climate crisis, and manages to draw answers rooted in optimism.

Weaving together stories of grief, love and food, Shukla’s memoir is simultaneously probing and uplifting, drawing together a picture of modern day parenthood that is relatable and illuminating. With some truly hilarious moments, it’s an impressive lesson in remembering to be hopeful, whatever odds we may face.

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

Actress and former model Cicely Tyson’s career has been nothing short of extraordinary, credited by the likes of President Obama (who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016) with reshaping the depiction of African American women on screen. Now in her 90s, Tyson’s memoir unpacks her entire life, from her childhood in Harlem, to becoming the first African American woman to star in a television drama, to being the multi-award winning star she is today. 

The autobiography also traces her tumultuous relationship with legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, which was marked by Davis’ notorious temper and cocaine addiction, which he later credited Tyson for helping him overcome. Gripping from the start, Tyson’s account is a must-read for any cinema fan.

Tracing her heroic journey out of the wreckage, into college and eventually into nonprofit work, Owusu’s memoir beautifully describes how she navigated her sense of statelessness and the consequences of her childhood trauma.

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15 of the most exciting new fiction books to read this January

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

Mental health has been a particularly hot topic during the pandemic, making Bryony Gordon’s memoir all the more timely. The acclaimed journalist, podcast host and founder of Mental Health Mate’s work is a mix of memoir and self-help advice, sharing frank accounts of her own struggles alongside practical, realistic tools for readers to try at home.

Covering everything from insomnia to body dysmorphia, anxiety to addiction, No Such Thing As Normal is a no-nonsense, honest unpacking of today’s most prevalent mental health issues. With Gordon’s distinctive lively and approachable voice, it’s the ideal antithesis to the Instagram wellness fluff, and a welcome addition to the mental health resource options. 

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

Nadia Owusu’s astonishing memoir has critics raving, and for good reason. The core of the account centres on her childhood when, following years of displacement as the child of a U.N. employee, her father suddenly dies. Abandoned by her birth mother and begrudgingly tolerated by her stepmother, Owusu’s teenage years are already full of enough devastating events to fill a memoir. But, as the title suggests, her debut work is just as concerned with the long-lasting effects of these adolescent scars.

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

A mix of biography and memoir, How to Be a Refugee traces author and historian Simon May’s investigation into the lives of his mother and her two sisters, who hid their Jewish identity in order to escape the genocide in Hitler’s Germany. Exploring an aspect of the Holocaust that has previously been minimally covered, May’s work is a haunting tale of three young women grappling with what they fear is a lethal genetic inheritance. 

Their individual journeys, which include a conversion to Catholicism, a marriage to a German aristocrat and an engagement to a card-carrying Nazi, make for a fascinating read. But it’s the challenges around ideas of identity and the horrors of the Holocaust that will stay with readers long after finishing the final page.

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

From journalist Huma Qureshi comes this romantic memoir about marriage, family obligation and her decision to marry a white Englishman. Having grown up in a South Asian community in 1990s Walsall, Qureshi always struggled to navigate the two worlds of her home life and the school one. But it’s when questions around marriage arise that the conflict comes to a head.

How We Met follows Qureshi as she flees to Paris to indulge her romantic, adventurous side, only to have her world shaken by the abrupt death of her father. Then, when she falls for someone who isn’t Pakistani or Muslim, she is forced to decide whether she will honour tradition or her heart. Understated and incredibly moving, Qureshi’s story is a coming-of-age tale that proves impossible to put down.

The Best Memoirs Of 2020: Broaden Your Perspective With These Must-Read Books

The best memoirs of 2020: Broaden your perspective with these must-read books

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

Similar to How to Be a Refugee , Justine Cowan’s work is a mix of memoir and family history. While Cowan’s childhood in a wealthy San Francisco community seemed perfect, her mother’s temper was so destructive that she fled home the moment she could and never returned. But when her mother died, Cowan became intrigued by her mother’s past and, through some digging, discovered that she had been raised in London’s Foundling Hospital. In this work, we follow Cowan’s journey as she seeks to uncover the past that shaped her mother into the woman she knew. 

Vividly written, Cowan’s work weaves together her mother’s history with that of the Hospital, which is famous for having inspired the likes of Dickens and Handel, with astonishing results.

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

Guardian columnist and The Secrets In Us podcast host Georgina Lawton’s memoir is a compelling and unique perspective on racial politics in the family home. As a child, Lawton’s Blackness was never addressed by her white Anglo-Irish family. But following the death of her father and an inconclusive DNA test, 22-year-old Lawson sets out to uncover the truth of her genetic heritage.

While the central narrative of the memoir traces Lawton’s efforts to get answers, a journey which takes her around the world and into the now popular business of DNA tests, it’s also a fascinating account of a woman’s experience with race. Powerfully written and deeply moving, Lawton’s book ponders the question of how you come to terms with your Blackness when you’ve been raised White.

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

Offering a behind-the-scenes look at the beauty industry and publishing world, former Nylon editor-in-chief Gabrielle Korn’s collection of essays offers a provocative — and at times scathing — look at society’s obsession with perfection. Korn covers every hot topic of today, from the #MeToo movement to internet feminism, but her work is also extremely personal. 

With seemingly the perfect life, Korn’s essays reveal the truth about her experience working in the fashion world, including her battle with anorexia and struggles to feel confident in the era of Instagram-fuelled impossible beauty standards. Weaving in tales of love, sexuality and ambition, Korn’s insights are searing and make for an addictive read.

11 Fascinating New Memoirs To Add To Your Reading List

In this bold memoir about a cross-country road trip, American writer Randa Jarrar blends together tales from her past with her real-time adventures in the states she passes through. During her journey, Jarrar’s encounters are wide-ranging, including Tinder hook-ups and fights with racists while burning their Confederate flags. Each experience prompts her to reflect on her past, from memories of the threats she received following a controversial tweet about Barbara Bush to her experience of domestic abuse.

Wacky, joyful and genuinely moving, Jarrar’s memoir is a mesmerising ride and a singularly unique account of a queer Palestinian-American woman’s life in modern day America.

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100 Must-Read Essay Collections

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Rebecca Hussey

Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes

View All posts by Rebecca Hussey

Notes Native Son cover

There’s something about a shiny new collection of essays that makes my heart beat a little faster. If you feel the same way, can we be friends? If not, might I suggest that perhaps you just haven’t found the right collection yet? I don’t expect everyone to love the thought of sitting down with a nice, juicy personal essay, but I also think the genre gets a bad rap because people associate it with the kind of thing they had to write in school.

Well, essays don’t have to be like the kind of thing you wrote in school. Essays can be anything, really. They can be personal, confessional, argumentative, informative, funny, sad, shocking, sexy, and all of the above. The best essayists can make any subject interesting. If I love an essayist, I’ll read whatever they write. I’ll follow their minds anywhere. Because that’s really what I want out of an essay — the sense that I’m spending time with an interesting mind. I want a companionable, challenging, smart, surprising voice in my head.

So below is my list, not of essay collections I think everybody “must read,” even if that’s what my title says, but collections I hope you will consider checking out if you want to.

1. Against Interpretation — Susan Sontag

2. Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere — André Aciman

3. American Romances — Rebecca Brown

4. Art & Ardor — Cynthia Ozick

5. The Art of the Personal Essay — anthology, edited by Phillip Lopate

6. Bad Feminist — Roxane Gay

7. The Best American Essays of the Century — anthology, edited by Joyce Carol Oates

8. The Best American Essays series — published every year, series edited by Robert Atwan

9. Book of Days — Emily Fox Gordon

Book cover of The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard

10. The Boys of My Youth — Jo Ann Beard

11. The Braindead Megaphone — George Saunders

12. Broken Republic: Three Essays — Arundhati Roy

13. Changing My Mind — Zadie Smith

14. A Collection of Essays — George Orwell

15. The Common Reader — Virginia Woolf

16. Consider the Lobster — David Foster Wallace

17. The Crack-up — F. Scott Fitzgerald

18. Discontent and its Civilizations — Mohsin Hamid

19. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric — Claudia Rankine

20. Dreaming of Hitler — Daphne Merkin

21. Self-Reliance and Other Essays — Ralph Waldo Emerson

22. The Empathy Exams — Leslie Jameson

23. Essays After Eighty — Donald Hall

24. Essays in Idleness — Yoshida Kenko

Ex Libris cover

25. The Essays of Elia — Charles Lamb

26. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader — Anne Fadiman

27. A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit

28. Findings — Kathleen Jamie

29. The Fire Next Time — James Baldwin

30. The Folded Clock — Heidi Julavits

31. Forty-One False Starts — Janet Malcolm

32. How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America — Kiese Laymon

33. I Feel Bad About My Neck — Nora Ephron

34. I Just Lately Started Buying Wings — Kim Dana Kupperman

35. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction — anthology, edited by Lee Gutkind

36. In Praise of Shadows — Junichiro Tanizaki

37. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens — Alice Walker

38. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? — Mindy Kaling

39. I Was Told There’d Be Cake — Sloane Crosley

40. Karaoke Culture — Dubravka Ugresic

41. Labyrinths — Jorge Luis Borges

42. Living, Thinking, Looking — Siri Hustvedt

43. Loitering — Charles D’Ambrosio

44. Lunch With a Bigot — Amitava Kumar

Book cover of Meaty by Samantha Irby

45. Madness, Rack, and Honey — Mary Ruefle

46. Magic Hours — Tom Bissell

47. Meatless Days — Sara Suleri

48. Meaty — Samantha Irby

49. Meditations from a Movable Chair — Andre Dubus

50. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood — Mary McCarthy

51. Me Talk Pretty One Day — David Sedaris

52. Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal — Wendy S. Walters

53. My 1980s and Other Essays — Wayne Koestenbaum

54. The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay, and The Making of the American Essay — anthologies, edited by John D’Agata

55. The Norton Book of Personal Essays — anthology, edited by Joseph Epstein

56. Notes from No Man’s Land — Eula Biss

57. Notes of a Native Son — James Baldwin

58. Not That Kind of Girl — Lena Dunham

59. On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry

60. Once I Was Cool — Megan Stielstra

61. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write — Sarah Ruhl

62. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored — Adam Phillips

63. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence — Adrienne Rich

64. The Opposite of Loneliness — Marina Keegan

65. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition — Geoff Dyer

66. Paris to the Moon — Adam Gopnik

67. Passions of the Mind — A.S. Byatt

68. The Pillow Book — Sei Shonagon

69. A Place to Live — Natalia Ginzburg

70. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination — Toni Morrison

71. Pulphead — John Jeremiah Sullivan

72. Selected Essays — Michel de Montaigne

73. Shadow and Act — Ralph Ellison

74. Sidewalks — Valeria Luiselli

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

75. Sister Outsider — Audre Lorde

76. The Size of Thoughts — Nicholson Baker

77. Slouching Towards Bethlehem — Joan Didion

78. The Souls of Black Folk — W. E. B. Du Bois

79. The Story About the Story — anthology, edited by J.C. Hallman

80. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — David Foster Wallace

81. Ten Years in the Tub — Nick Hornby

82. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man — Henry Louis Gates

83. This Is Running for Your Life — Michelle Orange

84. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage — Ann Patchett

85. Tiny Beautiful Things — Cheryl Strayed

86. Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture — Gerald Early

87. Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints — Joan Acocella

88. The Unspeakable — Meghan Daum

89. Vermeer in Bosnia — Lawrence Weschler

90. The Wave in the Mind — Ursula K. Le Guin

91. We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think — Shirley Hazzard

92. We Should All Be Feminists — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

93. What Are People For? — Wendell Berry

94. When I Was a Child I Read Books — Marilynne Robinson

95. The White Album — Joan Didion

96. White Girls — Hilton Als

97. The Woman Warrior — Maxine Hong Kinston

98. The Writing Life — Annie Dillard

99. Writing With Intent — Margaret Atwood

100. You Don’t Have to Like Me — Alida Nugent

If you have a favorite essay collection I’ve missed here, let me know in the comments!

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best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.”

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.”

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.'”

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.”

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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.

best new book of 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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Essay Collections to Warm You Up This Winter

3 books of essays

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“Memoir in essays” as a subtitle? Sign me up!

I love essays. Especially collections by the same author. “Memoir in essays” as a subtitle? I’m in! Why? Because I often run out of time to read an entire chapter. Because an essay can be devoured in one sitting. Because essay collections require a bit of detective work to determine why these stories have been linked. And because beautiful writing in short bits proves the prowess of even the most accomplished writers.

It’s also a great, digestible way to get to know your favorite author. Reading Ann Patchett’s book of essays taught me so much about the prolific writer that I never would have known if I hadn’t picked up her collection.

Thoughtfully curated and artfully assembled, essay collections always move and inspire me in just a few minutes. Whether I dip in and read just one or settle in and devour the entire collection, I know that having an essay collection in my tote bag is the secret to getting through any grocery store line, kids’ sporting event, or doctor’s waiting room. The difference between a book of essays and an anthology, however, is that one writer is responsible for all of these stories — so, it might be harder to put down as there’s often a throughline to get invested in. But finding it is the best part. Of course, you don’t have to find it to enjoy each essay individually.

Here are a few recent collections that I’ve read – and hope you will, too. 

Jose Vadi, Interstate: Essays from California

This beautiful assortment of literary essays about Jose Vadi’s experiences traversing California with his family and navigating the natural elements that make California tenuous yet tantalizing are truly fantastic. 

Listen to my podcast with Jose Vadi .  

Ann Patchett, These Precious Days: Essays

This is one of my most favorite recent essay collections because it reveals parts of legendary author Ann Patchett that I never would have known. I didn’t know she housed a former assistant to Tom Hanks during the pandemic or that they grew so close. I didn’t know about the current state of her marriage. I didn’t realize how she came to love books and bookstores so much. Or her views on having children. Now I do. And I respect her even more — and can’t wait to check out her indie bookstore Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN. 

Listen to my podcast with Ann Patchett .  

Savala Nolan, Don’t Let it Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body

Savala Nolan dissects identity as if with a chisel swiped from a Ph.D. laboratory. She thinks through her past, her present, and her life so clearly that her words shine off the page. Even her past relationships come into focus with her laser lens. 

Listen to my podcast with Savala Nolan .  

Phoebe Robinson, Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes: Essays

Phoebe Robinson, now a publisher herself at Tiny Reparations, is hilarious. Sweet, savvy, and oh so entertaining, Robinson’s essays range from her thoughts on motherhood to her own mom to Michelle Obama to zip-lines. Yes, really. And they come together in a funny, relatable, warm collection.

Listen to my podcast with Phoebe Robinson .  

Megan Harlan, Mobile Home: A Memoir in Essays

Award-winning author Megan Harlan lived in 17 homes across four continents growing up. She examines her own life and its nomadic ways in the context of greater societal migrations and trends. And yet at its core, it’s an examination of what home really means. 

Listen to my podcast with Megan Harlan .  

Samantha Irby, Wow, No Thank You

I can’t get enough of Samantha Irby’s unique, self-deprecating, hilarious essays. To give you a taste of them — and how her POV as a Black lesbian stepmom plays a role — she was a central part of writing the new HBO Max show, And Just Like That . She has truly mastered the art of the essay, packing a laugh-out-loud punch, occasionally covering the most cringe-worthy topics.

Listen to my podcast with Samantha Irby .  

Quinta Brunson, She Memes Well: Essays

Am I a millennial? No. Did I still love this collection by viral sensation Quinta Brunson? I did! It’s raw and real and tracks her career progress as it follows her own personal development and relationships. I inhaled it in one sitting.

Listen to my podcast with Quinta Brunson .  

Mary Laura Philpott, I Miss You When I Blink

These essays, soon to be followed by Mary Laura Philpott’s next book, Bomb Shelter , are short, sweet, and to the point for any mom and book lover. Reflections on how fast time goes with kids, notes on working in a bookstore (with Ann Patchett!), and how her perfectionistic tendencies may get in the way, weave together in a seamless story in which every reader will find a piece of themself. 

Listen to my podcast with Mary Laura Philpott .  

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Last updated: May 06, 2024

“Essays root ideas in personal experience”, the philosopher Alain de Botton tells us in his interview  in which he discussed five books of “illuminating essays”.  He chooses The Crowded Dance of Modern Life by Virginia Woolf, as well as a selection of DW Winnicott , The Wisdom of Life by Arthur Schopenhauer, The Secret Power of Beauty by John Armstrong and Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer, which “is in praise of slacker-dom and not doing very much. It’s not about Yoga at all.”

David Russell, Associate Professor at Oxford University, recommends the best Victorian essays , including selections by Charles Lamb , Matthew Arnold , George Eliot , Walter Pater and (one twentieth-century writer) Marion Milner and discusses the connection between the essay and the development of urban culture in the 19 th century.

Dame Hermione Lee, the writer's biographer, chooses her best books on Virginia Woolf .  She discusses how and why her stature has grown so much since the 1960s and selects a range of her books including diaries and novels, as well as essays, including To the Lighthouse , which she considers Woolf’s greatest novel, her Diaries and her essay " Walter Sickert: A Conversation " , which can be seen as a meditation on the disparities between painting and writing as art forms.

Adam Gopnik , of the New Yorker , chooses Woolf’s The Common Reader as well as collections by Max Beerbohm , EB White , Randall Jarrell and Clive James .

The Best Essays: the 2021 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award , recommended by Adam Gopnik

Had i known: collected essays by barbara ehrenreich, unfinished business: notes of a chronic re-reader by vivian gornick, nature matrix: new and selected essays by robert michael pyle, terroir: love, out of place by natasha sajé, maybe the people would be the times by luc sante.

Every year, the judges of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay search out the best book of essays written in the past year and draw attention to the author's entire body of work. Here, Adam Gopnik , writer, journalist and PEN essay prize judge, emphasizes the role of the essay in bearing witness and explains why the five collections that reached the 2021 shortlist are, in their different ways, so important.

Every year, the judges of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay search out the best book of essays written in the past year and draw attention to the author’s entire body of work. Here, Adam Gopnik, writer, journalist and PEN essay prize judge, emphasizes the role of the essay in bearing witness and explains why the five collections that reached the 2021 shortlist are, in their different ways, so important.

David Russell on The Victorian Essay

Selected prose by charles lamb, culture and anarchy and other writings by matthew arnold, selected essays, poems, and other writings by george eliot, studies in the history of the renaissance by walter pater, the hands of the living god: an account of a psychoanalytic treatment by marion milner.

With the advent of the Victorian age, polite maxims of eighteenth-century essays in the  Spectator  were replaced by a new generation of writers who thought deeply—and playfully—about social relationships, moral responsibility, education and culture. Here, Oxford literary critic  David Russell explores the distinct qualities that define the Victorian essay and recommends five of its greatest practitioners.

With the advent of the Victorian age, polite maxims of eighteenth-century essays in the  Spectator  were replaced by a new generation of writers who thought deeply—and playfully—about social relationships, moral responsibility, education and culture. Here, Oxford literary critic David Russell explores the distinct qualities that define the Victorian essay and recommends five of its greatest practitioners.

The Best Virginia Woolf Books , recommended by Hermione Lee

To the lighthouse by virginia woolf, the years by virginia woolf, walter sickert: a conversation by virginia woolf, on being ill by virginia woolf, selected diaries by virginia woolf.

Virginia Woolf was long dismissed as a 'minor modernist' but now stands as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Her biographer, Hermione Lee , talks us through the novels, essays, and diaries of Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf was long dismissed as a ‘minor modernist’ but now stands as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Her biographer, Hermione Lee, talks us through the novels, essays, and diaries of Virginia Woolf.

Adam Gopnik on his Favourite Essay Collections

And even now by max beerbohm, the common reader by virginia woolf, essays of e.b. white by e.b. white, a sad heart at the supermarket by randall jarrell, visions before midnight by clive james.

What makes a great essayist? Who had it, who didn’t? And whose work left the biggest mark on the New Yorker ? Longtime writer for the magazine, Adam Gopnik , picks out five masters of the craft

What makes a great essayist? Who had it, who didn’t? And whose work left the biggest mark on the New Yorker ? Longtime writer for the magazine, Adam Gopnik, picks out five masters of the craft

Illuminating Essays , recommended by Alain de Botton

The crowded dance of modern life by virginia woolf, home is where we start from by d w winnicott, the wisdom of life by arthur schopenhauer, the secret power of beauty by john armstrong, yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it by geoff dyer.

The essay format allows the author to develop ideas but add a personal touch, says the popular philosopher Alain de Botton . Here, he chooses his favourite essay collections

The essay format allows the author to develop ideas but add a personal touch, says the popular philosopher Alain de Botton. Here, he chooses his favourite essay collections

We ask experts to recommend the five best books in their subject and explain their selection in an interview.

This site has an archive of more than one thousand seven hundred interviews, or eight thousand book recommendations. We publish at least two new interviews per week.

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The 40 Best Books About Writing: A Reading List for Authors

For this post, we’ve scoured the web (so you don’t have to) and asked our community of writers for recommendations on some indispensable books about writing. We've filled this list with dozens of amazing titles, all of which are great — but this list might seem intimidating. So for starters, here are our top 10 books about writing:

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig
  • Dreyer’s Englis h by Benjamin Dreyer
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk, White, and Kalman
  • The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison
  • How to Market a Book by Ricardo Fayet
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser

But if you're ready to get into the weeds, here are 40 of our favorite writing books.

Books about becoming a writer

1. on writing by stephen king.

best new book of essays

Perhaps the most-cited book on this list, On Writing is part-memoir, part-masterclass from one of America’s leading authors. Come for the vivid accounts of his childhood and youth — including his extended "lost weekend" spent on alcohol and drugs in the 1980s. Stay for the actionable advice on how to use your emotions and experiences to kickstart your writing, hone your skills, and become an author. Among the many craft-based tips are King’s expert takes on plot, story, character, and more.

From the book: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” 

2. The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig

If you haven’t checked out Wendig’s personal blog, head over there now and bookmark it. Unfiltered, profane, and almost always right, Wendig’s become a leading voice among online writing communities in the past few years. In The Kick-Ass Writer , he offers over 1,000 pearls of wisdom for authors, ranging from express writing tips to guidance on getting published. Written to be read in short bursts, we’re sure he’d agree that this is the perfect bathroom book for writers.

From the book: “I have been writing professionally for a lucky-despite-the-number 13 years. Not once — seriously, not once ever — has anyone ever asked me where I got my writing degree… Nobody gives two ferrets fornicating in a filth-caked gym sock whether or not you have a degree… The only thing that matters is, Can you write well? ” 

3. Find Your Voice by Angie Thomas

Taking advice from famous authors is not about imitation, but about finding your own voice . Take it from someone who knows: Thomas is the New York Times #1 Bestselling author of The Hate U Give , On the Come Up , and Concrete Rose . While she’s found her calling in YA literature , she has plenty of insight into finding your own voice in your genre of choice. Written in the form of a guided journal, this volume comes with step-by-step instructions, writing prompts, and exercises especially aimed at helping younger creatives develop the strength and skills to realize their vision.

From the book: “Write fearlessly. Write what is true and real to you.” 

4. The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

Since its publication in 2000, The Forest for the Trees has remained an essential resource for authors at various stages in their careers. As an editor, Lerner gives advice not only on producing quality content, but also on how to build your career as an author and develop a winning routine — like how writers can be more productive in their creative process, how to get published , and how to publish well . 

From the book: “The world doesn't fully make sense until the writer has secured his version of it on the page. And the act of writing is strangely more lifelike than life.”

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5. How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen

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From the book: “Great writers can be inhibiting, and maybe after one has read a Scott Fitzgerald or Henry James one can’t escape imitat­ing them; but more often such writers are inspiring.”

6. Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Smith is well-known for her fiction, but she is also a prolific essay writer. In Feel Free , she has gathered several essays on recent cultural and political developments and combined them with experiences from her own life and career. In “The I Who Is Not Me”, she explores how her own lived experience comes into play in her fiction writing, and how she manages to extrapolate that to comment on contemporary social contexts, discussing race, class, and ethnicity.

From the book: “Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two.”

Books about language and style 

7. dreyer’s english by benjamin dreyer.

A staple book about writing well, Dreyer’s English serves as a one-stop guide to proper English, based on the knowledge that Dreyer — a senior copy editor at Random House — has accumulated throughout his career. From punctuation to tricky homophones, passive voice, and commas, the goal of these tools should be to facilitate effective communication of ideas and thoughts. Dreyer delivers this and then some, but not without its due dosage of humor and informative examples. 

From the book: “A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.”

8. The Elements of Style (Illustrated) by William Strunk, Jr., E. B. White, and Maira Kalman

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A perfect resource for visual learners, this illustrated edition of The Elements of Style has taken the classic style manual to a new, more accessible level but kept its main tenet intact: make every word tell. The written content by Strunk and White has long been referred to as an outline of the basic principles of style. Maira Kalman’s illustrations elevate the experience and make it a feast for both the mind and the eye. 

From the book: “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

9. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale

If you’re looking to bring a bit of spunk into your writing, copy editor Constance Hale may hold the key . Whether you’re writing a work-related email or the next rap anthem, she has one goal: to make creative communication available to everyone by dispelling old writing myths and making every word count. Peppered with writing prompts and challenges, this book will have you itching to put pen to paper.

From the book: “Verbose is not a synonym for literary.”

10. The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Combining entertainment with intellectual pursuit, Pinker, a cognitive scientist and dictionary consultant, explores and rethinks language usage in the 21st century . With illustrative examples of both great and not-so-great linguistic constructions, Pinker breaks down the art of writing and gives a gentle but firm nudge in the right direction, towards coherent yet stylish prose. This is not a polemic on the decay of the English language, nor a recitation of pet peeves, but a thoughtful, challenging, and practical take on the science of communication. 

From the book: “Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing—and why should we care?”

11. Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

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From the book: “A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. "Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder. "I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up." The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Books about story structure

12. save the cat by blake snyder.

Best known as a screenwriting manual, Save the Cat! is just as often named by authors as one of their most influential books about writing. The title comes from the tried-and-true trope of the protagonist doing something heroic in the first act (such as saving a cat) in order to win over the audience. Yes, it might sound trite to some — but others swear by its bulletproof beat sheet. More recently, there has been Save the Cat! Writes a Novel , which tailors its principles specifically to the literary crowd. (For a concise breakdown of the beat sheet, check this post out!)

From the book: “Because liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.” 

13. The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

Shawn Coyne is a veteran editor with over 25 years of publishing experience, and he knows exactly what works and what doesn’t in a story — indeed, he’s pretty much got it down to a science. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know outlines Coyne’s original “Story Grid” evaluation technique, which both writers and editors can use to appraise, revise, and ultimately improve their writing (in order to get it ready for publication). Coyne and his friend Tim Grahl also co-host the acclaimed Story Grid podcast , another great resource for aspiring writers.

From the book: “The Story Grid is a tool with many applications. It pinpoints problems but does not emotionally abuse the writer… it is a tool to re-envision and resuscitate a seemingly irredeemable pile of paper stuck in an attack drawer, and it can inspire an original creation.”

14. Story Structure Architect by Victoria Schmidt

For those who find the idea of improvising utterly terrifying and prefer the security of structures, this book breaks down just about every kind of story structure you’ve ever heard of. Victoria Schmidt offers no less than fifty-five different creative paths for your story to follow — some of which are more unconventional, or outright outlandish than others. The level of detail here is pretty staggering: Schmidt goes into the various conflicts, subplots, and resolutions these different story structures entail — with plenty of concrete examples! Suffice to say that no matter what kind of story you’re writing, you’ll find a blueprint for it in Story Structure Architect .

From the book: “When you grow up in a Westernized culture, the traditional plot structure becomes so embedded in your subconscious that you may have to work hard to create a plot structure that deviates from it… Understand this and keep your mind open when reading [this book]. Just because a piece doesn’t conform to the model you are used to, does not make it bad or wrong.”

15. The Writer's Journey  by Christopher Vogler

Moving on, we hone in on the mythic structure. Vogler’s book, originally published in 1992, is now a modern classic of writing advice; though intended as a screenwriting textbook, its contents apply to any story of mythic proportions. In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers , Vogler takes a page (literally) from Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces to ruminate upon the most essential narrative structures and character archetypes of the writing craft. So if you’re thinking of drawing up an epic fantasy series full of those tropes we all know and love, this guide should be right up your alley.

From the book: “The Hero’s Journey is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design… It’s difficult to avoid the sensation that the Hero’s Journey exists somewhere, somehow, as an external reality, a Platonic ideal form, a divine model. From this model, infinite and highly varied copies can be produced, each resonating with the essential spirit of the form.”

16. Story Genius by Lisa Cron

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From the book: “We don't turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.”

17. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

More than just a New York Times bestseller and the winner of the Booker Prize, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a distillation of the MFA class on Russian short stories that Saunders has been teaching. Breaking down narrative functions and why we become immersed in a story, this is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand and nurture our continued need for fiction.

From the book: “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?”

Books about overcoming obstacles as a writer

18. bird by bird by anne lamott .

Like Stephen King’s book about writing craft, this work from acclaimed novelist and nonfiction writer Anne Lamott also fuses elements of a memoir with invaluable advice on the writer’s journey. Particularly known for popularizing the concept of “shitty first drafts”, Bird by Bird was recently recommended by editor Jennifer Hartmann in her Reedsy Live webinar for its outlook take on book writing. She said, “This book does exactly what it says it will do: it teaches you to become a better writer. [Lamott] is funny and witty and very knowledgeable.”

From the book: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

19. Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker 

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From the book: “When it comes to the eternal quandary of pantsing or plotting, you can keep a foot in each camp. But if your goals will require you to write with speed and confidence, an effective outline will be your best friend.”

20. Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith 

And for those who eschew structure altogether, we’ll now refer you to this title from profile science fiction author Dean Wesley Smith . Having authored a number of official Star Trek novels, he definitely knows what he’s talking about when he encourages writers to go boldly into the unknown with an approach to writing books that doesn’t necessarily involve an elaborate plan. It might not be your action plan, but it can be a fresh perspective to get out of the occasional writer’s block .

From the book: “Imagine if every novel you picked up had a detailed outline of the entire plot… Would you read the novel after reading the outline? Chances are, no. What would be the point? You already know the journey the writer is going to take you on. So, as a writer, why do an outline and then have to spend all that time creating a book you already know?”

21. No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty

If you’re procrastinating to the point where you haven’t even started your novel yet, NaNo founder Chris Baty is your guy! No Plot, No Problem is a “low-stress, high-velocity” guide to writing a novel in just 30 days (yup, it’s great prep for the NaNoWriMo challenge ). You’ll get tons of tips on how to survive this rigorous process, from taking advantage of your initial momentum to persisting through moments of doubt . Whether you’re participating in everyone’s favorite November write-a-thon or you just want to bang out a novel that’s been in your head forever, Baty will help you cross that elusive finish line.

From the book: “A rough draft is best written in the steam-cooker of an already busy life. If you have a million things to do, adding item number 1,000,001 is not such a big deal.”

22. The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt

And for those who think 30 days is a bit too steam cooker-esque, there’s always Alan Watt’s more laid-back option. In The 90-Day Novel , Watt provides a unique three-part process to assist you with your writing. The first part provides assistance in developing your story’s premise, the second part helps you work through obstacles to execute it, and the third part is full of writing exercises to unlock the “primal forces” of your story — aka the energy that will invigorate your work and incite readers to devour it like popcorn at the movies.

From the book: “Why we write is as important as what we write. Grammar, punctuation, and syntax are fairly irrelevant in the first draft. Get the story down… fast. Get out of your head, so you can surprise yourself on the page.”

23. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

If you feel like you’re constantly in the trenches of your “inner creative battle,” The War of Art is the book for you. Pressfield emphasizes the importance of breaking down creative barriers — what he calls “Resistance” — in order to defeat your demons (i.e. procrastination, self-doubt, etc.) and fulfill your potential. Though some of his opinions are no doubt controversial (he makes repeated claims that almost anything can be procrastination, including going to the doctor), this book is the perfect remedy for prevaricating writers who need a little bit of tough love.

From the book: “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”

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Books about writing as a lifestyle and career

24. steal like an artist by austin kleon.

As Kleon notes in the first section of Steal Like an Artist , this title obviously doesn’t refer to plagiarism. Rather, it acknowledges that art cannot be created in a vacuum, and encourages writers (and all other artists) to be open and receptive to all sources of inspiration. By “stealing like an artist,” writers can construct stories that already have a baseline of familiarity for readers, but with new twists that keep them fresh and exciting .

From the book: “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

25. Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison

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From the book: “A writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”

26. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

No matter what stage you’re at in your writing career, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones will help you write more skillfully and creatively. With suggestions, encouragement, and valuable advice on the many aspects of the writing craft, Goldberg doesn’t shy away from making the crucial connection between writing and adding value to your life. Covering a range of topics including taking notes of your initial thoughts, listening, overcoming doubt, choosing where to write, and the selection of your verbs, this guide has plenty to say about the minute details of writing, but excels at exploring the author life.

From the book: “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

27. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

What does it take to become a great author? According to the beloved writer Ray Bradbury , it takes zest, gusto, curiosity, as well as a spirit of adventure. Sharing his wisdom and experiences as one of the most prolific writers in America, Bradbury gives plenty of practical tips and tricks on how to develop ideas, find your voice, and create your own style in this thoughtful volume. In addition to that, this is also an insight into the life and mind of this prolific writer, and a celebration of the act of writing. 

From the book: “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a land mine. The land mine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces back together. Now, it's your turn. Jump!”

28. The Kite and the String by Alice Mattison

One of the most common dilemmas an author faces is the struggle between spontaneity and control. Literary endeavors need those unexpected light-bulb moments, but a book will never be finished if you rely solely on inspiration. In The Kite and the String , Mattison has heard your cry for help and developed a guide for balancing these elements throughout the different stages of writing a novel or a memoir. Sure, there may be language and grammar rules that govern the way you write, but letting a bit of playfulness breathe life into your writing will see it take off to a whole new level. On the other hand, your writing routine, solitude, audience, and goal-setting will act as the strings that keep you from floating too far away. 

From the book: "Don’t make yourself miserable wishing for a kind of success that you wouldn’t enjoy if you had it."

29. How to Become a Successful Indie Author by Craig Martelle

This one’s for all the indie authors out there! Even if you’ve already self-published a book , you can still learn a lot from this guide by Craig Martelle , who has dozens of indie books — “over two and a half million words,” as he puts it — under his belt. With patience and expertise, Martelle walks you through everything you need to know: from developing your premise to perfecting your writing routine, to finally getting your work to the top of the Amazon charts.

From the book: “No matter where you are on your author journey, there’s always a new level you can reach. Roll up your sleeves, because it’s time to get to work.”

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30. How to Market a Book by Ricardo Fayet 

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From the book: “Here’s the thing: authors don’t find readers; readers find books . [...] Marketing is not about selling your book to readers. It’s about getting readers to find it.”

31. Everybody Writes by Ann Handley

The full title of Handley’s all-inclusive book on writing is actually Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content — which should tell you something about its broad appeal. Not only does Handley have some great ideas on how to plan and produce a great story, but she also provides tips on general content writing, which comes in handy when it’s time to build your author platform or a mailing list to promote your book. As such, Everybody Writes is nothing like your other books on novel writing — it’ll make you see writing in a whole new light.

From the book: “In our world, many hold a notion that the ability to write, or write well, is a gift bestowed on a chosen few. That leaves us thinking there are two kinds of people: the writing haves — and the hapless, for whom writing well is a hopeless struggle, like trying to carve marble with a butter knife. But I don’t believe that, and neither should you.” 

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Books on writing poetry 

32. madness, rack, and honey by mary ruefle.

With a long history of crafting and lecturing about poetry, Ruefle invites the reader of Madness, Rack, and Honey to immerse themselves into its beauty and magic. In a powerful combination of lectures and musings, she expertly explores the mind and craft of writers while excavating the magical potential of poetry. Often a struggle between giving and taking, poetry is, according to Ruefle, a unique art form that reveals the innermost workings of the human heart.

From the book: “In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again”

33. Threads by Sandeep Parmar, Nisha Ramayya, and Bhanu Kapil

If you’re looking for something that explores the philosophical aspects of writing, Threads asks big questions about writing and the position of the writer in an industry that has largely excluded marginalized voices. Where does the writer exist in relation to its text and, particularly in the case of poetry, who is the “I”? Examining the common white, British, male lens, this collection of short essays will make it hard for you not to critically consider your own perceptions and how they affect your writing process.

From the book: “It is impossible to consider the lyric without fully interrogating its inherent promise of universality, its coded whiteness.”

34. The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner

Despite its eye-catching title, this short essay is actually a defense of poetry . Lerner begins with his own hatred of the art form, and then moves on to explore this love-hate dichotomy that actually doesn’t seem to be contradictory. Rather, such a multitude of emotions might be one of the reasons that writers and readers alike turn to it. With its ability to evoke feelings and responses through word-play and meter, poetry has often been misconceived as inaccessible and elitist; this is a call to change that perception. 

From the book: “All I ask the haters — and I, too, am one — is that they strive to perfect their contempt, even consider bringing it to bear on poems, where it will be deepened, not dispelled, and where, by creating a place for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies), it might come to resemble love.”

35. Poemcrazy by Susan G. Wooldridge

If you’ve ever felt that the mysterious workings of poetry are out of your reach and expressly not for you, Wooldridge is here to tell you that anyone who wants to can write poetry . An experienced workshop leader, she will help you find your inner voice and to express it through the written word. Giving you advice on how to think, use your senses, and practice your writing, Wooldrige will have you putting down rhyme schemes before you know it. 

From the book: “Writing a poem is a form of listening, helping me discover what's wrong or frightening in my world as well as what delights me.”

36. Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison

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From the book: “Don't be afraid to write crap — it makes the best fertilizer. The more of it you write, the better your chances are of growing something wonderful.”

Books about writing nonfiction

37. on writing well by william zinsser.

Going strong with its 30th-anniversary edition, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction is an evergreen resource for nonfiction writers which breaks down the fundamental principles of written communication. As a bonus, the insights and guidelines in this book can certainly be applied to most forms of writing, from interviewing to camp-fire storytelling. Beyond giving tips on how to stay consistent in your writing and voice, how to edit, and how to avoid common pitfalls, Zinsser can also help you grow as a professional writer, strengthening your career and taking steps in a new direction. 

From the book: “Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.”

38. Essays by Lydia Davis

Ironically enough, this rather lengthy book is a celebration of brevity. As one of the leading American voices in flash-fiction and short-form writing, Davis traces her literary roots and inspirations in essays on everything, ranging from the mastodonic work of Proust to minimalism. In both her translations and her own writing, she celebrates experimental writing that stretches the boundaries of language. Playing with the contrast between what is said and what is not, this collection of essays is another tool to the writing shed to help you feel and use the power of every word you write.

From the book: “Free yourself of your device, for at least certain hours of the day — or at the very least one hour. Learn to be alone, all alone, without people, and without a device that is turned on. Learn to experience the purity of that kind of concentration. Develop focus, learn to focus intently on one thing, uninterrupted, for a long time.”

39. Essayism by Brian Dillon

In this volume, Dillon explores the often overlooked genre of essay writing and its place in literature’s past, present, and future. He argues that essays are an “experiment in attention” but also highlights how and why certain essays have directly impacted the development of the cultural and political landscape, from the end of the Middle Ages until the present day. At its heart, despite its many forms, subject areas, and purposes, essayism has its root in self-exploration. Dip in and out of Dillon’s short texts to find inspiration for your own nonfiction writing.

From the book: “What exactly do I mean, even, by 'style'? Perhaps it is nothing but an urge, an aspiration, a clumsy access of admiration, a crush.”

40. Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara

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From the book: “Write it down. Whatever it is, write it down. Chip it into marble. Type it into Microsoft Word. Spell it out in seaweeds on the shore. We are each of us an endangered species, delicate as unicorns.”

With a few of these books in your arsenal, you’ll be penning perfect plots in no time! And if you’re interested in learning more about the editing process, check these books on editing out as well!

ZUrlocker says:

11/03/2019 – 19:46

I'm familiar with several of these books. But for new authors, I urge you caution. It is very tempting to read so many books about writing that you never get around to writing. (I did this successfully for many years!) So I will suggest paring it down to just two books: Stephen King on Writing and Blake Snyder Save the Cat. Snyder's book is mostly about screenwriting, so you could also consider Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Best of luck!

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The best books to improve your essay writing skills.

Essay writing books

Are you looking to enhance your essay writing abilities? Whether you are a student, professional writer, or simply striving to improve your writing skills, investing in the best books on essay writing can make a significant difference.

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  • They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein : Master the art of engaging with academic sources and constructing persuasive arguments.
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Deep Dive into Essay Writing

Essay writing is an essential skill that can greatly enhance your academic and professional success. By mastering the art of essay writing, you can effectively communicate your ideas, opinions, and arguments in a clear and concise manner.

Here are some key tips to help you excel in essay writing:

Start by brainstorming ideas, creating an outline, and organizing your thoughts before you begin writing. This will help you stay focused and ensure that your essay flows logically.
Your thesis statement should clearly express the main point or argument of your essay. It sets the tone for the rest of your writing and guides your reader on what to expect.
Support your ideas with evidence from credible sources. This will strengthen your arguments and make your essay more convincing.
Ensure that your essay is well-organized and easy to follow. Use clear and concise language, logical transitions, and proper paragraph structure.
Review your essay for errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Make sure your ideas are well-developed and coherent. Consider seeking feedback from peers or instructors for further improvement.

By implementing these strategies and practicing regularly, you can enhance your essay writing skills and become a more effective communicator. Explore the best books for essay writing to further refine your techniques and unlock your full potential.

Unlock Your Creativity

Unlock Your Creativity

Unleash your imagination and expand your creative horizons with the best books for essay writing. Dive into a world of inspiration and learn how to express your thoughts and ideas in new and innovative ways.

Discover the power of storytelling and the art of persuasion as you explore the depths of your creativity. With the guidance of expert writers and teachers, you will develop your unique voice and style that will set you apart from the rest.

  • Explore different writing techniques to enhance your essays
  • Learn how to structure your ideas effectively
  • Find inspiration in classic and contemporary works
  • Master the art of critical thinking and analysis

Whether you are a student looking to improve your academic writing or a professional seeking to enhance your communication skills, these books will help you unlock your creativity and become a more confident and persuasive writer.

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best new book of essays

The Best Reviewed Essay Collections of 2020

Featuring zadie smith, helen macdonald, claudia rankine, samantha irby, and more.

Zadie Smith’s Intimations , Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights , Claudia Rankine’s Just Us , and Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You all feature among the Best Reviewed Essay Collections of 2020.

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

Vesper Flights ribbon

1. Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (Grove)

18 Rave • 3 Positive • 1 Mixed

Read Helen Macdonald on Sherlock Holmes, Ursula Le Guin, and hating On the Road  here

“A former historian of science, Macdonald is as captivated by the everyday (ants, bird’s nests) as she is by the extraordinary (glowworms, total solar eclipses), and her writing often closes the distance between the two … Always, the author pushes through the gloom to look beyond herself, beyond all people, to ‘rejoice in the complexity of things’ and to see what science has to show us: ‘that we are living in an exquisitely complicated world that is not all about us’ … The climate crisis shadows these essays. Macdonald is not, however, given to sounding dire, all-caps warnings … For all its elegiac sentences and gray moods, Vesper Flights  is a book of tremendous purpose. Throughout these essays, Macdonald revisits the idea that as a writer it is her responsibility to take stock of what’s happening to the natural world and to convey the value of the living things within it.”

–Jake Cline  ( The Washington Post )

2. Intimations by Zadie Smith (Penguin)

13 Rave • 7 Positive • 3 Mixed

Listen to Zadie Smith read from Intimations here

“Smith…is a spectacular essayist—even better, I’d say, than as a novelist … Smith…get[s] at something universal, the suspicion that has infiltrated our interactions even with those we want to think we know. This is the essential job of the essayist: to explore not our innocence but our complicity. I want to say this works because Smith doesn’t take herself too seriously, but that’s not accurate. More to the point, she is willing to expose the tangle of feelings the pandemic has provoked. And this may seem a small thing, but it’s essential: I never doubt her voice on the page … Her offhandedness, at first, feels out of step with a moment in which we are desperate to feel that whatever something we are trying to do matters. But it also describes that moment perfectly … Here we see the kind of devastating self-exposure that the essay, as a form, requires—the realization of how limited we are even in the best of times, and how bereft in the worst.”

–David L. Ulin  ( The Los Angeles Times )

3. Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf)

11 Rave • 6 Positive • 5 Mixed

Read an excerpt from Just Us here

“ Just Us  is about intimacy. Rankine is making an appeal for real closeness. She’s advocating for candor as the pathway to achieving universal humanity and authentic love … Rankine is vulnerable, too. In ‘lemonade,’ an essay about how race and racism affect her interracial marriage, Rankine models the openness she hopes to inspire. ‘lemonade’ is hard to handle. It’s naked and confessional, deeply moving and, ultimately, inspirational … Just Us , as a book, is inventive … Claudia Rankine may be the most human human I’ve ever encountered. Her inner machinations and relentless questioning would exhaust most people. Her labor should be less necessary, of course.”

–Michael Kleber-Diggs  ( The Star Tribune )

4. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (One World)

7 Rave • 10 Positive • 2 Mixed

Listen to an interview with Cathy Park Hong here

“Hong’s metaphors are crafted with stinging care. To be Asian-American, she suggests, is to be tasked with making an injury inaccessible to the body that has been injured … I read Minor Feelings  in a fugue of enveloping recognition and distancing flinch … The question of lovability, and desirability, is freighted for Asian men and Asian women in very different ways—and Minor Feelings  serves as a case study in how a feminist point of view can both deepen an inquiry and widen its resonances to something like universality … Hong reframes the quandary of negotiating dominance and submission—of desiring dominance, of hating the terms of that dominance, of submitting in the hopes of achieving some facsimile of dominance anyway—as a capitalist dilemma … Hong is writing in agonized pursuit of a liberation that doesn’t look white—a new sound, a new affect, a new consciousness—and the result feels like what she was waiting for. Her book is a reminder that we can be, and maybe have to be, what others are waiting for, too.”

–Jia Tolentino  ( The New Yorker )

5. World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Milkweed Editions)

11 Rave • 3 Positive

Read an excerpt from World of Wonders here

“In beautifully illustrated essays, poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes of exotic flora and fauna and her family, and why they are all of one piece … In days of old, books about nature were often as treasured for their illustrations as they were for their words. World of Wonders,  American poet and teacher Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s prose ode to her muses in the natural world, is a throwback that way. Its words are beautiful, but its cover and interior illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura may well be what first moves you to pick it up in a bookstore or online … The book’s magic lies in Nezhukumatathil’s ability to blend personal and natural history, to compress into each brief essay the relationship between a biographical passage from her own family and the life trajectory of a particular plant or animal … Her kaleidoscopic observations pay off in these thoughtful, nuanced, surprise-filled essays.”

–Pamela Miller  ( The Star Tribune )

WOW, NO THANK YOU by Samantha Irby

6. Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby (Vintage)

10 Rave • 3 Positive • 1 Mixed

Watch an interview with Samantha Irby here

“Haphazard and aimless as she claims to be, Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You  is purposefully hilarious, real, and full of medicine for living with our culture’s contradictory messages. From relationship advice she wasn’t asked for to surrendering her cell phone as dinner etiquette, Irby is wholly unpretentious as she opines about the unspoken expectations of adulting. Her essays poke holes and luxuriate in the weirdness of modern society … If anyone whose life is being made into a television show could continue to keep it real for her blog reading fans, it’s Irby. She proves we can still trust her authenticity not just through her questionable taste in music and descriptions of incredibly bloody periods, but through her willingness to demystify what happens in any privileged room she finds herself in … Irby defines professional lingo and describes the mundane details of exclusive industries in anecdotes that are not only entertaining but powerfully demystifying. Irby’s closeness to financial and physical precariousness combined with her willingness to enter situations she feels unprepared for make us loyal to her—she again proves herself to be a trustworthy and admirable narrator who readers will hold fast to through anything at all.”

–Molly Thornton  ( Lambda Literary )

7. Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing (W. W. Norton & Company)

5 Rave • 10 Positive • 3 Mixed • 1 Pan

“Yes, you’re in for a treat … There are few voices that we can reliably read widely these days, but I would read Laing writing about proverbial paint drying (the collection is in fact quite paint-heavy), just as soon as I would read her write about the Grenfell Tower fire, The Fire This Time , or a refugee’s experience in England, The Abandoned Person’s Tale , all of which are included in Funny Weather … Laing’s knowledge of her subjects is encyclopaedic, her awe is infectious, and her critical eye is reminiscent of the critic and author James Wood … She is to the art world what David Attenborough is to nature: a worthy guide with both a macro and micro vision, fluent in her chosen tongue and always full of empathy and awe.”

–Mia Colleran  ( The Irish Times )

8. Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami (Pantheon)

6 Rave • 7 Positive • 1 Mixed • 2 Pan

“A] searing look at the struggle for all Americans to achieve liberty and equality. Lalami eloquently tacks between her experiences as an immigrant to this country and the history of U.S. attempts to exclude different categories of people from the full benefits of citizenship … Lalami offers a fresh perspective on the double consciousness of the immigrant … Conditional citizenship is still conferred on people of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities, even those living in poverty, and Lalami’s insight in showing the subtle and overt ways discrimination operates in so many facets of life is one of this book’s major strengths.”

–Rachel Newcomb  ( The Washington Post )

9. This is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah (University of Georgia Press)

7 Rave • 2 Positive 

Watch an interview with Sejal Shah here

“Shah brings important, refreshing, and depressing observations about what it means to have dark skin and an ‘exotic’ name, when the only country you’ve ever lived in is America … The essays in this slim volume are engaging and thought-provoking … The essays are well-crafted with varying forms that should inspire and enlighten other essayists … A particularly delightful chapter is the last, called ‘Voice Texting with My Mother,’ which is, in fact, written in texts … Shah’s thoughts on heritage and belonging are important and interesting.”

–Martha Anne Toll  ( NPR )

10. Having and Being Had by Eula Biss (Riverhead)

5 Rave • 4 Positive • 4 Mixed

Read Eula Biss on the anticapitalist origins of Monopoly here

“… enthralling … Her allusive blend of autobiography and criticism may remind some of The Argonauts  by Maggie Nelson, a friend whose name pops up in the text alongside those of other artists and intellectuals who have influenced her work. And yet, line for line, her epigrammatic style perhaps most recalls that of Emily Dickinson in its radical compression of images and ideas into a few chiseled lines … Biss wears her erudition lightly … she’s really funny, with a barbed but understated wit … Keenly aware of her privilege as a white, well-educated woman who has benefited from a wide network of family and friends, Biss has written a book that is, in effect, the opposite of capitalism in its willingness to acknowledge that everything she’s accomplished rests on the labor of others.”

–Ann Levin  ( Associated Press )

The Book Marks System: RAVE = 5 points • POSITIVE = 3 points • MIXED = 1 point • PAN = -5 points

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best new book of essays

The Best Reviewed Books of 2021: Essay Collections

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

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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 .

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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June 20, 2024

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The best new science fiction books of May 2024

A new Stephen King short story collection, an Ursula K. Le Guin reissue and a celebration of cyberpunk featuring writing from Philip K. Dick and Cory Doctorow are among the new science fiction titles published this month

By Alison Flood

New Scientist. Science news and long reads from expert journalists, covering developments in science, technology, health and the environment on the website and the magazine.

A new short story collection from Stephen King, You Like It Darker, is out in May

Shane Leonard

Every month, I trawl through publishers’ catalogues so I can tell you about the new science fiction being released. And every month, I’m disappointed to see so much more fantasy on publishers’ lists than sci-fi. I know it’s a response to the huge boom in readers of what’s been dubbed “ romantasy ”, and I’m not knocking it – I love that sort of book too. But it would be great to see more good, hard, mind-expanding sci-fi in the offing as well.

In the meantime, there is definitely enough for us sci-fi fans to sink our teeth into this month, whether it’s a reissue of classic writing from Ursula K. Le Guin, some new speculative short stories from Stephen King or murder in space from Victor Manibo and S. A. Barnes.

Last month, I tipped Douglas Preston’s Extinction and Sofia Samatar’s The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain as books I was looking forward to. I can report that they were both excellent: Extinction was a lot of good, clean, Jurassic Park -tinged fun, while Samatar’s offering was a beautiful and thought-provoking look at life on a generation ship.

The Language of the Night: Essays on writing, science fiction, and fantasy by Ursula K. Le Guin

There are few sci-fi and fantasy writers more brilliant (and revered) than Ursula K. Le Guin. This reissue of her first full-length collection of essays features a new introduction from Hugo and Nebula award-winner Ken Liu and covers the writing of The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea , as well as her advocacy for sci-fi and fantasy as legitimate literary mediums. I’ve read some of these essays but not all, and I won’t be missing this collection.

Nuclear War: A Scenario by Annie Jacobsen

This isn’t science fiction, not quite, but it is one of the best and most important books I have read for some time. It sees Jacobsen lay out, minute by minute, what would happen if an intercontinental ballistic missile hit Washington DC. How would the US react? What, exactly, happens if deterrence fails? Jacobsen has spoken to dozens of military experts to put together what her publisher calls a “non-fiction thriller”, and what I call the scariest book I have possibly ever read (and I’m a Stephen King fan; see below). We’re currently reading it at the New Scientist Book Club, and you can sign up to join us here .

New Scientist. Science news and long reads from expert journalists, covering developments in science, technology, health and the environment on the website and the magazine.

New Scientist book club

Love reading? Come and join our friendly group of fellow book lovers. Every six weeks, we delve into an exciting new title, with members given free access to extracts from our books, articles from our authors and video interviews.

The Big Book of Cyberpunk (Vol 1 & 2)

Forty years ago, William Gibson published Neuromancer . Since then, it has entranced millions of readers right from its unforgettable opening line: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel…”. Neuromancer gave us the literary genre that is cyberpunk, and we can now welcome a huge, two-volume anthology celebrating cyberpunk’s best stories, by writers from Cory Doctorow to Justina Robson, and from Samuel R. Delaney to Philip K. Dick. I have both glorious-sounding volumes, brought together by anthologist Jared Shurin, on my desk (using up most of the space on it), and I am looking forward to dipping in.

You Like It Darker by Stephen King

You could categorise Stephen King as a horror writer. I see him as an expert chronicler of the dark side of small-town America, and from The Tommyknockers and its aliens to Under the Dome with its literally divisive trope, he frequently slides into sci-fi. Even the horror at the heart of It is some sort of cosmic hideousness. He is one of my favourite writers, and You Like It Darker is a new collection of short stories that moves from “the folds in reality where anything can happen” to a “psychic flash” that upends dozens of lives. There’s a sequel to Cujo , and a look at “corners of the universe best left unexplored”. I’ve read the first story so far, and I can confirm there is plenty for us sci-fi fans here.

Enlightenment by Sarah Perry

Not sci-fi, but fiction about science – and from one of the UK’s most exciting writers (if you haven’t read The Essex Serpent yet, you’re in for a treat). This time, Perry tells the story of Thomas Hart, a columnist on the Essex Chronicle who becomes a passionate amateur astronomer as the comet Hale-Bopp approaches in 1997. Our sci-fi columnist Emily Wilson is reviewing it for New Scientist ’s 11 May issue, and she has given it a vigorous thumbs up (“a beautiful, compassionate and memorable book,” she writes in a sneak preview just for you guys).

Ghost Station by S.A. Barnes

Dr Ophelia Bray is a psychologist and expert in the study of Eckhart-Reiser syndrome, a fictional condition that affects space travellers in terrible ways. She’s sent to help a small crew whose colleague recently died, but as they begin life on an abandoned planet, she realises that her charges are hiding something. And then the pilot is murdered… Horror in space? Mysterious planets? I’m up for that.

New Scientist. Science news and long reads from expert journalists, covering developments in science, technology, health and the environment on the website and the magazine.

In Hey, Zoey, the protagonist finds an animatronic sex doll hidden in her garage

Shutterstock / FOTOGRIN

Hey, Zoey by Sarah Crossan

Hot on the heels of Sierra Greer’s story about a sex robot wondering what it means to be human in Annie Bot , the acclaimed young adult and children’s author Sarah Crossan has ventured into similar territory. In Hey, Zoey , Dolores finds an animatronic sex doll hidden in her garage and assumes it belongs to her husband David. She takes no action – but then Dolores and Zoey begin to talk, and Dolores’s life changes.

How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler

Davi has tried to take down the Dark Lord before, rallying humanity and making the final charge – as you do. But the time loop she is stuck in always defeats her, and she loses the battle in the end. This time around, Davi decides that the best thing to do is to become the Dark Lord herself. You could argue that this is fantasy, but it has a time loop, so I’m going to count it as sci-fi. It sounds fun and lighthearted: quotes from early readers are along the lines of “A darkly comic delight”, and we could all use a bit of that these days.

Escape Velocity by Victor Manibo

It’s 2089, and there’s an old murder hanging over the clientele of Space Habitat Altaire, a luxury space hotel, while an “unforeseen threat” is also brewing in the service corridors. A thriller in space? Sounds excellent – and I’m keen to see if Manibo makes use of the latest research into the angle at which blood might travel following violence in space, as reported on by our New Scientist humour columnist Marc Abrahams recently.

The best new science fiction books of March 2024

The best new science fiction books of March 2024

With a new Adrian Tchaikovsky, Mars-set romance from Natasha Pulley and a high-concept thriller from Stuart Turton due to hit shelves, there is plenty of great new science fiction to be reading in March

In Our Stars by Jack Campbell

Part of the Doomed Earth series, this follows Lieutenant Selene Genji, who has been genetically engineered with partly alien DNA and has “one last chance to save the Earth from destruction”. Beautifully retro cover for this space adventure – not to judge a book in this way, of course…

The Downloaded by Robert J. Sawyer

Two sets of people have had their minds uploaded into a quantum computer in the Ontario of 2059. Astronauts preparing for the world’s first interstellar voyage form one group; the other contains convicted murderers, sentenced to a virtual-reality prison. Naturally, disaster strikes, and, yup, they must work together to save Earth from destruction. Originally released as an Audible Original with Brendan Fraser as lead narrator, this is the first print edition of the Hugo and Nebula award-winning Sawyer’s 26 th novel.

The Ferryman by Justin Cronin

Just in case you still haven’t read it, Justin Cronin’s gloriously dreamy novel The Ferryman , set on an apparently utopian island where things aren’t quite as they seem, is out in paperback this month. It was the first pick for the New Scientist Book Club, and it is a mind-bending, dreamy stunner of a read. Go try it – and sign up for the Book Club in the meantime!

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Amazon reveals the best books of 2024 (so far): The No. 1 pick 'transcends its own genre'

When it comes to reading taste, sometimes we have to agree to disagree. Your favorite book may be a measly one-star review to someone else.

But now and then, a story becomes so universally beloved it breaks the mold. 

Amazon's “Best Books of the Year So Far” list is here, and the No. 1 choice, "James" by Percival Everett , is a unanimous winner. What lands a book on the coveted list is one that “transcends its own genre,” says Al Woodworth, senior editor at Amazon Books. 

“At its heart, to me, the best book is a book that you can't stop talking about and you want to share with everybody that you know,” Woodworth says.

Rather than relying on sales data alone, the Amazon Books editorial team spends a week championing its favorites of the year. The team of nine is filled with expert voices who once stood at pivotal intersections of the book world, including former publishing sales reps, booksellers, writers, journalists and agents. Their picks are featured in an overall list as well as top picks by genre.

The top choices have a little something for everyone: mystery, historical fiction, coming-of-age stories, compelling nonfiction and more. It takes a group effort to curate a list that speaks to a diverse customer base, says Sarah Gelman, editorial director at Amazon Books.

Here’s a glimpse at why editors love the top 10 books on Amazon’s “Best Books of the Year So Far” and the full list of 20:

1. ‘James’ by Percival Everett

What it’s about: “James” is a retelling of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” told from the perspective of the slave Jim’s point of view. The story picks up after Jim overhears he is about to be sold to a man in New Orleans and separated from his wife and daughter. At the same time, Huck Finn has recently returned to town after faking his death to escape his violent father. The two embark on a dangerous and transcendent journey down the Mississippi River toward what they hope is liberation.

What Amazon Books editors are saying: Woodworth missed her subway stop – twice – while reading this book. It’s a testament to how “completely absorbing” this story is, which gives more agency, intelligence and care to the character of Jim. You feel as if you’re on the adventure with them, she says.

“What Percival Everett does in retelling, reenvisioning a classic is completely knockout,” she says. “This is a rip-roaring story that is both based on a classic but has become, I think, maybe even more important and better than the classic.”

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2. ‘The Women’ by Kristin Hannah

What it’s about: “The Women” is the story of the women serving in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War. It follows 20-year-old sheltered nursing student Frances “Frankie” McGrath, who, while in Vietnam, makes friends and learns that every day is a gamble of life and death, hope and betrayal. And when she comes home to a changed America, she has to face a country that wants to forget Vietnam and ignore the women who served in it.

What Amazon Books editors are saying: “The Women” is as much of a “beautiful, emotional story” as it is a lesson on forgotten history and the pivotal role women play in it, Gelman says. “She also manages to take historical events that you think you know and turn them on their head and give you a perspective that’s totally fresh.”

3. ‘All the Worst Humans’ by Phil Elwood (out June 25)

What it’s about: “All the Worst Humans: How I Made News for Dictators, Tycoons, and Politicians” is a memoir of Phil Elwood’s nearly two decades as a top public relations operative in Washington – the strings he pulled, the truths he created and the scandals he covered up. Elwood dishes on his industry-secret tactics, his wake-up call from the FBI and the risk it takes to influence money, politics and power. 

What Amazon Books editors are saying: Gelman and Woodworth liken “All the Worst Humans” to “House of Cards,” calling the “juicy” and “salacious” book a “Kitchen Confidential” of the PR world. This book will satisfy any reader, even those who don’t typically pick up nonfiction, they say.

“It’s perfect summer nonfiction reading in my book because it’s so crazy, it’s so shocking,” Woodworth says. “This memoir and Phil Elwood’s life just feels destined to be on the big screen."

4. ‘The Ministry of Time’ by Kaliane Bradley

What it’s about: “The Ministry of Time” is a genre-defying, time-traveling spy thriller with a government conspiracy and love story baked in. Set in the near future, a civil servant is offered a job as a “bridge” – living with, assisting and monitoring an expat who has time traveled from the mid-1800s. Her job is part of a government program to establish whether time travel is feasible. But when she falls in love with her assignment, Commander Graham Gore, the bridge will face consequences she never could have imagined.

What Amazon Books editors are saying: This read is so universally loved precisely because it’s so hard to describe. “We’ve got this beautiful poetic writing, this crazy, unique adventure,” Gelman says. “It just has many elements.” Woodworth loves the “quirk” in the fantasy plot and calls “The Ministry of Time” “pure entertainment.”

5. ‘Martyr!’ by Kaveh Akbar

What it’s about: In “Martyr!” we meet Cyrus Shams, a young man grappling with his mother’s violent death in Tehran and his father’s life in America. He’s a drunk, an addict and a poet with an obsession with martyrs searching for answers. After his rediscovery of the past, “Martyr!” is a portrait of a young Iranian American man trying to discover what it means to live a life of value.

What Amazon Books e ditors are saying: “Martyr!” is Kaveh Akbar’s debut novel, and Woodworth calls him a fierce new talent whom she’s already excited to read for the rest of her life. Gelman describes his voice as a male Sally Rooney. 

“This is an unforgettable narrator whose voice I always say sort of feels shot from a cannon, not unlike, in my mind, ‘Demon Copperhead’ (by Barbara Kingsolver),” Woodworth says. “It is so funny and it’s also deadly serious.”

6. ‘Nuclear War’ by Annie Jacobsen

What it’s about: Pulitzer Prize finalist Annie Jacobsen dives into what would happen in the event of a nuclear missile heading for the United States in "Nuclear War: A Scenario." Her hypothetical relies on dozens of exclusive interviews with military and civilian experts who have built nuclear weapons, know response plans or are responsible for decision-making. 

What Amazon Books editors are saying: Gelman describes this clock-ticking narrative nonfiction as a “real-life horror story.” 

“Your palms will get sweaty when you read this book,” she says. “It is a wild, wild story, but I also think what it’s doing is showcasing how important our politicians are and who controls the decisions that are made with very little information and have to be made quickly to figure out how are we going to defend ourselves.”

7. ‘All the Colors of the Dark’ by Chris Whitaker (out June 25)

What it’s about: Set in 1975 in small-town Missouri, “All the Colors of the Dark” opens with a kidnapping. Girls are disappearing, and the latest target is the daughter of a wealthy family. She’s saved by Patch, a local boy with one eye, but the heartbreaking mystery doesn't end there. Their hunt to unravel the town serial killer will follow them throughout their lives.

What Amazon Books editor are saying: Finishing this story felt like mourning, Gelman says. Like his bestselling novel “We Begin at the End,” this story gets into the minds of young people powerfully.

“There’s nobody that does the innocence of childhood that he captures so beautifully,” Woodworth says. “I’m so delighted that he continues to write about kids and their relationships and their ideas about the future and how their childhood impacts their adulthood.”

8. ‘Lies and Weddings’ by Kevin Kwan

What it’s about: “Lies and Weddings” centers on a forbidden affair that erupts at a decadent Hawaiian wedding. Our main character is Rufus Leung Gresham, the future Earl of Greshambury and the son of a Hong Kong supermodel, who is trying to secure his family fortune with his scheming mother by seducing a wealthy woman. But what if he instead follows his heart and confesses his love to the girl next door? Kevin Kwan’s latest is a dramatic, thrilling story of love, money, murder, sex and lies.

What Amazon Books editors are saying: Anyone who loved the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy will love this story by the same author. The book is fun-filled and well-traveled, taking readers on a glitzy journey around the globe. 

Kwan "reminds me of a modern-day Jane Austen,” Gelman says. “He just manages to write about society in a way that’s so sharp and well-observed but also just a pleasure to read.”

9. ‘Lost Man’s Lane’ by Scott Carson

What it’s about: “Lost Man’s Lane” is about a 16-year-old who lands his dream summer internship under a private investigator in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. Marshall Miller is helping investigate a shocking crime – a local woman who vanished after being seen in a police car driven by a man impersonating an officer. Public praise for Marshall’s role in the case quickly turns to accusations of lying. When his mentor withdraws, he must face a darkness in his hometown that goes beyond one case.

What Amazon Books editors are saying: Fans of Stephen King will love “Lost Man’s Lane,” Woodworth says. Scott Carson tells the teenage perspective expertly, and you’ll feel as if you’re a teenager, too, along for the ride in this missing-person thriller. 

10. ‘This Could Be Us’ by Kennedy Ryan

What it’s about: Soledad Barnes has a wrench thrown in the life she has meticulously planned when her husband leaves her in a cloud of betrayal and disillusions. Now a single mother, she has to put her grief aside to keep a roof over her daughters’ heads. When an unlikely, irresistible man enters the picture, she’ll have to grapple with trust issues and past mistakes to rediscover herself.

What Amazon Books editors are saying: Gelman calls “This Could Be Us” a “romance-plus” – it has everything steamy and sexy you’d want from a traditional romance with so much more. The story is grounded in real-life elements. Both the leads are single parents trying to juggle kids and careers while falling in love. The male lead’s twin boys are both on the autism spectrum.

“It is a very lifelike and very touching viewpoint of parenting a child that is neurodiverse,” Gelman says. “It’s very unexpected to see something like that in a romance.”

Full list: Amazon’s "Best Books of 2024 So Far"

  • “James” by Percival Everett.
  • “The Women” by Kristin Hannah.
  • “All the Worst Humans: How I Made News for Dictators, Tycoons, and Politicians” by Phil Elwood.
  • “The Ministry of Time” by Kaliane Bradley.
  • “Martyr!” by Kaveh Akbar.
  • “Nuclear War: A Scenario” by Annie Jacobsen.
  • “All the Colors of the Dark” by Chris Whitaker.
  • “Lies and Weddings” by Kevin Kwan.
  • “Lost Man’s Lane” by Scott Carson.
  • “This Could Be Us” by Kennedy Ryan.
  • “I Cheerfully Refuse” by Leif Enger.
  • “Narcotopia: In Search of the Asian Drug Cartel That Survived the CIA” by Patrick Winn.
  • “Margo’s Got Money Troubles” by Rufi Thorpe.
  • “skin & bones” by Renée Watson.
  • “The Familiar” by Leigh Bardugo.
  • “Table for Two” by Amor Towles.
  • “Fire Exit” by Morgan Talty.
  • “The Demon of Unrest: A Saga of Hubris, Heartbreak, and Heroism at the Dawn of the Civil War” by Erik Larson.
  • “First Lie Wins” by Ashley Elston.
  • “Malas” by Marcela Fuentes.

Opinion The Constitution was supposed to be a uniter, not a divider

Yuval Levin’s new book argues that our founding document isn’t failing us — we are failing it.

best new book of essays

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in surreptitiously recorded comments , said that “there can be a way of working — a way of living together peacefully, but it’s difficult, you know, because there are differences on fundamental things that really can’t be compromised.” While some of his critics have read that remark as combative, it should not be controversial. Maintaining cohesion in a society riven by deep differences is a serious challenge that has been recognized as such by a wide range of political thinkers.

Among those thinkers were the American Founders. Fostering a complex kind of unity was one of their principal aims in designing the Constitution. That goal helps explain why they sought to create a system in which multiple, overlapping factions would have to contend and bargain with one another. No group was guaranteed to get its way all the time or to be shut out of power altogether. Major changes in government would generally require broad and durable consensus.

In his new book, “ American Covenant ,” Yuval Levin argues that we have forgotten the Founders’ way of thinking about these issues, and that this forgetfulness is one of the sources of contemporary discontent.

A friend and American Enterprise Institute colleague of mine, Levin makes his case without over-idealizing the Founders or scanting their own disagreements. They weren’t united even about just how divided we were. Arguing against those Founders who insisted we were a culturally unified nation unmarked by European class distinctions — that we were already one people, as the Declaration of Independence somewhat wishfully suggested — James Madison noted that we were not and could not be made into “ one homogeneous mass.” He accurately suggested that future events, along with fading memories of the American Revolution, would make us more heterogeneous still.

best new book of essays

Their work had flaws, some of which now seem obvious. Levin regards two crucial post-1787 developments — the modern party system midwifed by Martin Van Buren and the Reconstruction amendments — as improvements that furthered the Constitution’s original goals.

The Founders also sometimes wrongly implied that they had created a system that would run by itself. Keeping it in good working order would require more than checks and balances; it would take civic virtue on the part of officials and citizens alike. But we have had more than a century of civic miseducation thanks to the influence of progressivism in the mold of Woodrow Wilson. The progressives of the early 20th century chafed at the limits the Constitution placed on government, and especially the need for building large coalitions before it could take decisive action.

Over the decades, they altered our country’s governmental and political practice. Levin gently but relentlessly argues that theirs has been a disastrous success. Presidents now attempt to act as visionary policymakers more than as administrators, Congress has lost the habit of deliberating, and the judiciary is too often tempted to do the proper work of the other federal branches. State governments today grasp for dollars from the federal government more than for independence from it.

We now have a Wilsonian political culture operating a Madisonian Constitution, with dysfunctional and disappointing results. Which way to resolve that conflict depends on how we think about the trade-off between making coalition-building easier and making it less necessary.

The attraction of the second answer, the one progressives historically favored, and which not a few of today’s rightists have come to embrace, is the prospect of bold and sweeping government action. The Madisonian answer, seconded by Levin, frustrates such ambitions on purpose. The reforms he suggests to nudge our political practices back toward Madisonianism — such as a larger U.S. House, in which committees have more power and the leaders of the parties have less — are therefore not a summons to the barricade. It is a practical agenda, not a romantic one.

As such, it would appear to be a poor fit for an era in which many Americans say they want radical, disruptive change. But the people who speak that way don’t always mean the same thing, or anything in particular, and in recent decades, presidents’ transformative initiatives have mostly brought them grief.

It might, then, be the right time for a return to bargaining and accommodation. When the Constitution comes up in political debates, it is typically in the context of the most divisive issues in our society, such as abortion and guns, on which we read its provisions very differently. But the Constitution is meant to bring us together. Beneath the affection for Americans of all political stripes that Levin expresses is a stern message: If we seem to be coming apart today, it might not be because the Constitution is failing us so much as because we are failing it.

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The 18 Best Romance Books of 2024 (So Far)

From boy-meets-girl beach reads to queer retellings of classic lit.

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book covers of the best romance novels of 2024

Good news for those of us who enjoy getting swept up in a swoon-worthy love story: Romance remains one of the fastest-growing (and most lucrative) book genres, giving authors plenty of room to churn out love stories of all shapes and sizes. Modern romantic fiction has also taken on its own form, as it's no longer confined to the standard boy-meets-girl pattern or dominated by Fabio-laden paperbacks of the regency variety. It features romantic leads that look and act more like the readers themselves.

That’s especially true of this year’s batch of new additions to the genre, which have been some of the most highly-anticipated books of the year . The best romance books that 2024 has to offer so far feature protagonists of all races, genders, and sexual orientations and cross into so many other genres—while still playing into all of our favorite tropes, from friends-to-lovers and enemies-to-lovers to fake-relationships and forbidden-love and beyond. Here, find 18 of the best romance novels published in the first half of 2024 that are sure to tug at your heartstrings and leave you giggling and kicking your feet.

bride best romance books

Ali Hazelwood has made a name for herself writing steamy books that typically revolve around smart people working in a science lab of sorts. But she switched things up this year with Bride , a paranormal romance following the marriage of convenience between Misery, the daughter of a powerful Vampyre leader, and Lowe, the alpha of a werewolf pack. If you’d rather stick with Hazelwood’s usual style, the prolific writer put out yet another book this year, Not in Love , that returns to the science lab.

don't want you like a best friend best romance books

The Venn diagram of Swifties and romance lovers is probably very close to a circle, and Alban’s books are very much for those situated firmly inside that circle. Both of her books have been named after Taylor Swift lyrics and the latest one also pulls in elements of Parent Trap and Bridgerton : It’s set in the mid-1800s and follows two debutantes who decide to matchmake their single parents rather than seek out husbands of their own and, oops, end up falling in love with each other along the way.

escaping mr. rochester best romance books

L.L. McKinney’s latest reimagines the classic Jane Eyre as a queer YA romance, in which both Jane and Bertha Mason are desperate to escape the controlling, vindictive Mr. Rochester. They’ll have to team up to do so and just might find even more than freedom in their newfound connection.

fangirl down best romance books

Tessa Bailey is a go-to for smart, sexy, and fun romances, and luckily for us, 2024 marked the start of her latest series, Big Shots . This first entry follows increasingly washed-up golf star Wells Whitaker and his one remaining superfan, Josephine Doyle, who jumps at the chance to work as Wells’ caddy—a gig that comes with plenty of up-close-and-personal time with her celebrity crush.

a fragile enchantment best romance books

Another romantasy option that’s heavy on romance, this YA novel combines a fantasy world with the classic Regency setting, following magical dressmaker Niamh as she starts to fall for Kit, the groom in an upcoming royal wedding. Bonus for lovers of all things Regency era: Their blossoming connection is made public by a very Bridgerton -esque anonymous gossip columnist .

funny story emily henry best romance books

Emily Henry’s latest only further cements her status as the current queen of the rom-com genre. It’s got both “opposites attract” and “fake-dating” elements, as buttoned-up Daphne starts a new life after being dumped by her fiancé for his childhood best friend—complete with a new town, new job, and new roommate, who just so happens to be said childhood best friend’s ex. Things definitely won’t get complicated at all!

happily never after best romance books

This rom-com starts with a truly unique premise, as we meet Sophie and Max, both cynical about love, who hire themselves out to object to weddings at the allotted time in the ceremony. Surprise, surprise: As they go around breaking up other people’s relationships, they start to form one of their own.

how to end a love story best romance books

Grant and Helen have a complicated, traumatic past (that we won’t spoil here) and have spent over a decade avoiding each other. That all changes when the two writers work together on the same show, and they start to remember what drew them together all those years ago, even as their shared history threatens to keep them apart.

just for the summer best romance books

This one’s like Good Luck Chuck with a twist: Anyone who dates either Justin or Emma immediately finds their soulmate after the breakup. The two develop a plan to date each other and then call things off to break their respective curses—totally foolproof, as long as they don’t fall in love first.

a little kissing between friends best romance books

Is the possibility of true love worth potentially ruining a friendship? That’s the question plaguing best friends Cyn and Jucee in this queer romance, as they suddenly start seeing one another in a very different light and are forced to decide if they’re truly ready to make the leap from friends to something more.

a love song for ricki wilde best romance books

A Love Song for Ricki Wilde tells the sweeping love story of Ricki and Ezra, both of whom fled to Harlem to escape their stifling past lives—albeit, thanks to a sprinkle of magical realism, 100 years apart. For so many reasons that we won’t spoil here, the odds are stacked against these two, but you won’t be able to resist rooting for them to make it through despite it all.

not here to make friends best romance books

The latest in McAlister’s reality TV -themed Marry Me, Juliet series, this novel focuses on the Bachelor franchise-inspired series’ showrunner, Murray. The season soon falls into chaos as its onscreen villain, Lily, has eyes only for Murray. That’s further complicated since Lily and Murray share a very tumultuous past that promises to make things even messier than they already are.

the paradise problem best romance books

Another twisty take on the “marriage of convenience” trope, this one sees college friends Anna and West, a free-spirited artist and serious professor, respectively, faking a years-long, loving marriage. It's all so West can claim his hefty inheritance—as long as it doesn’t ruin everything between them first.

the partner plot best romance books

Whatever happened to the “it” couple from your high school? In this novel, Violet and Xavier don’t stay together after graduation, but when they run into each other in Las Vegas as adults, sparks fly, and one thing leads to another—and then they wake up the next morning with wedding rings on. Things quickly go from one-night-stand to marriage-of-convenience vibes once they realize the pairing can help both their careers, and it’s of course only a matter of time before they’re all-in on the rekindled relationship.

the prospects best romance books

It may come as a shock to learn that this is KT Hoffman’s debut novel since it captures all the perfectly frustrating magic of a great enemies-to-lovers romance. The one of two queer baseball-themed romances on this list, it tells the story of Gene, the first openly trans professional baseball player, and his longtime rival Luis, as the pair are suddenly forced into very close proximity after Luis is traded to Gene’s minor league team.

the takedown best romance books

Lily Chu’s latest will surely speak to anyone whose morning routine includes time to work through a handful of word games (guilty!). That’s protagonist Dee, and she’s even forged a rivalry with a fellow player, who just so happens to be a ridiculously attractive guy she’s soon forced to work alongside in a tricky workplace situation.

wild life best romance books

The title of this novel is no joke: It’s the story of cancer researcher Zoey, who ends up on aspiring hermit Davy’s island estate for a week. They spend that time learning to rely on each other to survive the island’s wilderness—and might end up throwing out their long-held plans for their lives in the process.

you should be so lucky best romance books

Cat Sebastian is responsible for writing some of the best queer historical romances in recent memory, and her latest is yet another home run (pun very much intended). It follows baseball star Eddie and journalist Mark, who’s assigned against his will to profile Eddie throughout a particularly frustrating baseball season. On top of their initial shared dissatisfaction with the setup, any possibility of romance is further stifled by the fact that the story is set in the 1960s, making it even more difficult for the pair to be openly in love, even as sparks begin to fly between them.

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Andrea Park is a Chicago-based writer and reporter with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the extended Kardashian-Jenner kingdom, early 2000s rom-coms and celebrity book club selections. She graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism in 2017 and has also written for W, Brides, Glamour, Women's Health, People and more.

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best new book of essays

This is a grid showing parts of nine book covers.

The Best Books of the Year (So Far)

The nonfiction and novels we can’t stop thinking about.

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By The New York Times Books Staff

  • Published May 24, 2024 Updated June 7, 2024

Fiction | Nonfiction

We’re almost halfway through 2024 and we at The Book Review have already written about hundreds of books. Some of those titles are good. Some are very good. And then there are the following.

We suspect that some (though certainly not all) will be top of mind when we publish our end-of-year, best-of lists. For more thoughts on what to read next, head to our book recommendation page .

The cover of “James” is black. The title is in yellow, and the author’s name is in white.

James , by Percival Everett

In this reworking of the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Jim, the enslaved man who accompanies Huck down the Mississippi River, is the narrator, and he recounts the classic tale in a language that is his own, with surprising details that reveal a far more resourceful, cunning and powerful character than we knew.

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