My favorite books of essays

A friend recently asked me for recommendations on some books to read for a trip he had coming up. He wanted something light, preferably fun, but a bit intellectual. My typical recommendation for vacation travel is anything by Vince Flynn; I’m a sucker for his spy novels. But my friend’s last caveat got me. Instead I figured I’d offer up something different: books of essays.

I’m a devout fan of longform prose: good, nonfiction essays, particularly though with a lively or comic flare. And I think for vacation, they’re far more suitable than a long novel. Finish an essay? Go for a swim. One more? Take a nap. Vacation. There’s not the kind of full time investment a big book takes. Plus, having the kind of bird-like attention span I have (and I know my friend has) I figured this would be for the best.

Chuck Klosterman: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

Klosterman will make you feel better for watching so much 90’s television. On the surface, he is a media critic, covering music, TV, etc, but probably a more apt description would be something akin to an anthropologist: he’s describing what is media is saying about who we are, and how that is changing. And to do that, he’ll bounce around from Coldplay to Socrates, from porn to self-projection, from the Real World to romanticism. All the while, his insights cut right to the bone, but he’s able to do so with enough wit that you close the chapter with a smile.

Christopher Hitchens: Mortality

When you watch, listen, or read Christopher Hitchens, you get the sense that he experiences a wider range of emotions than most, and throughout his career he has poured those into his writing. After being diagnosed with cancer, it took on a humanity though that went beyond flash. You could feel it — feel this battle he was going through, and how it put in perspective the number of battles he fought throughout his life.

Ron Rosenbaum: The Secret Parts of Fortune

Rosenbaum’s probably best known as a Shakespearean expert, but I’ve found his collection of essays rather enjoyable. Unlike the others listed here, his are more of the investigative sort: he dives into the mystery of the secret societies of Yale in one piece, and Zagat Restaurant Review Guide in another. What brings me back to Rosenbaum’s essays is his construction—the way he puts a piece together, a true craftsman.

I can’t get enough of these kinds of essays. Often witty, usually informative, and always entertaining. These writers, and others like them, show a gift a pattern recognition, which I aim to learn from each time I open up one of their books… I ask myself, “How did they do that?

How did Klosterman figure out that connection between modern politics and classic sports? How did Hitch go all the way to explore Nietzschean ethics and then all the way down to his physical maladies? How did Rosenbaum manage to find within both the Hitler and JFK stories hard questions about subjectivity?

So in this way, I consider longform essays part of my own curriculum in pattern recognition—one that’s both good mental hygiene, and also good fun.