The Ten Greatest Essays, Ever

Bernard Cooper

Donna Tartt, “Sleepy Town: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine”

(from Harper’s magazine, 1992)

Raised by a Victorian grandfather who believed that children should be seen and not heard, the young author spent many of her childhood days adrift on the doses of codeine he administered as part of a health regime. Lucky kid! She saw Huck Finn in her radiator and was visited at night by a brontosaurus that feasted on the tree outside her bedroom window. This essay is an exquisitely written account of how strange it is to grow up, and how vast the gap between two generations can be.

Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre”

(from Against Joie de Vivre, 1989)

I was going to list an essay on taking walks by the great literary curmudgeon, Max Beerbohm, who turned the gripe into high art. But in the end I decided on Lopate’s perfectly dyspeptic argument about the wrong-headedness of unalloyed joy. This essay is as biting and funny and melancholic as it gets. Plus, in one passage he describes languidly waiting in bed to have sex with a woman as moment when he possessed, “all the consciousness of a dust mote.” If clauses won Oscars . . .

Nicholson Baker, “Reading Aloud”

(from The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber, 1996)

Mr. Baker once found himself moved to tears while reading aloud from one of his books. This public display of emotion was precipitated by, of all unlikely things, the term “bakery tissue.” In his loopy way, the writer explains the reasons behind this seemingly extreme and inappropriate emotional response, and by doing so he crafts an eloquent essay about language and its ambiguities.

George Orwell, “Such, Such Were The Joys”

(from The Collected Essays, 1952)

This is my favorite essay. Period. Orwell starts with an account of his boyhood bed-wetting while on scholarship at an exclusive English boarding school whose pecking order is the stuff of nightmares. The punishment he receives from the headmaster and headmistress, and his refusal to properly regret it, is grimly hilarious. Much more than a chronicle of one boy’s education, what Orwell ends up writing is a lacerating portrait of the British class system. The opposite of a polemic, this politically charged essay makes its points through its Dickensian characters, whose desperate, maddening bids for superiority mirror British society at large.

Tom Junod, “My Father’s Fashion Tips”

(from GQ magazine, 1996)

I don’t know about you, but I can never get enough grooming advice from dapper old guys who know the value of a tan and a turtleneck. Junod’s father provides just this kind of counsel. The author helpfully divides his father’s lifelong acumen into its consituent tips. What amazes is the inventive, sensual language that describes the unguents and lotions of male grooming, the cut and fabric of men’s clothes, and the secret rituals that make one guy smell better than the next. One of the most beautifully observed father/son essays I’ve read.

David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”

(from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, 1996)

This is my favorite essay. I know I said that about Orwell’s essay, but it’s the essay-lister’s prerogative to change his mind on an ongoing basis. Wallace’s account of a week he spent abroad a Carnival cruise is, bar none, the funniest thing I’ve ever read, filled with acrobatic locutions and winningly paranoid insights. What’s most moving to me is how the author doesn’t embark on the cruise in order to play the roll of contrarian, yet no mater how hard he tries to bond in some small way with the seemingly happy passengers, his incredulousness relegates him to the role of (brilliant) observer.

Joy Williams, “The Case Against Babies”

(from Ill Nature, 2001)

Nothing gets the blood pumping like a good old diatribe. A rant or scree or what have you. Williams is out to blast holes in the notion that giving birth offers the ultimate fulfillment for women, and that parenthood is destiny. She’s always been an incisive and unsentimental writer. Here, her prose is fuel by passionate indignation and jarring, memorable phrases. Childlessness becomes, in this essay, every bit as blessed a state as parenthood.

Cheryl Strayed, “Heroin/e”

(from The Best American Essays, 2000)

Strayed takes the unfairly maligned “addiction narrative” and turns it into an uncommonly stirring essay about the nature of desire. In her hands, desire isn’t simply a driving force behind addiction, but a driving force behind human connection in all its varieties–in this case, the death of her morphine-dependant mother and the divorce that resulted from the writer’s own addiction to heroine. Strayed gives the impression of tapping raw emotion while at the same time exerting tremendous authorial control. Her carefully honed sentences are as sharp as knives.

Scott Russell Saunders, “Dust”

(from Orion, 2001)

Composed of associations, Sander’s multi-part essay on mortality touches upon astronomy, astrophysics, religion, housekeeping, the dust bowl, and cremation. The writer’s method is as particulate and drifty as his subject, and the cumulative effect is far greater than the sum of its parts. Saunders is a rare species of writer: a spiritual man with the heart of a pragmatist.

Joan Didion, “In Bed”

(from The White Album, 1979)

This essay on migraine headaches is a skillful hybrid of the personal and the scientific. Didion exactingly anatomizes each stage of her own migraine, from its initial aura, to the chemical and perceptual shifts when it subsides. “That no one dies of a migraine, to someone in the middle of an attack, is an ambiguous blessing,” she concludes. These bleak chords, typically Didionesque, characterize the essay’s tone. A doctor from whom she seeks medical treatment tells her that people disposed to migraine are usually perfectionists, then glances doubtfully at her casual clothes and hair. What he seemed to miss, she confides to the reader, is that her brand of perfectionism involves spending the whole day “writing, rewriting, and not writing a single sentence.

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About Bernard Cooper

Bernard Cooper is the author of 6 books, including the award-winning Maps to Anywhere, A Clack of Tiny Sparks: Remembrances of a Gay Boyhood, Truth Serum, A Year of Rhymes, Guess Again, and most recently The Bill from My Father: A Memoir. Cooper is art critic for the Los Angeles Times and frequently contributes to The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Nerve, The Paris Review, and five previous editions of The Best American Essays. His work has received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the O. Henry Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Getty Museum. He currently teaches at Scripps College in Los Angeles, California, where he lives.