"Atchafalaya" by John McPhee - This essay changed the way I felt about essays. I have always loved the form: it’s capacity for loopiness, it’s friendliness to digression, the space it made for beautiful language. But here, McPhee proves that the essay can do so much more: it can build worlds.
"Mister Lytle" by John Jeremiah Sullivan - There was a time in which I worked at a job that did not require me to do very much at all, and so I spent my time, tucked away in a tiny corner cubicle, reading. I cried when I read this, and my coworkers thought something terrible had happened to me, but it was just Mister Lytle, raccoon’s sharpened bone-penis and all. John Jeremiah Sullivan writes about the South like a native who’s stricken by amnesia: he has no shortage of not only familiar affection but also bewilderment, even wonder.
"What We Hunger For" by Roxane Gay - I’ve been reading Roxane Gay since she took on the overwhelming whiteness of the Best American Short Stories series in 2010 over at HTML Giant. (She was, delightfully, included in this past year’s edition.) However, this essay—one, if you follow Roxane’s work, you’ve probably read too—was a game changer. There are lines that when I reread them give me goosebumps. “Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods” and “You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you.” How many girls thought they were alone until they found an essay like this one?
"Tiny Beautiful Things" by Cheryl Strayed - I am a member of the church of Sugar. I regularly quote her in long, tough, sad conversations with my friends; and they quote her back at me. This essay of hers is one of the most important to me. (Little surprise: I have seen it make a whole room full of young women weep.) Everything in it, from “Stop worrying about whether you’re fat” to “Be brave enough to break your own heart,” from “Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet” to, especially, “Acceptance is a small, quiet room” speaks plainly and bravely and with heart. There is really nothing else like it.
"The Unlikely Influence of Dungeons & Dragons" by TNC - The reasons I love Ta-Nehisi Coates are too numerous to list here, but suffice it to say I’ve always felt he was a nerdy, inner-city kindred spirit: him reading the Monsters Manual in 1980s Baltimore, me reading Volo’s Guide to the Sword Coast in 1990s DC. I love this post (even though its really a transcript) in particular because he articulates what “high” and “low” culture have in common: beauty.
"The Death of the Moth" by Virginia Woolf - I read this in high school and it remains one of my favorite things by Virginia Woolf. It is aggressively lovely, a kind of poem. “What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.”
"Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences" by Mark Twain - There are few things in this world I love as much as a really (effectively) mean review, and this is perhaps the finest of the form. This take down of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, which Mark Twain clearly loathed, is epic. “Personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others,” he explains, “this detail has often been overlooked” in Deerslayer.
"My Dungeon Shook" by James Baldwin - I love the love in this essay, the love and pain that seeps out of Baldwin’s letter: love for a brother, love for a nephew, pain for what the world has done to them, for what they have lost because of it. Here he says about his brother, “No one’s hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today which one hears in his laughter and in his speech and in his songs.”
"Chamber of Secrets: The Sorcery of Angela Carter" by Marina Werner - I love fairy tales, literary criticism, and sonorous, pulpy prose. This essay, about Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, has it all: “What reader does not explore with her these passages and woodland tracks? Who does not feel the Beast’s dark carriage like a hearse rumbling towards his eerily uninhabited domain? And who does not sense, through her powerful evocations, the pricking of thorns, the jaw-cracking stringiness of granny, the jangling of bed springs, the licking of a big cat’s tongue, the soft luxurious furs and velvets and skin, and the piercing contrasts with ice, glass, metal?”
"How Men Fight for Their Lives" by Saeed Jones - This is a story I first heard my friend Saeed tell at a party. He held the room with it, it tilted on his axis. It was supposed to be wild, something crazy and, because crazy, funny—but there was always this dark, unsettling thread running through it, even during his magnetic, hilarious jujitsu demonstration. Here the darkness is not a thread but the fabric. Who reading this hasn’t felt the same way, when Saeed says (my favorite line): “I need you to know that, in that unlit, wood-floored room, I was more interested in the story of my life than my life.”
We asked the people behind the excellent Bookriot.com to pick their favourite articles and essays for us. This is what they chose:
Roger Ebert: The Essential Man by Chris Jones — Jones is one of my favorite contemporary journalists. He writes spot-on profiles, and this generous, funny, and sad piece about Roger Ebert from 2010 never fails to make me cry. (Kim Ukura)
What Broke My Father’s Heart by Katy Butler — The decision about how to live the last part of our lives is a difficult one, made even more complicated by the advances in medical science and the monetary incentives in place in our medical system. In this piece Katy Butler looks at the different ways her parents died and how her father became a victim of a system that was supposed to help him. (Kim Ukura)
The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything by Linda Holmes — There is a lot of intellectual, artistic stuff produced every day. Sometimes I get overwhelmed thinking about how much of it I am going to miss. When that happens, I revisit this essay and it usually makes me feel better. (Kim Ukura)
SpongeBob’s Golden Dream by James Parker — Almost four years after I first read it, this essay remains my touchstone for the best kind of topical-yet-oracular cultural criticism. Taking “SpongeBob SquarePants” seriously, James Parker reads SpongeBob himself as a moral beacon of postmodern capitalism. It stings, and I smile. (Derek Attig)
Watch This Man by Pankaj Mishra — My favorite book review. The pleasure of “Watch This Man” is the pleasure of seeing a sharp mind dispassionately and patiently dismantling a popular thinker’s popular thoughts. Essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra takes on Niall Ferguson’s oeuvre, and his neomperialism, with wry aplomb. An extra delight is that, in this online version, you can also read a back-and-forth between Mishra and Ferguson that followed the original publication. (Derek Attig)
Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu by John Updike — In his final game with the Boston Red Sox, Ted Williams - the greatest hitter who ever lived, aged 41 - lived up to the mythical image he had earned after more than twenty seasons in the Majors. John Updike was there and wrote this ode to Teddy Ballgame, the best piece of sports writing and one of the best essays I’ve ever encountered.
Mother Earth, Mother Board by Neal Stephenson — in 1993, cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson went world-traveling as a “hacker tourist,” to look at the massive cables laid across continents, forming the very physical and very literal backbone of the digital world. The article is fascinating not only for his exploration of different continents, but because it’s a look at the physical aspect of the internet, which we often forget about. And as an added feature, the article is now twenty years old, which makes it nearly an artifact all by itself. (Peter Damien)
Politics and The English Language by George Orwell — A classic screed against bad writing. As relevant today as it was in 1946, the essay combines Orwell’s unparalleled bullshit detector with his desire to write as forthrightly as he can. (Jeff O’Neal)
Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell — Agree or not, there’s no denying that this 1927 lecture is a masterful piece of writing. Logical and passionate, this is Bertrand Russell at his finest: “We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world — its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it.” (Derek Attig)
Cookbooks by Anthony Lane — No matter the mental weather, this essay on cookbooks — their frights and foibles — can reduce you to a giggling, quivering jelly. Jelly tied securely with a single chive. (Jennifer Paull)
Unflowered Aloes by Tom Bissell — We like to think that the books that are published get published because they are the very best books publishers had to choose from, and that the books that become renowned and widely sold are renowned and widely sold because they have the most literary value. But that’s not always the case. There’s a lot of luck and a lot of randomness involved, and Tom Bissell explores those elements in this piece, subtitled “Why literary success is a product of chance, not destiny.” (Rebecca Joines Schinsky)
For some of the internet’s best writing about books and reading, great literary links, and stunning reading lists go to Bookriot.com. And if you want to read something amazing but don’t know where to start, why not read your way into 25 amazing authors with their latest kickstarter project, Start Here.
In our humble opinion, these are the 150 best short articles and short essays that are available to read for free online. If you disagree, we’d love to hear form you. Use the contact form to submit you suggestions, we promise to read everything you recommend.