Essay Library

There are currently 100 essays in the Library – please come in and browse.

Use the ‘additional suggestions’ box to tell us if your favourite essay or author is missing, or comment boxes on each essay’s page to discuss the selection, including where you feel we should have selected another essay by the same author. We will expand the Essay Library in future, using suggestions and comments received. Example intro length, with link to more if needed.

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Why the Novel Matters?

by D.H. Lawrence

1925

Starting with the essayistic narcissism of meditating on his own writing hand, Lawrence then segues into why he writes novels:  the novelist’s wisdom being the only one, he beli...

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Why Read the Classics? (First printed in L’Espresso , 28 June 1981, and republished in The Literature Machine / The Uses of Literature)

by Italo Calvino

1981

Calvino lists several definitions of ‘the classics’, starting with the witty observation that they are those books adults usually claim they are ‘rereading’. His o...

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Why My Mother Was Frightened of Cats (Written 1956, published in The Essential Rebecca West: Uncollected Prose, 2010)

by Rebecca West

1956

Despite her affinity with feline independence, intelligence and elegance, West owned a cat only late in life and this arch but tender piece is the result. Full of gentle, ...

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What you can do with a hat… (In The Ongoing Moment, 2005, c.pp104-115)

by Geoff Dyer

2005

Dyer tells the story of the Great Depression by looking at photographs of men’s hats. An author of far more stand-alone essays than most, this is in fact an excerpt – a brillia...

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We Refugees (collected in Hannah Arendt: The Jew as Pariah)

by Hannah Arendt

1943

A diatribe carved out of such dry irony that the reader feels its case almost viscerally. After discussing the stigmatisation of the term ‘refugee’, Arendt then exam...

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Walking (First published posthumously in The Atlantic Monthly, June 1862)

by Henry David Thoreau

1862

Aiming ‘to speak a word for Nature’, this essay saunters and surveys, with playful lateral logic. Thoreau’s wide-ranging allusions raise the piece above the spontaneous musin...

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Urne Buriall: Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall, or, A Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk

by Sir Thomas Browne

1658

Prompted by 40-50 Roman burial urns unearthed in Norfolk, this five-part essay is mainly a survey of historical burial customs, ending with a moving, baroque meditation on mortalit...

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Tradition and the Individual Talent

by T.S. Eliot

1919

Three years before The Waste Land, Eliot defends and gives critical language to his methods. Written in the tone of one skewering punier contemporary thinkers, Eliot redefines tra...

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Toys (Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers)

by Roland Barthes

1973

More specifically ‘French toys’, this short essay remarks on the way French children are only supplied with playthings that are miniaturised items from the adult world, complet...

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Think/Classify (First published in Le Genre humain, 1982, and reprinted, in English, in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, 1997)

by Georges Perec

1982

This darkly humorous, postmodern essay of fragments by a popular OuLiPo author (whose day-job was as an archivist) starts with a ‘Summary’ of its eclectic subsections that suff...

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The Venetian Pariah (Le Séquestré de Venise, originally published in Les Temps Modernes, No.141, 1957, and reprinted in English in Situations, IV, trans. Benita Eisler, 1963)

by Jean-Paul Sartre

1957

De Beauvoir said this piece, at the aesthetic end of Sartre’s spectrum, was to be a book-length study of the Renaissance painter Tintoretto, foreshortened because Sartre disliked...

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The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (subtitled ‘Two Lectures delivered at the London Institution, February 4th and 11th, 1884’)

by John Ruskin

1884

The subject is literal: cloud phenomena Ruskin observed over the course of fifty years. This very peculiar essay begins by describing normal weather formations, then argues that th...

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