The best essay collections including Zadie Smith's Intimations, James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son and Nora Ephron's The Most of Nora Ephron.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

What better way to get into the work of a writer than through a collection of their essays? 

These seven collections, from novelists and critics alike, address a myriad of subjects from friendship to how colleges are dealing with sexual assaults on campus to race and racism. 

Intimations by Zadie Smith (2020)

How was lockdown for you? It’s a question many have asked, and been asked, but the answer isn’t always simple or clear. Luckily, Zadie Smith – one of the best writers of her generation – has turned her attention to the matter.

Intimations is a collection of six essays exploring life in lockdown. Smith has said the book is not a historical, political or comprehensive account of 2020, but rather “personal essays: small by definition, short by necessity”. In less than 100 pages, she looks with sensitivity and intimacy at this unprecedented year, and makes us all feel a little bit more connected to each other through her words. 

The Most of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron (2014)

Let’s be honest, if you had to turn to any writer for wisdom about life and love, you’d probably turn to Nora Ephron. The journalist and screenwriter, who wrote some of the greatest romantic comedies of all time – When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle among them – passed away in 2012. But her words live on, and this collection is the perfect place to begin if you want to bask in the warmth of her advice.

The Most of Nora Ephron includes essays on friendship, feminism and journalism, as well as some of her favourite recipes. And although they’re not essays, we guarantee you’ll still love the extracts from her bestselling novel Heartburn and the scenes from When Harry Met Sally that are included. 

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino (2019)

As a staff writer at The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino has explored everything from a rise in youth vaping to the ongoing cultural reckoning about sexual assault. Her first book Trick Mirror takes some of those pieces for The New Yorker as well as new work to form what is one of the sharpest collections of cultural criticism today.

Using herself and her own coming of age as a lens for many of the essays, Tolentino turns her pen and her eye to everything from her generation’s obsession with extravagant weddings to how college campuses deal with sexual assault.

If you’re looking for an insight into millennial life, then Trick Mirror should be on your to-read list.

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker (1983)

Sometimes essays collected from a sprawling period of a successful writer’s life can feel like a hasty addition to a bibliography; a smash-and-grab of notebook flotsam. Not so In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, from which one can truly understand the sheer range of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s range of study and activism. From Walker’s first published piece of non-fiction (for which she won a prize, and spent her winnings on cut peonies) to more elegiac pieces about her heritage, Walker’s thoughts on feminism (which she terms “womanism”) and the Civil Rights Movement remain grippingly pertinent 50 years on.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955)

As perhaps the most famous work by one of the 20th Century’s most iconic figures, James Baldwin’s first essay collection looms large. In the 10 essays that comprise Notes of a Native Son, the American essayist demonstrates not just his way with words but the breadth of his expertise, acutely dissecting mid-century culture from its literature and theatre to the day-to-day socio-political life of marginalised people both in American and abroad.

Baldwin’s essays here are as provocative as they are sharp, boldly confronting the literary establishment and the injustices of the world with equal poise: in ‘Many Thousands’, Baldwin takes Richard Wright’s landmark work Native Son to task for its depiction of Blackness, and pilfers his collection’s title from it in the same swipe; in the collection’s middle third, he interrogates America’s relationship to its citizens in ways that still resonate today. Baldwin’s writing remains as powerful as ever, and Notes of a Native Son remains an ideal place to start. 

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (2000)

That David Sedaris’s ascent to literary stardom happened later in his life – his breakthrough collection of humour essays was released when he was 44 – suited the author’s writing style perfectly. Me Talk Pretty One Day is both a painfully funny account of his childhood and an enduring snapshot of mid-forties malaise. First story ‘Go Carolina’, about his attempt to transcend a childhood lisp, is told from a perfect distance and with all the worldliness necessary to milk every drop of tragic, cringeworthy humour from his childhood. It never falters from there: by the book’s second half, in which Sedaris is living in France, he’s firmly established his niche, writing about the ways that even snobs experience utter humiliation ­– and Me Talk Pretty One Day is all the more human for it. 

AZADI by Arundhati Roy (2020)

'Azadi' is the Urdu word for freedom, and in this collection of electrifying essays Arundhati Roy explores what freedom means in an increasingly authoritarian world.

Roy takes a look at whether freedom is a chasm or a bridge, and how coronavirus has brought with it a different understanding of azadi, one in which borders have been destroyed and modern life been brought to a halt. The essays in this collection include meditations on language, fiction, and the role of alternative imaginations in disturbing times. It's a triumphant collection from an excellent writer.

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