The Art of the Essay | Reader’s Shelf | October 1, 2012

Essay collections are the nonfiction counterpart to short story anthologies. They allow readers to sample an author’s philosophy, see the purity of writing produced by the demands of compression, and savor a wide range of subjects and concerns. In this selection of new and classic collections, everyone from an iconic sf author to a past First Lady offer their particular take on the world.

William Gibson, best known for cyberpunk classics such as Neuromancer, gathers close to 30 years of nonfiction writing into Distrust That Particular Flavor (Berkley. 2012. ISBN 9780425252994. pap. $16), adding to each previously published piece a short epilog that explains his thinking at the time the essay was composed. The result is a grand collage of nonfiction forms, ranging from a travel piece on Singapore that explores that city-state’s contradictory mix of totalitarian authority and a technology-savvy society, to an essay on George Orwell and our modern movement toward a complete lack of privacy. Getting lost in Gibson’s nonfiction, a gripping mix of image, lyricism, philosophy, and startling clarity, is somewhat akin to reading his fiction—it is a dazzling and immersive prospect.

In I Feel Bad About My Neck (Vintage: Random. 2008. ISBN 9780307276827. pap. $14), the late Nora Ephron writes about distinctly female concerns: her neck and its truth-telling properties, the chaos and insistent demands of a pocketbook, the deeper meaning of cookbooks, the hourly and financial toll of looking presentable (and largely past–boyfriend proof), and the shifting conversations of parenting (from you are not getting a tiara to using the tiara as a bargaining chip). She also includes a flash-biography and a list of Nora aphorisms. As expected from the writer of When Harry Met Sally and the writer and director of Julie & Julia and You’ve Got Mail, these 15 intimate, confessional, and witty essays are as warm, supportive, and charming as having lunch with your funniest and smartest friends.

Readers might best know Jonathan Franzen for his landmark novels, The Corrections and Freedom, but he also writes nonfiction in various guises. The 21 sharp yet luminous pieces included in Farther Away: Essays (Farrar. 2012. ISBN 9780374153571. $26) illustrate his broad approach. Pieces include a graduation address on pain, connection, and the importance of authentic interaction, a lecture on autobiographical fiction that largely involves The Corrections, a eulogy for David Foster Wallace, a travel piece in which Franzen merges birding, Robinson Crusoe, and his desperate grief over Wallace’s suicide, and a simply brilliant brief essay that conflates a normal summer childhood with momentous human ­achievement.

In Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town (Algonquin. 2010. ISBN 9781565126183. $21.95), Susan Hand Shetterly explores the various wilderness landscapes she has called home. After living for eight years in New York City, where she felt as if she always belonged somewhere else, her family moved a bit north, and Shetterly finally found her place—taking to the fields around her Connecticut home as if she had lived her whole life in Thoreau’s shadow. In Maine, newly married and with a young son, she lived an almost 19th-century life, with a subsistence garden, kerosene lamps, and an outhouse. Shetterly’s lyrical and meditative style seamlessly moves readers from one hushed state of observation to another. From the death of a buck to encounters with snakes, each essay is a small gem of nature writing.

Novelist Rick Moody is also an accomplished musician (with a few albums to prove it). He grew up in a musical family, and the resulting background of line, note, pattern, and rhythm has become a large part of his aesthetic. On Celestial Music (Little, Brown. 2012. ISBN 9780316105217. pap. $15.99) merges Moody’s novelistic style with his musical interests and offers a thoughtful and expansive critique of an eclectic range of sounds. In his title essay, the author is musing and philosophical as he travels from Otis Redding and considerations of what might be in God’s jukebox to a meditation on his own death. Whether focused on the Lounge Lizards, Wilco, or the Brooklyn Record Club, these pieces are intimate, sharp, and infused with humor.

Born out of the NPR project, here edited by Jay Allison and Daniel Gediman, that allows anyone to archive an essay on their personal credo, This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of remarkable men and women (Holt. 2007. ISBN 9780805086584. pap. $15) collects 80 essays based on that simple yet profound prompt. Some of the pieces are by well-known figures: Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Carl Sandburg. Yet many are contributed by ordinary people who have taken the time to probe their fundamental beliefs: everyone deserves flowers on their grave, a bit of outrage is a good thing, and there is a core value to creativity. Each essay ends with a short biography; the volume concludes with a history of the series, begun in the late 1940s and first hosted by Edward R. Murrow.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at