These timeless essays and nonfiction are filled with wisdom by great writers. Many of these reads are personal and go outside the writer’s genres or what they’re best known for writing. These are some of the best essays and nonfiction I have ever read.
Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being by Henning Mankell
Only a person with rich, adventurous, and diverse experiences; a person who has traveled widely; a person with the time to think and read deeply about the world could have written this hybrid of essay and memoir.
The stories are comprised of sixty-seven short vignettes that are both profound and revealing. Mankell covers ancient cave paintings, running off to Paris at sixteen, reading books in Greece to understand where he came from, Pina Bausch, a church buried in sand, Africanizing Aristophanes in war-torn Mozambique, nuclear waste, and I could go on and on.
Mankell wrote Quicksand after being diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps it took a person who is dying to write so well about life and being human. His soul shines throughout these wonderful and timeless essays to the world.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
A timeless essay brimming with intellect, as Woolf explores women and writing and sexism in her generation. Any lover of literature and books would enjoy this.
My favorite part of A Room of One’s Own was the section where Woolf discusses how the best mind is an androgynous mind. She writes: “In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female… The androgynous mind is resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”
I refer to this often when I’m reading and whether particular writers have an androgynous mind. Woolf certainly had one. This is a benchmark essay for woman and feminists, but also any person with an androgynous mind.
It is a five-hour listen on Audible and is read by Juliet Stevenson, who is one of the finest narrators of Audible books. This might be my favorite and the best essay I have ever read.
The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction 1909-1959
Chandler is antisocial, a curmudgeon, powerful, sensitive, entertaining, and these personality traits are abundent in his letters, nonfiction, and personal relationships.
What stood out most to me is Chandler’s intelligence and high integrity when he engaged with and stood up to studios, publishers, writers, and everyone else. These high standards, I believe, sometimes led to his loneliness, rootlessness, and drinking.
I loved that he and I are often on the same page concerning writing and writers, particularly his respect for Orwell, Somerset Maugham, Fitzgerald, and Dashiell Hammett. Although, Chandler has plenty of criticism for everyone.
This is an insightful and entertaining delve into a writer’s mind.
The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham
A prolific writer and thinker, Somerset Maugham sums up his vision of life in this wise and candid memoir. I now know why Orwell said this about Maugham: “The modern writer who has influenced me the most.”
In The Summing Up he ruminates about life, literature, philosophy, and avoids anything personal. Maugham’s ability to write in difference genres is special. Ashenden, a collection of spy stories, is among the finest spy fiction I’ve read. Of course, he’s best known for his epic novels Of Human Bondage and The Razer’s Edge, and his expansive mind is evident in the book.
I especially enjoyed Maugham opening up about his literary life and process. His wisdom and androgynous mind shines throughout this timeless summing up of his writing life.
The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin explores diverse and eclectic subjects from writers to women’s shoes. But what struck me the most is her literary criticism and how personal she is at times.
Le Guin is a creative force and her thoughts on the arts and writing are engaging, multifaceted, and deep. She has plenty to say the craft of writing as well as feminism and society.
Her award-winning science fiction are what Le Guin is best known for writing, but The Wave in the Mind is timeless nonfiction.
Why I Write by George Orwell
I love Orwell’s four reasons for writing outlined in this essay. His timeless nonfiction has changed my writing and personal awareness. I’m in good company because many writers and journalists adhere to Orwell as a model of truth telling. I was recently listening to Rebecca Solnit talk about this book’s reasons for writing as the reason’s she writes.
“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues….” Orwell writes as well as “By revolution we become more ourselves, not less.”
I don’t want to give away the four reasons; you should read this, and Orwell goes into the detail in explaining his beliefs. When you finish this, it’s hard to get it out of your head, and there’s a good chance you will adopt his reasons as your own.
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño
There was a tremendous amount of energy for South American literature when I was in college in the 1980s. My professor’s were huge fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes to name a few.
I jumped on the South American literature bandwagon and enthusiastically spent many a late evening absorbed into their magic realism and engrossing and original tales.
I hadn’t read a South American writer for quite some time when a friend introduced me to the novels of Roberto Bolano. I learned how prolific a writer Bolano is in Between Parentheses, and it opened me up to Bolano’s timeless nonfiction, journalism, and essays.
This collection includes fabulous vignettes and essays on literature, writers, politics, Chile, Bolano’s life and worldview. It’s a constant stream of humor, opinions, and culture communicated through a powerful voice.
Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World by Paul Bowles
Bowles takes you into the reality of a world that most of us can only imagine. An intrepid wanderer Bowles lived in Morocco for many years. Although an oddity in his travels in North Africa, he doesn’t appear out of place; the acceptance of this anglo-American is perhaps due to his open demeanor, polite nature, and sophistication.
He does get lost and has misunderstandings like any traveler, but he’s skillful in smoothing issues over. These essays remain timeless, and he captures the people of Morocco and North Africa as well as any westerner, although Orwell diaries are an excellent window into Morocco ten years earlier.
The prose is crisp and descriptive: “Immediately when you arrive in Sahara, for the first or the tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails outside the towns; and within, even in busy places like the markets, there is a hushed quality in the air, as if the quiet were a conscious force which, resenting the intrusion of sound, minimizes and disperses sound straightaway.”
One of my favorite quotes is “Security is a false god; begin making sacrifices to it and you are lost.”
Bowles’s was an accomplished musician, and he delves deeply into the indiginous music, beats, and rhythms he makes us feel when he describes them back to us.
The essay titles are “Fish Traps and Private Business” (Ceylon); “Africa Minor” (North Africa); “Noted Mailed at Nagercoil” (South India); “Mustapha and His Friends” (North Africa); “A Man Must Not Be Very Moslem” (Istanbul); “The Rif, to Music” (Morocco); “Baptism of Solitude” (Algeria); “All Parrots Speak” (Polypatrial); and “The Route to Tassemist” (Morocco) give you a sense this will likely be a previously unexplored journey for more readers. It’s the next best thing to being there.
The authenticity and originality of Bowles travel writing makes “Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World” some of the most vivid essays I have ready.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem By Joan Didion
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion’s debut publication into the literary world, captures 1960’s America, particularly California.
The essays remain fresh and vibrant as if with a few changes they could have been written today. They’re an example of the “new journalism,” which pushes the boundaries of reporting. In Didion’s capable hands, it’s really about adding her internal understanding as well as flavor to the stories. She doesn’t fictionalize them, though she knows how to tell a story that keep you turning the page and wanting more. She’s a fine fiction writer, which many journalist’s struggle with; if you read many excellent journalist’s fiction, it’s often competent, but without the skill to create an imaginary world that lives on it’s own merits.
Here’s an example and there are many that show off Didion’s literary flair: “It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying onceself Cathy in “Wuthering Heights” with one’s head in a Food Fair bag.”
The collection of the 20 pieces in Slouching toward Bethlehem has stood the test of time and are considered some of the best essays and nonfiction written in the past fifty years.
“The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.” ― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Arguably Essays by Christopher Hitchens
One great journalists of our time, Christopher Hitchens creative output was prolific and controversial. You’ll find an abundance of evidence of is brilliance in this eight-hundred page compilation of his forty years in journalism. I particularly enjoyed Hitchen’s book reviews and essays about Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, W. Somerset Maugham, Anthony Powell, and Mark Twain.
Other highlights were Hitchen’s insightful views on Jefferson’s and Washington’s strict interpretation in the separation of church and state. Mr. Hitchens is sorely missed. He was one of the best essayists of the last fifty years.
This books covers a range of topics including religion (he was not a fan), culture, philosophy, politics, media, and much more in this eclectic mix of writing by a man who never shied away from an argument.
Hitchens has written some of the best essays and nonfiction in the past thirty years.
I’ll be adding more of the best essays and nonfiction by great writers as I discover them.
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