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Great Essays and Essayists (adamponting.com)
92 points by jasim 17 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

While he doesn't write essays that necessarily create or explain fundamental ideas in the academic sense, I'd definitely pitch for David Foster Wallace as an essayist. I picked up a short collection of his essays, "Both Flesh and Not", and the manner in which his writing flows through and around the topics of his choice is extremely satisfying to read.

His opinions, insights and deconstruction of other writers and literary works are also pretty eye opening, even though I come from a hard sciences background, if only to understand what someone so ridiculously well read has to say about those things. His general musings on life, modernity and culture are also pretty great.

The best place to start (in my opinion) is with This is Water, his commencement address to the incoming class at Kenyon College back in 2005:


It's a great read, but it's even more enjoyable listening to him deliver it:


I second the DFW recommendation.

He wrote a long-essay for Harper's on the experience of traveling on a cruise ship. You can find a free pdf of it doing a google search for "On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise".

I highly recommend that essay.


The link to the free pdf is the first search result in the query above.

I agree with you that he is amazing writer. But I am worried I may not get his works like: Infinite Jest and other essay because of not having the American (USA) cultural context.

In my opinion, this won't stop you from from enjoying Infinite Jest. There are a few arcs that might require some insight into American culture (Professional Football, the US drug rehabilitation system). But the big picture themes are either very universal or so particular you aren't really expected to be keyed into them (you don't need to be a competitive tennis player or a Quebecois separatist to enjoy it).

Pale King might be a bit of a different beast. The focus on the IRS is somewhat particular, and you may miss big beats because of ignorance about the IRS. But at the same time, some of the accounting minutiae are such that I don't think you're expected to understand them.

Anyway! I wouldn't let this steer you away. To me, the joy of DFWs writing is the individual sentences. The mannerisms and humanity of the characters. If you miss some details because they're US focused, I don't think it'll be anything important.

For what it's worth, I'm British and even though I didn't get all the cultural references in his essays, it was usually easy enough and read between the lines to infer what he was hoping to illustrate from his examples.

This happens a lot in one of my favourite DFW essays, E Pluribus Unum, which although a little dated, still does a great job of illustrating the impacts of "self-aware" media consumption, and how it affects the richness (or lack thereof) of culture.

I would be glad you to mention some particular essays (preferably by a variety of female and/or non-white authors) as one guy asked before. I am interested in it too.. so it would be gereat i suppose.

I tried to complete my essay by using great essayists examples and also by helping https://gpalabs.com/coursework-writing.html That is good combination for me because it is much more easier to do it in such way.

I would like to get new essay example of Hawking, is someone can share it please, i would be thankfull

I'd like to toss The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate into the mix. It's a terrific collection that spans the millennia--from ancients like Seneca and Plutarch to Gore Vidal and H.L. Mencken, and everything in between. As far as being exposed to different styles and modes of thought go, that anthology can't be beat.

I'm a great fan of Mencken, as well as Ambrose Bierce and I.F. Stone. I love the idea of essays, but have struggled my whole adult life to find voices who can write from my own experiences. So, I stay passionate about keeping the art alive on my own:


I've written about homelessness in the Bible Belt- a supremely taboo topic; and I've observed commonalities between the ideals of Pope Francis' detractors within Roman-Catholicism and that of Positive Christianity- the denomination literally begat by the Nazis. I draw more parallels than conclusions, but having gone to a school without a debate program I feel obligated to define as many left-field arguments as I can, for posterity or for poops and giggles.

As an impressionable 13-year-old, I found Arthur C. Clarke's book of popular science essays, 'Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible', to be a real mind-expand-er.

What's your favorite book of science essays?

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.

Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee (more philosophy of knowledge than science per se).

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan.

The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski are not essays, but it is one of the finest writings on science I've read.

The Art of Doing Science and Engineering by Richard W. Hamming

Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

I can't not help mention The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, which is fiction, but hear me out - it melds natural philosophy, alchemy, maths, history, Newton, Leibniz, The Sun King, British parliament, colonialism, slavery, Egypt, India, war, finance, commerce, revenge, satire and so much more. I've learnt more about the origins of the Royal Society and the early days of modern science from these three books than anywhere else.

I loved Rovelli's lessons of physics! I didn't know he was known and read outside of Italy too

Freeman Dyson is excellent. I'd say my favorite of his is Disturbing the Universe, technically a memoir but not so different from his essay collections.

No female essayists or essayists of color?

Virginia Woolf, as an example, was a superb essayist.

On this topic, I fanatically endorse “Great Books” by David Denby. He took the famous western civ core curriculum at Columbia as an undergrad in the 1960s, then again after 40-ish years.

In addition to many other interesting subjects, the book asks the question, “are all these dead white men really that important to study the work of?”

Spoiler: he says yes, but the pantheon of great works must be expanded to include those of equal merit previously ignored. Virginia Woolf is one of those he puts on that pedestal with Homer, Virgil, and all the rest.

Thanks for the endorsement.

Coincidentally, there's another HN post right now about another female, and black, essayist I adore: bell hooks.


This is one persons opinion, not some affirmative action quota that needs to be met to be accepted. Write your own list and submit it.

Perhaps rather fittingly, Virginia Woolf's essay "A room of one's own" is an absolutely brilliant read on _why_ precisely women are and were so often neglected and left out of the cultural conversation and literary landscape.

One of the cruxes being that opinions matter and the reinforcements culture (such as the compilations of widely shared lists like these) provides sustains their exclusion.

I'd give it a look, it's not preachy and it's thoroughly entertaining.


I hear you, but the implication that you make is that these writers would not merit making it to these lists were it not for a quota. My take is a lot of these female, non-white writers have not made it due to the echo-chamber that is the Western Canon. This list effectively rehashes this canon.

Here's an example from my life. Many years ago, I was a music student. Part of being a music student means taking theory and history. We learned about all of the Western Classical composers, and I remember learning, very briefly, about Clara Schumann. She was taught as a footnote, as the object of desire of Robert Schumann, Brahms, and others. I never knew, until recently, what a gifted and talented composer she was. Her compositions, imo, stand at the same level as her male contemporaries.

Thanks. Well, it's not really my opinion - the more modest and accurate subtitle to that first list is "Some of my favourite essays", and I am an - in fact the only authority there is - on what should be on that list!

Could you mention some particular essays (preferably by a variety of female and/or non-white authors) that you think I might love so much they'd find a place on my list? Thanks very much.

Here you go:

  - The Wreck of Time - Annie Dillard
  - Death of a Moth - Virginia Woolf
  - A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf
  - The Study of the Negro Problems - W.E.B. DuBois
  - On Going Home - Joan Didion
  - In History - Jamaica Kincaid
  - Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema - Laura Mulvey
  - How It Feels to be Colored Me - Zora Neale Hurston
  - Memory and Imagination - Patricia Hampl
  - Anger and Tenderness - Adrienne Rich
  - In Plato's Cave - Susan Sontag
  - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami
  - The Laugh of the Medusa - Hélène Cixous
I'm sure I'm missing many others...

Guy Davenport is another fascinating essayist - a true polymath - he ties together narratives that are at first glance unrelated into a beautiful whole. I've only read The Geography of the Imagination which is 40 essays, but he has other compilations as well. One of his essays is on Youtube narrated by a former student apparently. https://youtu.be/sFe7cqXuzZU

The greatest essays I've read have been by Seneca.

Here is my favorite, On The Shortness of Life:


George Orwell is best known for 1984 but he was a prolific essayist. The collection of his narrative essays "Facing Unpleasant Facts" was one of my more interesting reads last year.

My favorite essayists ->

1) Bertrand Russell. Read "The Conquest of Happiness" and you shall never know unhappiness.

2) Henry David Thoreau. Read "Walden"

These two chaps have a tranquillizing effect on me.

I would have included more of the English greats in essay writing: Charles Lamb (Whose 'Essays of Elia' might perhaps be be the finest collection of essays in the English language, Macaulay( whose essay on Warren Hastings is a masterpiece of English prose), William Hazlitt, even Dr Johnson (His 'Lives of the poets' is essentially a large collection of brilliant essays) and Joseph Addison.

I did mention Hazlitt several times on the page. He's in my pantheon (Emerson, Chesterton, Stevenson, Hazlitt). I do have a page dedicated to Johnson http://www.adamponting.com/sayings-of-johnson/ , he's a favourite of mine who I frequently return to. I had a period of enthusiasm for the Rambler etc, but his Latinate essay style is, let's face it, awful compared with the Johnson of Boswell's Life, Mrs Thrale's book about him etc. I don't know most of his writing about poets or Shakespeare so well, I should have another look. Lamb and Addison I tried long ago, they seemed too..literary, too fictional, or style-focused. I prefer those (who tend to be on the philosophy/essays boundary) who have something to say, and just incidentally say it well.

Could you mention some particular essays that would be at the top of your list? Thanks.

Of Lamb; "The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple" and "The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers".Lamb tries to express his awe and wonder and curiousity to the reader very effectively.

Johnson of the Lives, is much, different, much more lively than the Johnson of the Rambler, esp his sense of humor is on full display. I greatly recommend the "Life of Savage" and "Life of Addison" from the lives.

I think Macaulay is exceptional, his essays like "Warren Hastings", "Samuel Johnson" (Which he wrote for Encyclopedia Britannica), "Ranke's History of the Pope's", etc are such stunning works, the reader shall find it very difficult to put them down once they start.

Of the list I read Paul Graham's "How to do Philosophy".

Btw I don't think Goodjoke's comment deserved to get killed off, but I will dare to say to Goodjoke that maybe "a little more carrot and less stick" is in order: what's the best essay of the group of authors you mentioned?

GoodJokes's "stick" was a mild call for more diversity. I don't see how naming a favourite would counteract that or add "carrot". Maybe one or more links would have done the trick?

The fact that the original list is (almost?) all white men is the kind of thing (like all male panels) which will attract negative attention these days. There are people on HN who think conceptualizing diversity on the basis of gender or ethnicity is a dangerous distraction from what they claim is the really important form of diversity, which is intellectual diversity. It's that kind of Thielian position that GoodJokes is challenging, quite rightly.

I'd say Camille Paglia.

I wonder how many modern bloggers where inspired by pg (me included)? E.g: SSCodex

Meditations on Moloch undoubtedly deserves to make the list: https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/

As much as the author has expressed displeasure with it, I really liked CGP Grey's older essay (from when he actually wrote essays) "I Have Died Many Times"

Shameless self promotional plug, if you would like to listen to any of these essays on the go, some of them seem long for me to read in on one sitting. You can do so using a new App I built that uses some beautiful sounding Machine Learning AI models to convert any of these articles to Audio.


I basically built it exactly for these sorts of reasons I found that I had all this dead time. On my commutes and in between running errands, or biking, and I wanted to maximize my learning and staying informed.

  > uses some beautiful sounding Machine Learning AI models to convert articles to Audio
This sounds great. I'm a big fan of audiobooks and podcasts, and would love an app like Pocket but that narrates the articles for me. However, downloading & trying a new app is a big friction point. Your landing page would be a lot more persuasive if it provided an example of the unique value proposition - e.g. several example of audios as generated by the app, or ability to take a URL and provide a narrated version of it.

Thanks for self-promoting. This is great. I’ve tried a couple of text-audio apps before and the computerized voice has always thrown me off. This sounds really great, and I like the discovery features!

+1 to the sibling comment. I downloaded the app because I happen to be in a great mood, but if I wasn’t I probably would have left without signing up if there wasn’t an audio sample.

The Android app isn't available in the Republic of Ireland. What's the reason for limiting audience by geography?

Are no women great essayists?

Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Marilyn Robinson. Somebody upthread mentioned Camille Paglia. If you include journalism, politics, criticism, and humor in a recognizable voice that reveals the author's personal take on life, there are many more: Oriana Fallaci, Katha Pollitt, even Nora Ephron and Pauline Kael ...

Wonder why none of them made the list.

I posted this link to HN; it is just a list of essays the author liked - it is not a top 10 greatest essays of all time list or a curated collection. Just a slice of one person's readings. But I'm enjoying all the other suggestions that are being made in this thread, and great to learn about writings from diverse sources.

For one thing, I haven't read almost all of them! I haven't read so much 20th-21st C stuff as the all-time classics, ancient and modern. I did start reading Sexual Personae a couple of years ago and really loved it, must get back to that. I discovered Joan Didion last year, but didn't read much before being distracted, must get back to her. Thanks for the reminders.

Could you (or jonjacky or someone else) mention some particular essays, from those writers or others, you would rate most highly? Thanks. Then you might help get people reading them. (The ones in my list I consider, not just good, but incredibly good, endlessly re-readable.)

If there are fewer female essayists the chance of any given one making into any given list is reduced. I'm not saying there are fewer female essayists, but if there is that's a reasonable alternative explanation to the (implied?) default one of "sexism".

Could you mention some particular essays that you think are particularly great? Thanks.

No Borges? Or E. B. White?

"Author" here. Well, this was a nice surprise! I'd love to see suggestions for the list, peoples' favourite essays that I might love too. Sometimes it's hard to choose one - so maybe then please mention one or a few essays that would be a good introduction to that writer's work. Thanks!

I put a huge collection of my favourite quotes/bits from my readings online here[0]. (with reliable sources, I hope, please let me know if any are fake/wrongly attributed)

This list (especially the top 3/4) are essays that I've read many times and loved and lived with. Some writers (e.g. Emerson, Hazlitt, Chesterton, Stevenson, James, Mencken, Russell) have so many essays I love and have read many times that it's hard to single out just one. It's been more like living with them than 'reading' them. With them (and most of all, Emerson), even trying to single out one or a few essays would be strange, like trying to pick a favourite Miles Davis album - there are dozens; it's the air I breathe, it's who I am.

Yes, I toyed with removing the "Great" from the headings (also I have pages on great musicians, great writers etc). But what the hell, that's what the word means I suppose, "things I think are great". I do believe that "instead of there being no disputing about tastes, they are the one thing worth disputing about".

I was surprised that so many comments are like "Why aren't there women/non-white/etc' people on the list. I don't know. They're also concentrated in a certain time period (see timeline diagram on this page[1] ), no-one complained about that. I seem to feel more at home with 19th C writers! (also 16-17th C e.g. La Bruyere, and ancient stuff e.g. Plutarch) I'm white and male, I don't know if those writers resonated more with me for that reason; I guess that had something to do with it. Most of what I came across wasn't by female or non-Anglo writers, I think.

I don't care what someone's sex, colour, country, sexuality etc is, in art, music, writing or anything. To expect or insist on proportional representation of each sub-section of humanity in someone's list of their favourites - or even a list of the greatest, the classics - seems to utterly miss the point. Why focus on the creator, not their creation? If some superior works aren't read for whatever reason, ok great, bringing them to attention is a very worthy task. But to insist they be read because they're female, black or whatever, which people sometimes seem to be doing, seems misguided to me. It would be strange, for example, if someone suggest I should listen to more white or female musicians.[2] They just say "Listen to this!" if they'd heard something they love, and if I love it too, I'll keep listening, and seek out more of their work.

I was reading about "the essay canon" recently. There was a paper that analysed the school essay readers and found that only one writer was added to the essay canon in the 1990s - Deborah Tannen: chapters from You Just Don't Understand. It so happens that I've been a huge fan of that book for decades, recommend it to everyone, have lent the book to many people, rarely go a week in life without understanding something in life better with some insight I learnt from it (or her previous book That's Not What I Meant!). I just don't think of it as an essay.

Same with SARK, probably the female writer dearest to me, who was a close companion and friend, particularly when I was in my 20s. I've read and re-read her first 1/2 dozen books countless times. I lived with, by and from them. Plus they're colourful, hand-written and hand-drawn, and in that way superior to any other books I know of.

re Virginia Woolf: I read a lot of her essays decades ago, and while I really liked them, I haven't returned since.

Some feminist street cred: Harriet Martineau's wiki page says "Martineau wrote many books". Before I changed that a couple of years ago, it said, bizarrely, that she wrote only one book. On Emerson's wiki page, first in the list of influences in the sidebar is his aunt (and, effectively, father) Mary Moody Emerson. She wasn't even on there until I added her recently. I only recently learned about what an overwhelmingly huge influence she was on him - he's in many ways her project, her creation - his voice is recognizably hers, speaking through him.

[0] http://www.adamponting.com/quotes/

[1] http://www.adamponting.com/great-writers/

[2] My "great musicians" list http://www.adamponting.com/great-musicians/ is overwhelmingly black, and my "youtube favourites" http://www.adamponting.com/youtube-favourites/ are overwhelmingly black and female. I'm not sure why!

I take some issue with David Stove's essay on idealism being in the list; while it might be a "good essay" it is philosophically weak[0]. I'm disappointed that some big names like Adorno, Marcuse and even Marx didn't make the cut.

[0] http://jgalis-menendez.blogspot.com/2009/05/david-stoves-cri...

We can do better. We must do better. Here are some of my favorite essayists that don’t identify as white and male:

James Baldwin Amy Henkel Mary Ruefle Maggie Nelson (more prose) Audre Lorde Susan Sontag Roxanne Gay

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