10 Essay Collections for Can’t-Concentrate Readers

Rescue Reading for Troubled Times Part 5

This week’s rescue reading is suggested essay collections. Don’t worry, none of them will feel like homework. I’ve cast a wide net and there’s something for everyone with travel writers, food writers, ground-breakers, satirists, novelists and quiet observers.

If this doesn’t sound right for you try last week’s Men’s Mixed Bag of Male Short Story Writers, 10 female Australian short story writers you should read or 20th Century female short story writers.

The Details – On love, death and reading by Tegan Bennett Daylight, Scribner, 2020

And that’s exactly what this beautiful book of essays is about. She’s writing as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a reader and a writer and she’s so generous with us in what she shares whether it’s her mother’s last days, her love of Helen Garner or George Saunders or childbirth-related vaginal issues.

Her eloquence and intelligence are such a pleasure to read. There was no snacking on these essays. I devoured them in two nights. This one was also on my August bedside bookstack.

True Stories by Helen Garner, Text Publishing, 1996

This collection gathers together pieces she has written from over 25 years. The subject matter jumps from giving birth to visiting a morgue, to a school dance. But it doesn’t really matter what she writes about, it all turns to gold in her hands. I think this is her true gift, the ability to find moments we all recognise and hold them still for long enough to take in the complete picture.

She’s a joy to read and these pieces are short and thus perfect for rescue reading. I also love the inscription in my second-hand copy of this book: Christina, surround yourself with good friends, good music and good books!! Love Julie.

Her collection Everywhere I Look would be another good rescue reading recommendation.

The New Journalism edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson, Picador, 1975

This collection is for anyone interested in how the essays and non-fiction we read today came to be such a varied bunch. New journalism was a step in the direction of creative non-fiction, using literary techniques to capture real events. There’s an extract from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as well as seminal pieces by Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Bloomsbury, 2000

It doesn’t matter how you feel about his food shows, the late Anthony Bourdain could write. These essays are a great read – pacy and perfect if you’re looking for something speedy but satisfying.

This book was like the New Journalism moment for food writing. Here was a chef-written page turner about sex, drugs and haute cuisine. He was unconventional and an insider and I’m glad I now know not to order the seafood special on a Sunday.

The Global Soul by Pico Iyer, Bloomsbury, 2000

I’m a big Pico Iyer fan. He’s my favourite travel writer. I think he has such gentle, generous and intelligent observations of the world and his restlessness and desire to seek out corners of the world is very satisfying for one’s own global curiosity.

This collection is subtitled jetlag, shopping malls and the search for home. It’s an accurate one-liner for what you’ll get in this collection.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Abacus, 2000

Actually, I could just as easily list any of his other collections. These are perfect if you’re looking for something lighter. They’re ridiculous, funny and short.

David Sedaris is a humourist who works his comic magic on ordinary moments. His observations and wit will be a welcome relief from the pandemic plod.

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, Faber, 2016

I’ve been dipping in and out of these pieces and get something completely different every time. Politics, photography, travel, history and literature are just some of the topics Teju Cole covers.

So far, I’ve gone from Kenyan coastal folklore to the poetry of Derek Walcott, portrait photography and drones. His curiosity and knowledge blend seemingly disparate ideas so that you’re never quite sure where he’ll lead you until you’re there.

This is the story of a happy marriage by Ann Patchett, Bloomsbury, 2013

It seems Ann Patchett can write non-fiction with just as much talent and flair as she does her fiction. This collection is definitely one for writers and readers who like to get the personal behind-the-scenes tour of a writer’s ideas and life. There are essays on how she wrote her first novel, book tours, opening an independent book shop and her obsession with opera which led to her novel Bel Canto.

Columbus’ Blindness and Other Essays edited by Cassandra Pybus, University of Queensland Press, 1994

This collection was my introduction to essays as a form to be read and enjoyed. As a writer, this was my first taste of essays beyond the high school classroom.

The titular essay has stayed with me all these years. It is written by that master of sentence-level perfection; Delia Falconer. It lays a period of unexplained illness that Christopher Columbus had on the return of his second journey against her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Both are treated with her usual eloquence and it just blew my mind that such beauty was possible in an essay.

Best Australian Essays, Black Inc, 1998 – 2018

Obviously, a collection that has already curated the best of a bunch over a year should be added to the rescue reading list. The variety of topic, style and tone will keep things interesting and the choice of twenty years’ worth of back catalogue means you’ll always be covering new ground.

Some of these may be out of print or hard to find. You can find the closest library copy of a book, anywhere in the world, through world cat.

If you enjoyed this, keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen and Facebook or subscribe to my newsletter below for blog updates.  

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Rescue reading for troubled times

Suggested reading for when you can’t concentrate on anything.

Who can read a book right now? It’s so hard to concentrate on anything or get anything done. It’s hard to scan beyond restrictions and stats of infections, hospitalisations and deaths, a daily loop with minor variations.

And reading, which used to be a joy, seems like hard work for a concentration span which has been whittled by anxiety and circumstance. Also, hard work for tired eyes that stare at screens too many hours a day.

But there is still comfort, solace and reassurance to be found in the written word. There’s a quietness there for your mind to melt into that you won’t get from streaming a series or trawling a feed. There’s food for your soul.

So here are my reading rescue suggestions. Firstly, I’m suggesting paper as something tactile and familiar and to delineate it from the screens of our working days. Secondly, I’m suggesting short forms. The idea is to replenish those ravaged inner reserves any way we can.

Short stories

The right short story can take you away and deliver you back, (perhaps even slightly changed) in the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. Feel the satisfaction of starting and finishing something. Feel the relief of genuine distraction and the space to make your own connection with what’s on the page. I’ll be posting a series of suggested anthologies to read over the next weeks.

Poetry

Something else which can be enjoyed in short bursts and picked up and put down again for intervals. Don’t make it hard for yourself. Pick up what you have on the shelf, what you know from studying at school, or something that’s been recommended.

An old favourite

Take a favourite book from your shelf, one that feels like a best friend and is therefore no effort at all, despite the time between sittings. Read it at whatever pace you want because you know what’s coming anyway. Abandon without any hard feelings. Sometimes it’s just nice to re-connect with familiar words.

Old diaries and letters

Pick out an entry/letterl at random. You probably won’t remember anything that’s mentioned. You may be impressed by your turn of phrase or kind of mortified. If you’re like me, you’ll often be left feeling sad about the passing of time and for your former self without knowing exactly why. But look at that, half an hour just passed and you were somewhere else altogether.

Collections

Collections of letters, diaries or essays are all great for their pick-up and put-downability. They also offer diversity in subjects and styles, so you get the feeling of reading widely even though it’s all from the same source.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting suggested anthologies and collections for short reading. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen or subscribe to my newsletter below for updates.  

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