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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The Spectator No.50 [on the visit of the Iroquois]

by Joseph Addison

1711

Based on an idea ‘stolen’ from conversation with Jonathan Swift and prefiguring Swift’s later satire – a kind of inverted Gulliver’s Travels. The previous April, four...

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The Spectator No.454 [on roving in London]

by Richard Steele

1712

After an opening declaration on the pleasures of detached, essayistic observation, or ‘spectating’, Steele describes coming from Richmond for a 24-hour ramble through central L...

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The Spectator No. 538 [on gastronomic antipathies]

by Joseph Addison

1712

Demonstrating the English periodical essay’s origins in clubbable conversation, and recurring concern with ‘good taste’, Addison describes friends discussing their food avers...

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The Soccer War (Wojna futbolowa, 1978, and trans. William Brand, Granta Books, 1990)

by Ryszard Kapuscinski

1978

Kapuscinski presents himself as a hapless ‘amateur’ reporting to Warsaw on Latin American politics, for whom the 1969 war between Honduras and El Salvador, following an escalat...

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The Rights of History and the Rights of the Imagination (in Quarrel & Quandary)

by Cynthia Ozick

2000

An essay about how the ‘broken umbrella of contemporary relativism’ does not change the essentially different aims of history (that which is owed to reality) and imagination (p...

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The Rambler No.135 (on the folly of annual retreats to the country)

by Samuel Johnson

1751

Embarking from Aristotle’s observation that man is ‘an imitative being’, Johnson attacks the fashion for retiring to the country for the summer as either mindless imitation o...

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The Rambler No.117 (on the advantages of living in a garret)

by Samuel Johnson

1751

Referring to the bravery of bringing forward new ideas, Johnson makes the mock-heroic announcement that he is introducing new theories on ‘the garret’, mighty subject though it...

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The Privileges [of 10th April 1840] (Fragment inédit de Stendhal, 1861, and reprinted in Memoirs of an Egoist, trans. Andrew Brown, 2003)

by Stendhal

1861

Written at 57, two years before his death, this is the novelist’s fantasy wish-list in the format of an international treaty. Article 1 demands a good death, but, by Art...

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The Painter of Modern Life

by Charles Baudelaire

1863

A string of eleven mini-essays praising the artist Constantin Guys for seeking ‘the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life’ in almost journalistic watercolour sketches, ...

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The Myth of Sisyphus (Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942, and trans. Justin O’Brien, 1955)

by Albert Camus

1942

A long essay with four chapters (and an appendix on Kafka), asking whether the realisation that life is meaningless requires suicide. Camus defines absurdity as man’s rationality...

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The Metropolis and Mental Life (Die Großstadt und das Geistesleben, 1903, and trans. Kurt H. Wolff in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, 1950)

by Georg Simmel

1903

This precursor of urban sociology analyses metropolitan life’s impact on the personality. Throughout history, Simmel sees people resisting ‘being leveled down and worn out by a...

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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (The London Review of Books, 1983, and collected in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, 1985)

by Oliver Sacks

1983

A neurological case-study of ‘visual agnosia’, written in the accessible, urbane style that made the book a bestseller. The reader journeys through Dr Sacks’ bizarre examinat...

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The Little Virtues (Le piccolo virtu, written 1960, published in Nuovi Argomenti, and reprinted in her collection named after this essay, trans. Dick Davis, 1985)

by Natalia Ginzburg

1960

Written in the inclusive pronoun (‘We’), yet sometimes asserting singularity (‘Now I believe…’), Ginzburg lectures movingly on the error of teaching children little, risk...

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The Hedgehog and the Fox

by Isaiah Berlin

1953

Berlin takes the Ancient Greek fragment stating that ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’ as an entertaining basis for dividing thinkers into hedge...

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The English Mail-Coach (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine)

by Thomas De Quincey

1849

A long essay that gallops around de Quincey’s nostalgia for riding on the mail-coaches when an Oxford student, with a tour-de-force at its core where he narrates a near-collisi...

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The English Aristocracy (Encounter)

by Nancy Mitford

1955

It is unjust that this astute analysis is best known for the ‘tease’ of ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ linguistic demarcations between the upper middle class and those below. The essa...

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The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon, originally published in Die Revolution, 1852, and in English translation in 1869)

by Karl Marx

1852

The ‘18th Brumaire’ was the day in 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte made himself dictator, and here Marx compares this coup with that of Bonaparte’s nephew on 2 December 1851, a...

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The Eggman and the Fairies (First published in The Twentieth Century, July 1960, and collected in Escape from the Anthill, 1986)

by Hubert Butler

1960

Butler locates this essay in his own backyard – Tipperary’s hill of Slievenaman – and talks as if we are his neighbours, who already know local Irish legends well. H...

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The Duke in his Domain (The New Yorker)

by Truman Capote

1957

Capote’s profile of Marlon Brando is framed by an evening in a Kyoto hotel when Brando was filming on location. Aside from Peter-Selleresque racisms, the tone is beautifully judg...

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The Decay of Lying – An Observation (Intentions, 1891)

by Oscar Wilde

1891

A mock-Socratic dialogue, in which ‘Vivian’ reads ‘Cyril’ highlights from a longer article. Vivian argues that Art expresses only itself and serves no other end, while Life...

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The Cinema (Arts, New York, June 1926)

by Virginia Woolf

1926

A piece both prophetic and self-consciously of its time. Woolf begins disparagingly: the art of making movies is still too young and banal; we are savages knocking together saxopho...

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The Bitter Smell of Tulips (Still Life with a Bridle [Martwa natura z wędzidłem])

by Zbigniew Herbert

1993

An acclaimed Polish poet portrays the ‘tulipomania’ that seized the Netherlands in the seventeenth century as exemplary of all ‘follies in the sanctuaries of reason’. ...

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The Assassination of Paris (People and Places, 1985, and reprinted in Paris and Elsewhere, ed. David Gilmour, 1998)

by Richard Cobb

1985

Not so much a book review as a book abridgement, the historian Richard Cobb adds his own passionate style and personal observations to the, presumably drier, Yale research of one P...

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The Art of Donald McGill

by George Orwell

1941

Orwell was one of the first critics to take popular culture seriously – in this case, British seaside postcards showing vulgar, illustrated jokes (produced by McGill). H...

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The Anger of the Damned (written October 2001, and reprinted in Striking Terror: America’s New War, 2002, trans. Mary Isin)

by Orhan Pamuk

2002

An example of how the personal essay form can be used to say something both more simple and profound than any amount of in-depth commentary by political journalists. Start...

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Supplementary Observations on the Voyage of Bougainville, or, A dialogue between A and B on the inexpediency of attaching moral ideas to certain physical actions which have nothing to do with them   

by Denis Diderot

1772

(‘Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, ou dialogue entre A et B sur l'inconvénient d'attacher des idées morales à certaines actions physiques qui n'en comportent pas’) ...

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Stable/Unstable (Originally published in the Turin paper La Stampa, and in English in Other People’s Trades, trans. Raymond Rosenthal, 1989)

by Primo Levi

1989

An elegant, short essay by Levi the scientist, rather than Levi the Auschwitz survivor, which nonetheless turns to subtle metaphor at the end and so speaks to the stable/unstable n...

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Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity (1982, reprinted in Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985)

by Adrienne Rich

1982

Wrenched from Rich’s multiple identities (a Jewish lesbian ‘raised to be a heterosexual gentile’), this is prose elaboration upon one line of her early poetry. It de...

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Some Blind Alleys: A Letter (Originally published in French in La tentation d’exister, 1956, and in English translation in The Temptation to Exist, 1968 and 1987 Quartet edition with an introduction by Susan Sontag)

by E.M. Cioran

1956

A Romanian intellectual discourages an aspiring author. Intending to shock, Cioran spews vitriol over the twentieth century addiction to confessional, therapeutic self-expression, ...

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Six to Eight Black Men (collected in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, 2004, and in Holidays on Ice, 1997 and 2008)

by David Sedaris

1997

America’s most popular living essayist, Sedaris begins this hilarious piece on cultural idiosyncrasies with the small-talk he makes in new places. One of his regular ope...

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Reflections on Ghandi

by George Orwell

1949

Inspired by Gandhi’s autobiography, this is one great ethical thinker reflecting on another. Orwell measures Gandhi in accessible terms based on biographical detail, then moves o...

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On Tickling (in On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life)

by Adam Phillips

1993

In this compact essay, which remains an unanswered enquiry more than most ‘essais’, an esteemed analyst of children wonders that the childhood experience of being tickled by a ...

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On Thinking for Yourself (Parerga and Paralipomena: Kleine philosophische Schriften, 1851)

by Arthur Schopenhauer

1851

A sardonic essay in twelve short aphoristic sections, in which Schopenhauer emphasizes the differences between scholars and thinkers. Ultimately it is only our own ideas t...

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On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (First published in Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen, 1874, and reprinted in Untimely Meditations, 1997, ed. Daniel Breazeale and trans. R.J. Hollingdale)

by Friedrich Nietzsche

1874

Germany’s first modern essayist attacks his culture’s ‘oversaturation’ in historicism and Hegel in a ‘treatise’ of engaging playfulness – for example, the comparison ...

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On the Use of Reason by Irrational Animals (Moralia, vol.12, 46-127 as date unknown)

by Plutarch

127

Plutarch uses Homer’s Odysseus to dramatize a first-century debate about consciousness and character. Odysseus is trying to get his compatriots turned back from pigs into men by ...

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On the Subjection of Women (1860-1, published 1869)

by John Stuart Mill

1869

Possibly co-authored by his wife Harriet Taylor Mill, this is a boat-rocking attack on the socio-legal inequalities imposed on Victorian women. The argument aims not solely to bene...

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On the Pleasure of Hating (The Plain Speaker)

by William Hazlitt

1826

Hazlitt’s antipathy for a spider prompts reflection on how we can suppress violent actions but not instincts. This quickly escalates to an attack on the religious pretexts for wa...

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On the Lame (Book III, Essay 11, 1580-95)

by Michel de Montaigne

1595

An essay that combines Montaigne’s review of what it was like to have sex with a lame woman with the profound theme of mankind’s tendency to self-deception. It begins,...

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On the Cannibals (Book I, Essay 31, 1580-95)

by Michel de Montaigne

1595

Montaigne’s relativism recognizes that ‘every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to’; if the Tupinambá tribesmen of Brazil are ‘savages’, so are European ...

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On Poetry and Our Relish for the Beauties of Nature (Titled ‘Artificial Taste’ in Monthly Magazine, April 1797, and reprinted under the present title in her Posthumous Works, ed. William Godwin, 1798)

by Mary Wollstonecraft

1797

A year before Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, Wollstonecraft defines the Romantic Poet. Beginning like a periodical piece, laughing at how city people go to the country but don...

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On Old Age (De Senectute)

by Cicero

-45

The 84-year-old author, using Marcus Cato as narrator, and playing wittily with the allowances made for elderly garrulity and digression, advises us to trust Nature’s wisdom, ada...

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On Marionette Theatre

by Heinrich Von Kleist

1810

Dramatised as a dialogue between friends on a park bench in 1801, this essay is about far more than puppets, though they are discussed with more seriousness than a mere starting-po...

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On Lying Fallow: An Aspect of Leisure (International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Vol. 6, 1977)

by Masud Khan

1977

A clinical paper that reads as an elegant essay despite its professional vocabulary, relevant to every writer or artist who claims that staring out the window is working. ...

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On Keeping a Notebook (1966, and collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968)

by Joan Didion

1966

Full of puzzlement at cryptic jottings in her old notebooks, and the film-clip memories they eventually trigger, Didion’s essay is a meditation on modern consciousness, how to ha...

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On Clemency (De Clementia, 56AD, and reprinted with English translation and full scholarly paraphernalia in OUP edition, ed. Susanna Braund, 2009 )

by Lucius Annaeus Seneca - Seneca The Younger

56

Seneca’s profound understanding of the psychology of State terror makes this more than standard advice literature, going beyond ‘clemency’ strictly defined into a...

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On Being an American (Prejudices, Third Series)

by H.L. Mencken

1922

The ‘Sage of Baltimore’ begins with hyperbolic condemnation of the American government, courts, foreign policy and people. Yet unlike ‘fugitive Young Intellectuals’, he ask...

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Of Superstition (Essay XVII, 1625 edition)

by Francis Bacon

1625

A radical comparison (for its time) between the relative evils of atheism and zealous, materialistic, bigoted, petty religion (‘superstition’). Bacon finds in favour...

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Of Going a Journey (January 1822, New Monthly Magazine, and reprinted in Table Talk, Vol. II)

by William Hazlitt

1822

This commences with bald Romanticism – declaring the pleasure of a solitary tromp through nature – but then qualifies itself. Unlike Coleridge, the prickly Hazlitt cannot walk ...

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Of Friendship (Essay XXVII, 1625 edition)

by Francis Bacon

1625

Beginning with friendship’s antithesis, the hermit, Bacon warns that a life amid a crowd of acquaintance can be just as empty of true friendship. He exults in the comfor...

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Notes on Camp (The Partisan Review, and collected in Against Interpretation)

by Susan Sontag

1964

Sontag modestly called this, her most influential essay, ‘jottings’ because it comprises numbered points, but it is certainly an essay in the experimental sense: testing what i...

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My Confession (Partisan Review)

by Mary McCarthy

1954

McCarthy mocks the ‘true confessions of reformed Communists’, before describing her own mock-heroic journey from Vassar college girl to fervent Trotskyite. Though some...

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My Books (In two parts: The Literary Examiner, 5 and 12 July 1823)

by Leigh Hunt

1823

(Not to be confused with Hunt’s essay-pair also titled 'My Books' in The New Monthly Magazine, September and October 1825) Hunt reminisces in Italy about his cozy English stu...

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Mourning and Melancholia (Trauer und Melancholie written 1915, published as scientific paper 1917)

by Sigmund Freud

1917

In this milestone in psychoanalytical thought Freud contrasts ‘normal’ mourning (not only for a loved-one’s death, though note the essay’s date, but also for lost ideals) t...

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Miles Apart (1961, and collected in Profiles, ed. Ernie Eban, 1990)

by Kenneth Tynan

1961

This profile of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis begins with musical history and critique, then describes ‘Miles in the flesh’: his extreme egotism and disdain for the British, yet t...

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Less Than One (1976, reprinted in his eponymous collection of essays)

by Joseph Brodsky

1976

A Russian memoir in English that refuses the usual life-story linearity or hierarchies: ‘To get a low grade, to operate a milling machine, to be beaten up at an interrogation, or...

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Leonardo da Vinci

by Walter Pater

1869

A biographical and critical essay of a style that would be considered unacceptably impressionistic and rhapsodic today, but which retains the ‘air of truth’ despite all the int...

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Laughter (first collected in And Even Now)

by Max Beerbohm

1920

After a charmingly self-deprecating start, Beerbohm’s very British difficulties coping with theory and philosophy lead him to achieve what Bergson could not: an essay on laughter...

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Junkspace (Collected in S, M, L, XL, 1995, and also reprinted in October, Spring 2002)

by Rem Koolhaas

1995

Despite an early definition (‘If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junk-Space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet.’), this essay is as disorient...

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J.M. Synge and the Ireland of His Time (Written 1910, published 1911)

by W.B. Yeats

1911

Yeats’ tribute to his dead friend opens dramatically with the riots that greeted Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. Yeats argues against picturesque, trivial or declamatory...

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Human Personality (La Personnalité humaine, le juste et l’injuste, 1943, published posthumously in La Table Ronde, December 1950, and in English as ‘The Fallacy of Human Rights’ in The Twentieth Century, 1959. Reprinted in Selected Essays: 1934-43, trans. Richard Rees)

by Simone Weil

1943

Distinguishing between the soul’s cry ‘Why am I being hurt?’ and the superficial cry ‘Why has somebody else got more than I have?’, Weil argues that the best society is a...

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How To Write About Africa (Granta 92, The View From Africa)

by Binyavanga Wainaina

2005

Originating in a fiercely satirical protest sent by a Kenyan-born author to the editors of Granta, this essay has turned Wainaina into the unofficial ‘censor’ of white writing...

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Finding (Antaeus, and reprinted in The Geography of the Imagination, 1981)

by Guy Davenport

1981

A critic writes with tenderness about his Appalachian childhood Sundays spent foraging with his father for Native American arrowheads. He then made no connection between t...

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Field (1971, reprinted in About Looking, 1980, and Selected Essays ed. Geoff Dyer, 2001)

by John Berger

1971

An essay resisting paraphrase as it attempts to define an experience ‘seldom referred to only because it is nameless’. It begins with poetic description of how a momen...

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Experience

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

1844

Emerson finds himself standing halfway up some stairs; an image of personal disorientation in middle age and an allegory for Life. He writes with wit and candour about procrastinat...

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Essay on Epitaphs (The Friend)

by William Wordsworth

1810

The essay in which Wordsworth uttered the Romantic Biographer’s credo: that commemoration is ‘truth hallowed by love’, truth ‘of the highest order’, even if it glosses ov...

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E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction (Written 1990, published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993, and reprinted in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, 1997)

by David Foster Wallace

1993

The most intellectual yet unpretentious essay on the cultural impact of television – a crater so huge we forget we stand in it. Foster Wallace begins with a Walter Benjaminesque ...

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Down With Dons (The New Review, Vol. 1, No.10)

by John Carey

1975

An Oxford don considers what his colleagues might look like, collectively, to a ‘non-don’, in terms of arrogance, bumptiousness, insolence, economic parasitism, hypocritical li...

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Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in my Mind (New Yorker, and reprinted in The Fire Next Time)

by James Baldwin

1963

Baldwin wrote this long essay amidst the Civil Rights Movement, but it speaks forcefully to post-9/11 preoccupations. Structured around two autobiographical passages – h...

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Discourse on Inequality (Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes, or ‘The Second Discourse’, written 1754, published 1755)

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

1754

Answering the Academy of Dijon’s question ‘What is the origin of inequality among men, and whether it is authorized by the natural Law’, this essay acknowledges natural physi...

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Days of Reading (La Renaissance latine)

by Marcel Proust

1905

Note: Another Proust essay of the same title, designated ‘Days of Reading II’ by Penguin Classics, was published in Le Figaro in 1907; the latter mostly concerns the marve...

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Darwin’s Sea Change, or Five Years at the Captain’s Table (Originally written for Natural History Magazine and collected in Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural His History, 1978)

by Stephen Jay Gould

1978

Gould was an influential evolutionary biologist interested in Darwin’s purposeless, materialistic worldview as an answer to man’s ongoing cosmic arrogance. This essay, however,...

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Conversation about Dante (Written sometime during 1933-5 but not published until 1967. Trans. by Clarence Brown and Robert Hughes as ‘Talking about Dante’ in Delos, no.6, 1971, and collected in Mandelstam: Selected Essays, ed. Sidney Monas.)

by Osip Mandelstam

1933

Composed under Stalinist persecution, this is a statement of Mandelstam’s own poetics and of Dante viewed through a Russian lens: ‘If the halls of the Hermitage should suddenly...

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Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland, first published in French in 1834 and then in censored German the following year. Recent English edition published by CUP, ed. Terry Pinkard, 2007)

by Heinrich Heine

1834

An exiled poet who knew the leading thinkers of his generation discusses the subject as labeled on the tin, though with more idiosyncrasy and a great deal more irony than that labe...

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Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects

by Thomas Paine

1776

‘It would be difficult to name any human composition which has had an effect at once so instant, so extended and so lasting…’ (G.M.Trevelyan). This anonymous pamphlet’s rad...

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Circles

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

1841

Water’s concentric circles are ‘the highest emblem’ in the world’s ‘cipher’ since all life is, read rightly, cyclical. An affirmative essay, it contains one huge doubt:...

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Can the Devil be Saved? (Modernity on Endless Trial, 1990)

by Leszek Kolakowski

1990

The title catchily paraphrases: ‘Can the cosmic and historical drama be interpreted as a movement towards the ultimate reconciliation of all things?’ This is not simpl...

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Biathanatos (First published under the title ‘John Donne, Biathanatos’, Sur no.159, January 1948, and reprinted in Otras inquisiciones)

by Jorge Luis Borges

1948

Biathanatos is a treatise by the poet John Donne with the subtitle ‘That Self-homicide is not so Naturally Sin that it may never be otherwise’. Borges, following De Quince...

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At Table and In Bed (1971, and reprinted in Convergences, trans. Helen Lane, 1987)

by Octavio Paz

1971

Paz essays usually make historical approaches, but here he approaches the United States as subject through a Utopia, that of Fourier, involving perspectives of ‘Erotics and Gastr...

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An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (Beantwortung der Frage: ‘Was ist Aufklärung?’ 1784, and available in Penguin Great Ideas Series, No.68, translated by H.B. Nisbet)

by Immanuel Kant

1784

A prototype for bloggers philosophizing in their pyjamas, Kant’s influential essay responded to a question posed to ‘the public’ in a Berlin journal. Its first sent...

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An American in London (Partisan Review, 1949, and collected in the Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays)

by Cyril Connolly

1949

Connolly uses a fictional-hypothetical character, a young American novelist he calls Bisbee, to view post-war London and its ‘shabby’ yet seductive literary world through cold,...

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An Account of My Hut (Hojoki)

by Kamo No Chomei

1212

The pre-eminent example of Japanese ‘recluse literature’ and part of the ‘zuihitsu’ genre (personal essays and prose fragments, usually responding to the writer’s surro...

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A Plea for Gas Lamps (1878, collected in Virginibus Puerisque, 1881)

by Robert Louis Stevenson

1878

A well-wrought ‘illumination’ on how our material environment determines culture, habits and happiness. Stevenson re-imagines the city before public lighting, each man...

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A Piece of Chalk

by G.K. Chesterton

1908

Chesterton decides to sketch on the Sussex downs, prompting a lightly comic encounter with a housekeeper about obtaining brown paper and a digression on pocket contents. H...

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A Modest Proposal for Preventing Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public

by Jonathan Swift

1729

This is an anti-colonialist satire, in the style of Juvenal or Tertullian, sarcastically suggesting that the solution to Irish poverty is for the Catholics to sell their children a...

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A Letter (Ein Brief, 1902, collected in The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings, ed. John Banville, trans. Joel Rotenberg, 2005)

by Hugo Von Hofmannsthal

1902

While clearly fictional – this ‘letter’ purports to be sent in 1603 from the English Lord Chandos to Francis Bacon – this nonetheless merits categorization as an essay beca...

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A Defence of Poetry (Written 1821, first published posthumously in Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, ed. Mary Shelley, 1840)

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

1821

Written in answer to his friend Thomas Love Peacock’s essay ‘The Four Ages of Poetry’ (1820), this begins as a treatise of ‘accurate philosophy’ but, aptly, evolves into ...

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A Chapter on Ears (London Magazine, March 1821, and reprinted in Elia, 1823)

by Charles Lamb

1821

After the most extreme example of Lamb’s periphrastic, ironic, Sternean style – ‘those exterior twin appendages, hanging ornaments and (architecturally speaking) handsome vol...

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A Berlin Chronicle (1932, but published only in 1970, from an incomplete manuscript)

by Walter Benjamin

1932

To test the power and processes of memory, Benjamin recollects splinters of his childhood and time as a young, pre-First World War revolutionary. But space, the depopulate...

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