Tag Archives: journalism

An Essay A Day

Today’s post is a guest article from Anna, who currently works in the Ready Reference telephone unit Sheila schooled us about in her most recent post. You’ll be seeing Anna’s articles from time to time as her time permits.

I’m here to admit something. I’m not much of a non-fiction reader.

I’ve tried, honestly, time and again, but I always seem to give up after a few chapters. And it’s not that I lack the interest–far from it. I’m fascinated by a plethora of subjects, from psychological disorders, to early radio dramas, to musical theater. It’s just that, try as I might, I can’t manage to finish a book without a good old-fashioned plot.

Even though I have no trouble admitting this shortcoming, I refuse to accept it. Like clockwork, each New Year starts with a proposed fiction cleanse and, along with it, the hope of introducing some variety into my literary palate. A few years back, when I realized the recurring resolutions were doing nothing to vary my reading selections, I decided to compromise with myself by avoiding “real” non-fiction and opting instead for collections of personal essays and literary journalism. For anyone out there searching for a fic to nonfic transition, here are some of my favorite essayists (ranging from easy breezy to packed with facts):

crosley cakeI Was Told There’d Be Cake begins with a confession: Sloane Crosley has a secret collection of toy ponies. And not just two or three, we’re talking an entire kitchen drawer dedicated to a plastic equine family. This is Crosley’s power, dropping cringe-worthy private details of her life until you feel welcomed into her sphere. Or maybe not welcomed in as much as eavesdropping from one table over, at a hip, divey bar in Brooklyn while you envy her impeccable style, shiny hair, and ability to air her dirty laundry like it ain’t no thang. Her follow up collection, How Did You Get This Number?, regales readers with tales of Portuguese clowns, black market furniture trading, and the worst roommate ever. While I wouldn’t call these essays particularly enlightening, they’re certainly compulsively readable.

I will read anything that David Sedaris writes, and then I will read it ten more times. My obsession with the snarky, OCD-addled nakedmemoirist borders on excessive, but read his account of a week spent at a nudist trailer park, the title story in the aptly named Naked, or his reflections on working as a Macy’s elf in Santaland Diaries, and you’ll see why I literally wept tears of fangirl joy upon meeting him at a book signing. While most of his essays take humorous topics as their focus, don’t get too comfortable–Sedaris is the master of the poignant wrap-up. When he’s got you where he wants you, he’ll hit you with an emotional truth-bomb and you’ll be left awkwardly sad-laughing in public.

bethlehemI don’t know why it took so long for me to read any Joan Didion. I don’t know why I waited until last year, at 25, to pick up a collection of her essays. What had I been doing with my life until then? What better things had I been using my eyes for? Now that I see the error of my ways, I will spend the rest of my days reading, underlining, and memorizing anything and everything she’s ever written. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter (lots of California dreaming, catnip for a homesick West Coast transplant like me), the dark, nostalgic tone, or just the magical way she has of putting words together, but I’m hooked. Start with Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album for a good introduction to Didion’s style and save The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, memoirs centering on the death of her husband and daughter, respectively, for when you’re at your most emotionally stable.

Zadie Smith is, hands-down, my favorite human. She’s smart, funny, powerful, a master storyteller, and, as it turns out, pretty changingdarn good at essays too. Smith’s collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, is not a breezy read. It’s a bit dense in places, but oh so worth it. Her essay-ing, like her storytelling, is complex and layered: an exploration of her father’s last days becomes a study on the art of comedy, moving seamlessly from a hospital bed in a seaside English village to an experimental performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. An ode to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God investigates the meaning of soulfulness and the power of “extraliterary” readings. And a recap of a weekend in LA covering the Academy Awards peeks at our obsession with fame and the notion of celebrity. With so much information and emotion packed into each essay, you’ll be culturally sated upon completion.


Thoughts on Anna’s nonfiction picks? Suggestions of your own? Leave us a comment!





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For me, nothing beats discovering a great new writer. Whether it’s an up and comer first trying their hand, or a seasoned professional who you’re just happening on for the first time, finding a good writer can be an arduous task. But recently, I was so nailed on the head by a writer that I had to stop and wonder why I hadn’t known him before. Turns out, I had, but should have been paying close attention. This blog post is about learning a lesson in discovery. Now I’d heard of David Grann before. To me, he was “that dude” who went to the Amazon, and most notably for me, showed up on the “Colbert Report” to talk about it. I had added The Lost City of Z to my weathered and massive  book list, and then promptly forgot about it—crossing out books nearby but never settling on it. I mean, what interest do I have in the Amazon? Who does this guy think he is?

Then one day two weeks ago or so, I was happily “internetting” along when I came across this Slate article in praise of David Grann. A journalist friend sent me the link, and his message simply said “Hero.” I take heroes seriously, long time readers.

Glancing through skeptically, wondering what could possibly be heroic about our fake Amazonian explorer, my jaw hit the ground. The passages of Grann’s work represented in the article—I knew them. It didn’t click yet, but for some reason I felt like I had known Grann’s work for ages. I immediately requested The Lost City of Z and by the next day was crushing it. Before I was even halfway through I was recommending it to strangers who asked me what the weather was like. Didn’t matter, this book mattered. The book, in a nutshell, is about obsession—Grann follows the path of Percy Fawcett, an great explorer who was responsible for mapping the borders of Amazonian countries in South America. Fawcett became enamored with finding a lost civilization in the middle of the jungle that he named “Z,” serving as a new name for fabled El Dorado. Grann’s narrative, which often went back and forth from the history surrounding Fawcett to modern day, was perfect almost fictional storytelling, but what made Grann so enjoyable was how much he enjoyed exploring the very true subject. He knowingly became too involved, unable to stop himself from being so compelled. And neither will you reading it (same goes for Brad Pitt, who bought the rights to the book and plans to option it as a movie with himself playing Fawcett).

After Z, my lust for more Grann knew no bounds. I read The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession in a fury. (The only problem with liking a writer this much is reading everything he’s done in a week—what do I do now?) This is where the words I had seen in the aforementioned article hit home. Grann is a regular New Yorker and  Atlantic Monthly  contributor—I had been reading him for years, never noticing he was often responsible for the pieces I enjoyed so thoroughly. This book is a collection of his best work, all of it as engaging and memorable as Z but in shorter bursts. My favorites were “Trial By Fire,” concerning an inmate on death row who is fighting against the clock to clear his name, and “The Chameleon,” concerning “actor of life” Frédéric Bourdin’s ability to fool a family into thinking he was their missing son, and what his deception revealed about the family’s knowledge of the disappearance. All of it incredibly engaging, all of it very true.

To get a good idea of whether Grann is for you (and for your sake, I hope he is), do yourself a favor and check out his latest effort for The New Yorker. Just to get yourself started on the obsession.

– Tony


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