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Image / Living / Culture

6 brilliant essay collections for when you can’t commit to a whole book


by Jennifer McShane
25th Apr 2021
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Time these days is a contradiction.

Slow-moving, yet somehow passing in the blink of an eye. From home-schooling to work, to family and the rest, some days starting a book feels a mammoth task because you know deep down, it may be months before you reach the end. Essay collections fill that void. You can consume one in no time at all and feel you’ve learned something new, without the pressure to read on. The below all address a myriad of subjects (some tougher than others) and offer an enlighted glimpse at the world.

 Emilie Pines’ Notes to Self 

Emilie Pine is a startling writer. Her immensely powerful collection of deeply personal, interlocking essays on addition, rape and infertility jump out from each page. Each story is emotive; from the loneliness of infertility to the wrenching exhaustion of loving an addict and, above all, it’s real. The UCD lecturer shrewdly self-examines, yet her singular voice is almost a rallying cry; a call to arms for women. She’s that voice. The voice inside that wonders time and time again, ‘is it just me who feels like this?’ One of its greatest achievements is that it almost totally silences those waves of doubt we can constantly feel. A triumph.

Patrick Freyne’s Ok, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea

Irish Times journalist Patrick Freyne has had a lot of stupid ideas in his life. Like the time he, aged five, decided to let a horse out of its gate “just to see what would happen” or when he jumped out of a plane for charity (even though he didn’t care much for the charity) the time he set up a pirate radio station, tried to be a rockstar, or was a dish washer on the set of Braveheart. Then there are the camping trips, rural Ireland, the sudden death of a too-young friend. Reading his funny, strange and, at times devastating perspective through a series of essays, he elevates the ordinary – when perhaps it is not so ordinary at all. A must-read.

Zadie Smith’s Intimations 

This is the only collection of six essays that explores life in lockdown. However, don’t worry, far from being a historical, political or comprehensive account of 2020 (because there’s plenty of time for that), her illuminating “personal essays: small by definition, short by necessity” are much easier to digest.  She looks with sensitivity and intimacy at what was unprecedented year offering connection, and by the time you get to the end, a wish that she had written more.

Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror

The subtitle of this volume is Essays On Self-Delusion and Tolentino expertly expands on this idea of how we see ourselves – it’s at the heart of all nine of them.  The backdrops and players change – the “hell of the Internet”, reality TV, scammer culture, drugs, white weddings – but the lies we tell ourselves and the façade we offer runs through as a constant. It makes for an absorbing and fascinating look at the very public elements of millennial life today.

Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism

This collection is meant to be an uncomfortable read for white women – it must be. Here, Kendall lays bare concisely calls for solidarity in what she describes as a non-inclusive movement. “It isn’t about saying the right words at the right time,” she says, this being the backbone of her message throughout the book. Over 16 essays, she calls for action, and highlights how often white feminists do not engage with issues that do not affect them because, even though white women might still be an oppressed group, they still ultimutely have the power to oppress black women. In 2021, this is an essential read.

Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings

In what can only be described as a blistering collection, Hong deftly explores the “under-reported” Asian-American experience. A child of Korean immigrants, she was born in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, and her essays explore her personal experiences in combination with cultural criticism. Across the collection, beautifully details how her life and art have been shaped by her Korean American identity and openly tells of how race affected all aspects of her life, including her friendships and mental health.

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