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Best Essays of 2020: The 15 Most Shared (and Debated) Columns About Students, Schools & Remote Learning We Published This Year

best essays 2020

L earning loss. Virtual instruction. Family stress. Student supports. As the nation’s schools shuttered this spring, and then restructured operations for a second disrupted school year, it led to a wave of memorable essays here at The 74 about the challenges being faced by districts, the innovations being tried by teachers and the difficult reality of what it was like to be a public school student in 2020. As we then reached September, and it became apparent that the disruptions caused by coronavirus would also extend well into 2021, a new series of essays took the longer view, of how school leaders, parents and state policymakers should brace for continued hardships. Below are our 15 most memorable essays of the year; you can our latest commentary and analysis delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for The 74 Newsletter .

best essays 2020

Student Voice: Two Weeks, Five Siblings and One Working Laptop. How I Navigated the Nation’s Largest School System in Search of an iPad — and What It Taught Me About America’s Digital Divide

Pandemic Notebook: Back in March, Brandon Yam woke up and dialed the tech department of the nation’s largest school system in New York City. For two weeks, he writes in this addition to the “Pandemic Notebook” series, Yam fruitlessly pursued the district to learn the status of his application for one of 300,000 devices available for students who lack them. Yam is a junior at highly selective Francis Lewis High School. But he also comes from a poor immigrant family in the city’s Flushing neighborhood, where his parents, a chef and a postal employee, are essential workers and he shares the family’s 10-year-old laptop with five siblings. He writes: “My siblings and I butted heads to get to the router at the center of our living room for a bar of internet connection. … I often pinched the corners of my iPhone 6 screen wide, squinting to see my trigonometry and physics teachers doing practice problems on paper.” Along the way, he learned some sobering lessons about privilege and navigating the digital divide. Now, he writes, “I sit here wondering how many other children have had to act on their own with parents at work — playing the roles of traffic cop, translator and support system.” Read Yam’s full reflection here .

“Pandemic Notebook” registered as The 74’s most read and shared essay series of the year — and we now plan on extending the effort into 2021 as the classroom disruptions caused by coronavirus continue through a second school year. A few other memorable entries from 2020:

  • Student Safety: ‘A bird trapped in a golden cage’ — Amid the pandemic, one student’s story of abuse during quarantine ( Read the full essay )
  • Remote Learning: Part staycation, part home detention, my life during pandemic is a study in contrasts ( Read the full essay )
  • Family Stress: My mom Is 55, Black, and just returned to work in a doctor’s office in New York City. That’s why I’m scared ( Read the full essay )
  • Go Deeper: See our full “Pandemic Notebook” archive

best essays 2020

An Open Letter to Parents From a National Teacher of the Year on Tips for Remote Learning and How to Support Your School Community

Resilience: “Dear Parents/Guardians, I know that, amid all the uncertainty and fear right now, it’s overwhelming to suddenly take over as your children’s teacher. Don’t worry — they’re going to learn just fine with you in charge.” So begins an open letter from Rodney Robinson , 2019 National Teacher of the Year and a 20-year veteran educator. “But we could all use a little extra help at the moment, so here are some tips to help you get through the next few months while the education system adjusts.” From self-care for parents and patience in making decisions to academic and social-emotional support, he writes, “Remind yourself that although we are experiencing perhaps the greatest challenge since World War II, everything is going to work out. Love, empathy and compassion will get us through this pandemic… We can’t wait to see you when school opens.” Read the full letter .

best essays 2020

Open Letter to Joe Biden — The Votes of Black and Brown Charter School Parents Matter. Ignore Us at Your Own Peril

Politics: This past spring, the Democrats formed six so-called Unity Task Forces intended to give hope and unification to the party. They may do so for some forces within the party, writes contributor Howard Fuller, but to Black and brown families who have chosen public charter schools to ensure their children get the best education possible, the makeup of the Task Force on Education is an insult . “What is grossly obvious when looking at the list of advisers creating educational policy for the Democratic Party platform is that the 3.3 million students and over 219,000 teachers attending and working in public charter schools have not been considered at all. … Joe Biden, you and your Democratic Party are sending a message to the families of public charter schools that we don’t matter because our educational choices go against the status quo … you are sending the message that you do not support the right of Latino and Black parents to make these critically important, and potentially lifesaving, choices for their children. We demand to be seen, valued and heard. We want to be more than photo ops to be used in your campaign literature. We will not accept second-class citizenship. We demand our seat at the table so you can hear and learn from our collective expertise and experiences, which come out of rich histories of struggle against oppression in this country. … You cannot ignore us and expect us to march blindly to the ballot box to support you.” Read Fuller’s open letter .

best essays 2020

Chad Aldeman: How Much Learning Time Are Students Getting? In 7 Large School Districts, Less Than Normal — and in 3, They’re Getting More

Remote Learning: Back in August, contributor Chad Aldeman calculated that the remote learning schedule for his local public school district of Fairfax, Virginia, was offering less than half of a typical school year to his first-grade son. This trend is not unique to Fairfax: The majority of American students are experiencing either a partial school day or week, or fully virtual classes. While Aldeman doesn’t question the logic of district decisions in this regard, he wondered — collectively, how much learning time will these policies cost students? To find out, he compared the number of hours of live instruction planned this year for 5th-, 8th- and 11th-graders in 10 large districts with their state’s requirement for the amount of school time students should normally receive. Seven of the 10 — Los Angeles; Clark County, Nevada; Wake County, North Carolina; New York City; Montgomery Country, Maryland; Fairfax; and Chicago — are planning to deliver far less instructional time to students than normal. But Houston; Gwinnett County, Georgia; and Miami-Dade, Florida, are on track to surpass the minimal state requirements for instructional hours. Read the full analysis .

best essays 2020

Derrell Bradford: Black Lives Matter and Black Education Matters Because Freedom Matters. Only When Black Folks Are Safe to Both Learn and Live Will America Be Free

Equity: The killing of George Floyd and subsequent calls to action by the Black Lives Matter movement drove home some long-ago lessons for contributor Derrell Bradford about the continuum on which race, the police and education interact. “If you think about race and education and policing as intertwined, there is also no moment when you do not see how they conspire for the betterment or detriment of the country’s children; and, for much of my adult life, the country’s Black children. … And at this moment, the overlap could not be clearer. You cannot solve a problem of Black lives with an all-lives solution. We can’t have an ‘all education matters’ approach to the challenges of Black education . One that doesn’t require states or districts to meet the needs of kids who, too, are fighting to be free and equal, but instead demands they conform to systems that have not historically worked for them in the name of the public good. All education cannot matter until Black education does. … As the only people in this nation’s history who have been both physically enslaved and intellectually starved as a result of not just sentiment, or economics, but public policy, no solution that requires the sacrifice of Black people to be successful will be a solution that works for Black people. The story of Black people is the story of our country’s efforts to live up to its founding values. Black lives matter, and Black education matters, because everyone’s freedom matters. And only when Black folks are safe to both learn, and live, will all Americans be free.” Read the full essay .

best essays 2020

A Teacher’s View: 2020 Can Be an Opportunity for Us to Hone Our Craft and Become Better Educators. We Must Not Waste It

Instruction: In just a few short months, contributor Mandy Peyrani’s city of Houston has experienced massive challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as nurses work on the front lines battling the coronavirus, educators are on the front lines of a battle against learning loss. Teachers have always been heroes — and this moment, she writes, presents an opportunity like never before to show the world why that’s true . Despite unprecedented instructional challenges, distance learning can be viewed as a once-in-a-generation chance for teachers to hone their craft. In virtual classrooms, instructional coaches can efficiently dip in and out of lessons, offering immediate feedback, and in schools where the best educator on a given topic delivers the lesson, colleagues can witness that educator’s pedagogical techniques, gauge the response from the class and then integrate them into their own toolkits — a kind of real-time professional development. “Teachers everywhere can and should meet this moment to show just how important we are to eventually achieving normalcy amid a pandemic — and to exemplify the difference we can make, particularly for kids who need our support most.” Read the full essay .

best essays 2020

Andrew Rotherham: From Homeschooling to the Digital Divide to Philanthropy, 10 Questions About COVID-19 and the Future of Education

2021 and Beyond: Considering how little we knew about coronavirus in May, it was striking to contributor Andrew Rotherham how much certainty there was about different aspects of the crisis playing out in real time. The education world was no exception; despite a generally haphazard response, a surprising certitude about what would work and not work or happen or not happen was pervasive . Whether it was ed tech boosters or teachers union leaders, everyone’s take seemed to line up with their priors from before the novel coronavirus struck, even as the situation seems to call for radical pragmatism. But working with stakeholders around the country made Rotherham certain only about the uncertainty. From homeschooling and the digital divide to the quality of curriculum, real estate and education philanthropy, here were 10 questions he started asking during the first wave of the pandemic. Read the full essay .

best essays 2020

John Bailey & Olivia Shaw: How Are Families Navigating COVID-19? This Week-by-Week Survey of 500 Parents Has Some Answers

Parent Perceptions: The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the lives of millions of Americans, but for parents, it has created a unique set of challenges . Many suddenly found themselves homeschooling their kids, working from home, facing reduced hours at their jobs or, in some cases, unemployed. To better understand how parents are navigating these challenges, the American Enterprise Institute is analyzing weekly surveys, conducted by Echelon Insights, of 500 public school parents. The results of these surveys, which began in April, provide a unique insight into the concerns and experiences of parents through their evolving responses to COVID-19, and can help leaders with their plans for reopening schools. Contributors John Bailey and Olivia Shaw break down the top findings. Read the full analysis .

best essays 2020

Marguerite Roza & Katie Silberstein: Pandemic-Fueled Financial Turbulence Is Hitting School Districts Across the Country. 5 Big Things to Watch For

School Finances: It’s tough to overstate just how much the pandemic is asking of school districts and their financial leaders, write contributors Marguerite Roza and Katie Silberstein of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. They’re being asked to budget in the face of whiplash-inducing on-again, off-again reopening scenarios — all set against a backdrop of collapsing state revenues for K-12 education. At Edunomics Lab, they’ve been tracking districts’ budget decisions in the wake of the pandemic-triggered financial upheaval, and while their effort doesn’t provide an exhaustive national picture, it does offer a snapshot of a fast-moving situation . What they’re seeing are some short-term district actions that could have significant — and, in some cases, troubling — long-term ramifications. Among these are awarding emergency financial powers, tapping reserve funds and locking in spending for services that students can’t access while learning at home. “While none of us wished for this wildly uncertain future,” they write, “here we are. The essential job description for district financial leaders continues to be one of leveraging limited resources to maximize student learning. But doing that job is now immensely more complicated than at any time in recent history.” Read the full analysis .

best essays 2020

Conor Williams: Coronavirus Pandemic Reveals the Reality — and the Risk — of America’s Child Safety Net Being Its Public Schools

School Communities: The angst that accompanied the decision by many superintendents to close schools in the spring — especially in big urban centers like New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles — was not all about lost learning. If the calculation were merely about missed classroom time vs. public health and safety, the choice would have been simpler. But as contributor Conor Williams explains, our public schools, which serve a majority of the nation’s low-income students, are much more than learning centers. They are where students are fed, receive medical, dental and mental health services and even wash their clothes . As Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a press conference in March, “Public education is also this state’s child care system. It is this nation’s child care system,” meaning schools allow parents to work and society to function. The coronavirus crisis, Williams writes, “illuminates just how much we now ask of our public education system. That’s the real question. As Americans spend the next few weeks managing their isolated, individual anxieties, it’s worth asking whether the cancellation of classes should mean that large numbers of children go without food.” Read the full essay .

best essays 2020

David Steiner & Daniel Weisberg: When Students Go Back to School, Too Many Will Start the Year Behind. Here’s How to Catch Them Up — in Real Time

Learning Loss: It’s September 2021. You are a 10th-grade English teacher. Your curriculum says teach George Orwell’s novel 1984 , but half your class lacks the vocabulary and interpretive skills to read the book. So you ask those students to read Lois Lowry’s The Giver , a seventh-grade text, instead. Versions of this scene will play out in thousands of classrooms across the country next year, as students who have missed months of learning time finally return to classrooms far behind academically. Giving those students lower-level work to help them catch up — or, in the more extreme version, asking them to repeat an entire grade — has good intentions and a certain logic. It’s also largely ineffective, write contributors David Steiner and Daniel Weisberg; rather than delay access to grade-level material for students who’ve fallen behind, accelerate it, doing focused work with the less-prepared students before the whole class encounters the text. Done right, these interventions can give students who are lagging the ability to handle grade-level assignments at the same time as their peers. ”Even in the best-case scenario, mastering an entirely new approach to catching students up will take time. That’s okay. Just trying to give every child a real chance to do grade-level work, however imperfectly, will lead to far better results than picking and choosing who gets those opportunities. … In the aftermath of this crisis, schools will have an opportunity to provide students, especially marginalized students, with far better academic experiences than they did before. It starts with a commitment to accelerating learning instead of ratcheting it ever downward.” Read the full essay .

best essays 2020

Morgan Polikoff & Daniel Silver: Getting Testy About Testing — K-12 Parents Support Canceling Standardized Testing this Spring. That Might Not Be a Good Idea

Accountability: In March, with students suddenly learning from home, the U.S. Department of Education granted states a blanket exemption from standardized testing. The decision was relatively straightforward, as there was virtually no infrastructure in place for securely administering high-stakes exams remotely. But with many schools at least partially reopening in the fall, deciding what to do about standardized testing this coming spring is anything but . It’s a complex issue, with historically stressful circumstances for students and teachers on one side and crucially important data on the other. One thing, though is clear, write contributors Daniel Silver and Morgan Polikoff of the University of Southern California: Parents want the tests canceled. The Understanding America Study, administered by the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research to a nationally representative sample of 1,335 U.S. K-12 households, found the proportion who “support” or “strongly support” such a move has risen steadily from 43 percent in mid-April to 64 percent in mid-October. Read their full analysis of why canceling exams, even with all their challenges, might not be a good idea .

best essays 2020

Mahnaz Charania & Julia Freeland Fisher: Mapping Students’ Support Networks Is Key to Supporting Their Remote Learning Success. How Schools Can Make That Happen

Student Supports: Despite educators’ valiant efforts this past spring, many students still struggled to connect to their peers, teachers and counselors. Some went missing from virtual classes altogether, leaving teachers and principals scrambling to find them. Others, particularly middle and high school students, reported a troubling lack of people to turn to for academic and emotional help . These levels of disconnection threaten both students’ well-being and their academic progress. Surrounding students with an interconnected web of positive relationships is the foundation of healthy youth development, write contributors Mahnaz Charania and Julia Freeland Fisher. And within that web, access to what researchers dub a “person on the ground” — a mentor, tutor, parent or neighbor who is physically present to offer support — is a proven, critical ingredient to successful distance learning. Schools that understand the quantity and quality of relationships at their students’ disposal will be well positioned to sustain their well-being and academic progress in the coming year, whether campuses open or remain closed. Read the full analysis .

best essays 2020

Kimberly A. Smith: A Call to Action — Black Educators Need White Co-Conspirators to Combat Racism in Schools and Empower Our Students to Succeed

Racism: The image of George Floyd gasping for air held symbolic resonance for contributor Kimberly A. Smith — racism in America’s schools, she writes, is suffocating Black students. But as a Black woman working in education, she knows the system cannot be changed solely by Black leaders or educators; it is centered in whiteness, so transformation resides in the privilege afforded to white leaders, from policymakers to nonprofit executives to superintendents. Hence, the need for “co-conspirators” willing to be unapologetically anti-racist, committed to listening and learning, willing to cede power while using privilege to invite others to lead , uncompromising in providing high-quality education for Black children and prepared to take political risks to advance their needs. The work, she says, must be done in full and equitable partnership with Black leaders in order to shape the pillars of an education institution that values and celebrates Black students. “I seek to identify a national coalition of white education co-conspirators willing to use their privilege to catalyze anti-racist actions in partnership, advocacy and support of Black leaders, with the goal of creating the conditions for Black students to thrive.” Read the full essay .

best essays 2020

A Principal’s View: Social-Emotional Learning Is More Important Than Ever. Here’s How We Do It Virtually at My School

Social-Emotional Learning: As Principal Sara Carlson Striegel prepared to launch the new virtual school year in August, they were working to ensure students have access to high-quality academic resources and teacher guidance. But just as important was for students and teachers to come together in support of their mental health. Last fall, the school launched a social-emotional learning program, Compass Circles, which provides a framework for teachers to host regular meetings with small groups of students. When in person, participants sit in a circle and go through structured rituals where they discuss how they are doing emotionally and support their peers and colleagues in doing the same. When schools began shutting down last spring, they moved their Circle practice online using video conferencing platforms . Once a week, third- through fifth-graders join a Zoom room with other members of their Circle and go through the same sequence they would have in person. From deep-breathing exercises and emotional check-ins to “badge work” and a closing cheer, Principal Striegel describes how this SEL practice works online and the benefits it provides in keeping the school community healthy and connected. Read the full essay .

Go Deeper: See all our top coverage from 2020 in The 74’s ‘Best Of’ Roundups . Get our latest news, commentary and exclusives delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for The 74 Newsletter .

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Longreads Best of 2020: Essays

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best essays 2020

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our editors picked and featured hundreds of beautifully written and poignant essays published on the web. Because of the wide range of writing across many topics and themes, it was a challenge to sift through them all over the past several weeks to compile a definitive Best of Essays list. As I shortlisted stories, I realized there could be many different versions of this list, but, in the end, these eight reads really spoke to me.

If you like these, you can  sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday .

Mississippi: A Poem, in Days (Kiese Makeba Laymon, Vanity Fair )

Kiese Makeba Laymon was on a book tour when the pandemic hit in the U.S. In this stunner of a piece that unfolds over 14 days, the author writes on fear, racism, death, and home amid a moment of awakening. We follow along on the journey, from event to event in Ohio and West Virginia, with Laymon’s observations and thoughts interspersed with daily COVID-19 death counts and the latest words or orders from Donald Trump and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves. It’s a powerful meditation, one that will stop you in your tracks.

We are awakened, I want to believe. 75 miles from the armed confederate statue in Oxford, Emmett Till’s childish body was destroyed. 70 miles from that armed confederate statue, Fannie Lou Hamer was nearly beaten to death. 160 miles from that armed confederate statue, Medgar Evers was murdered as he enters his home. 80 miles from that armed confederate statue, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. It took way too much Black death to get here. I am wandering around the spiritual consequences of materially progressing at the expense of Black death. I want to be courageous. I wonder, though, when courage becomes contagious—when courage is credentialized, subsidized, and incentivized—if it is still courage at all. Today, as I prepare to push send, and I lather my hands in sanitizer, it feels a bit too much like cowardice. Maybe I’ll wait to send tomorrow. Maybe I won’t send at all. The Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, a group of white men, unanimously vote to keep the armed confederate monument in the middle of Oxford, the town where I live, teach, and write. Humiliation, agony, and death, are what I feel. It could all be so much worse, is what the worst of white folks want us to recite.

Molly (Blake Butler, The Volta )

December’s special issue of The Volta is dedicated to the late poet Molly Brodak, and Brodak’s husband, Blake Butler, writes an incredibly moving essay to remember and honor her. In “Molly,” he weaves an intimate portrait of his late wife — and the details, textures, and expanse of their relationship –with so much love and care. Grab a tissue before sitting down to read it.

Making her laugh made me feel alive, like I’d really accomplished something. She wanted to laugh, I think, despite a widening parcel in her telling her that laughter in a world like ours was for fools. When I think the sound of it now, it reminds me of a bird trapped in a ballroom, looking for anywhere to land.
But there was always something still there underneath that, shredding its pasture—parts of her so dark and displaced I cannot find them anywhere touching the rest of how she was. The story, like all stories, holds no true shape. And that’s exactly what it wants—the pain—it wants more blank to feed the pain with, to fill the space up. It wants us all.
Then, in her poem, “Horse and Cart,” one of the last she ever wrote: “I can’t even imagine a horse / anymore. / That we sat on their spines / and yanked their mouths around.” The gears of her mind, as she grew tired, wore down even these good times, seeking further ways to break them up, send her away.

I Cry for the Mountains: A Legacy Lost (Dave Daley, Chico Enterprise-Record )

California experienced another unprecedented wildfire season this year; a number of fire complexes burned throughout the state, including the massive North Complex Fire that started in August and burned in Northern California’s Plumas and Butte counties. Rancher Dave Daley offers a devastating account of the destruction of his family’s cattle range in Plumas National Forest, and a passionate plea to legislators and regulators to ultimately listen to the land and the locals when it comes to forest management. Daley originally posted this account on Facebook; his followers recommended that the Chico Enterprise-Record  reprint it for a wider audience.

I cry for the forest, the trees and streams, and the horrible deaths suffered by the wildlife and our cattle. The suffering was unimaginable. When you find groups of cows and their baby calves tumbled in a ravine trying to escape, burned almost beyond recognition or a fawn and small calf side by side as if hoping to protect one another, you try not to wretch. You only pray death was swift. Worse, in searing memory, cows with their hooves, udder and even legs burned off still alive who had to be euthanized. A doe lying in the ashes with three fawns, not all hers I bet. And you are glad they can stand and move, even with a limp, because you really cannot imagine any more death today.
For those of you on the right blaming the left and California, these are National Forest lands that are “managed” by the feds. They have failed miserably over the past 50 years. Smokey the Bear was the cruelest joke ever played on the western landscape, a decades long campaign to prevent forest fires has resulted in mega-fires of a scope we’ve never seen. Thanks, Smokey.
I get frustrated with experts and consultants who drive by and “know just what to do.” For 35 years I have attended conferences, given presentations and listened. What I have learned is solutions are local and specific. What happens in one watershed in Plumas or Butte County may be entirely different in the Lassen National Forest just next door. But experts of all kinds are glad to tell you how to do it. “Let’s prescribe graze, use virtual fences, change your timing, change your genetics.” Prescribe graze the forest and canyons? Yea. Right. They don’t know what they don’t know but they will take the honorarium anyway and have a great dinner on your dime. The locals and land rarely benefit.

How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda (Jiayang Fa n , The New Yorker )

Jiayang Fan pens a masterful piece of personal history, on her mother and their relationship, identity, family, propaganda and social media, and chronic illness (her mother has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) . Fan recounts her struggle to help her mother get hospital care during New York’s COVID-19 crisis, all while going viral and facing threats on social media, calling her a criminal and a traitor to China. She tells a complicated and very personal story, one of loyalty and love, with strength and eloquence.

My mother has always knelt at the altar of  mianzi , an aspiration of which A.L.S. makes a spectacular mockery. You may think it’s embarrassing to slur your speech and limp, but wait until you are being spoon-fed and pushed around in a wheelchair—all of which will seem trivial once you can no longer wash or wipe yourself. The progress of the disease is a forced march toward the vanishing point of  mianzi . When my mother was first given her diagnosis, she became obsessed with the idea of why—why her, why now, and, above all, why an illness that would subject her to the kind of public humiliation she feared more than death itself. When she could still operate her first-generation iPad, my mother gave me a contact list of everyone she was still in touch with in China, and told me that, except for her siblings, no one must know of her affliction. Such self-imposed isolation seemed like madness to me, but she preferred to cut friends out of her life rather than admit to the indignity of her compromised state. Her body’s insurrection, my mother believes, is her punishment for her prideful strivings in America.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I had read that a virus is neither dead nor alive, and replicates only in the shelter of a host organism. I began to think of “Jiayang Fan” as viral not in a social-media sense but in a biological one; the calamitous state of the world and certain random mutations in the story had made it unexpectedly contagious. My original posts had served their purpose; now they were serving the purposes of others. I had unwittingly bred a potent piece of propaganda.

The Promise That Tested My Parents Until the End (Christopher Solomon, GQ )

Don’t you ever put me in one of those places,  she said. Don’t put  me  in one of those places,  my father replied.

Christopher Solomon’s parents made a pledge to one another. But what did that actually look like over time, especially when his father became sick? What does unconditional love and devotion look like in our own lives? Solomon writes an honest and heartbreaking essay on love, aging, and marriage — in sickness and in health.

In time what was imperceptible in him became noticeable, and then what was noticeable became something worse. The landscape of my father changed, the coastline eroded. There was less of him, until the old map of my father no longer fit the man before us. It has been 20 years now since he was diagnosed, and sometimes it is hard to remember a time that he was not sick. His speech became a gargle of consonants. The dementia took most of his mind. His body curled in on itself—shrinking, reducing, as if he were becoming an infant again. Despite this, for years he still played the piano, every day, and nearly as well as ever—the mysteryland of the brain permitting this freedom even as body, and mind, crumbled around him. My mother would sing along from the kitchen, as she always had. And then one day, after I arrive home, my mother sounds more concerned than usual.  He has stopped playing the piano,  she says. This seems to worry her more than anything else.
Finally, exhausted, she relents. She drives to visit a nearby nursing home. Afterward she cries in the parking lot. She cries for what she sees there. She cries at the prospect of breaking the Promise. She cries because even though almost nothing remains of her husband—even though he is the cause of her sleepless nights and her tendinitis and her bruises and her anger—in 55 years she rarely has been apart from him. She loves even the scrap of him that remains. He is half of the story they share, of the red VW Beetle and the sunstruck Italian patios and the singalongs and the three towheaded children. As long as he is here, their story, however unlikely, is not yet over. She cries because the end of him is the end of a possibility. And I think, not for the first time, how little I still know about love.

Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me (Reginald Dwayne Betts, The New York Times Magazine )

“The prosecutor’s job, unlike the defense attorney’s or judge’s, is to do justice. What does that mean when you are asked by some to dole out retribution measured in years served, but blamed by others for the damage incarceration can do?” In this nuanced reported essay about mass incarceration in the U.S., Reginald Dwayne Betts reveals “our contradictory impulses” around crime, punishment, and the justice system. And he knows these impulses well, as both a felon and a son to a woman who was raped by a Black man.

But I know that on the other end of our prison sentences was always someone weeping. During the middle of Harris’s presidential campaign, a friend referred me to a woman with a story about Senator Harris that she felt I needed to hear. Years ago, this woman’s sister had been missing for days, and the police had done little. Happenstance gave this woman an audience with then-Attorney General Harris. A coordinated multicity search followed. The sister had been murdered; her body was found in a ravine. The woman told me that “Kamala understands the politics of victimization as well as anyone who has been in the system, which is that this kind of case — a 50-year-old Black woman gone missing or found dead — ordinarily does not get any resources put toward it.” They caught the man who murdered her sister, and he was sentenced to 131 years. I think about the man who assaulted my mother, a serial rapist, because his case makes me struggle with questions of violence and vengeance and justice. And I stop thinking about it. I am inconsistent. I want my friends out, but I know there is no one who can convince me that this man shouldn’t spend the rest of his life in prison.

Safe at Home in Los Angeles (Lynell George, High Country News )

Lynell George’s beautiful read exemplifies what I love about writing on place and home. A native of Los Angeles, George builds and shapes a complex L.A. in her piece: a “city of contradictions,” an elusive, ever-shifting place “built on either impermanence or illusion.” It’s a sensory and richly textured portrait of a vast place, looking at Los Angeles through a sort of kaleidoscope lens of gentrification, nature, and the pandemic lockdown.

Los Angeles has long been a contested domain — both as territory (from the Indigenous Tongva onward) and as emblem. Boosters, speculators and swindlers have had their way not just with the land but with the very image of Los Angeles. The city grew, like an opportunistic vine. It couldn’t just  be . It had to be bigger than life, better than perfect. Even within my lifetime, popular culture has conjured a vision of Los Angeles that is sleight-of-hand, a trick of light, brutally at odds with the lived experience. Los Angeles, by its sprawling nature, absolutely resists oversimplification. This, despite its frustrations, irritants and absurdities, is precisely why I remain here.
Those stories of place, the Los Angeles of my childhood and adolescence and young adulthood — the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s — couldn’t be told until we began to tell them. Until we steadied and raised our voices. Until we made our way through gatekeepers, and most significantly until we were of age and of mind to turn our attention to a shifting definition of the West (or  El Norte ), one that included stories of migration and immigration, of protest, of underemployment, of struggle, and of love and resilience despite disappointment, and in the ways in which we tend to the physical environment, to conserve against drought or be mindful of energy use and emissions. We must tend to the region’s various topographies in narrative. It’s imperative. Or they will be lost. As a chronicler, my responsibility is to try and tell an honest story. True to its roots. Even now, even in this quiet moment in the city, we must remember its cacophony, its music.

My Mustache, My Self (Wesley Morris, The New York Times Magazine )

This essay from Wesley Morris on growing a mustache during the pandemic is about so much more than quarantine-grown facial hair — it’s a brilliant and vulnerable piece on masculinity and race, one in which Morris reflects on becoming himself and considers and celebrates his Blackness.

The mustache had certainly conjoined me to a past I was flattered to be associated with, however superficially. But there were implications. During the later stages of the movement, a mustached man opened himself up to charges of white appeasement and Uncle Tom-ism. Not because of the mustache, obviously, but because of the approach of the sort of person who would choose to wear one. Such a person might not have been considered radical enough, down enough, Black enough. The civil rights mustache was strategically tolerant. It didn’t advocate burning anything down. It ran for office — and sometimes it won. It was establishmentarian, compromising and eventually, come the infernos at the close of the 1960s, it fell out of fashion, in part because it felt out of step with the urgency of the moment.
The Black-power salute is not a casual gesture. It’s weaponry. You aim that arm and fire. I aimed mine in solidarity — with white people instead of at a system they personify. And that didn’t feel quite right. But how would I know? I had never done a Black-power salute. It always seemed like more Blackness than I’ve needed, maybe more than I had. I’m not Black-power Black. I’ve always been milder, more apprehensive than that. I was practically born with a mustache.

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The Best American Essays

Ponder life. Read an essay today.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Elizabeth winkler.

ELIZABETH WINKLER is a journalist and book critic based in New York. Her essays, profiles, and reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal , the Times Literary Supplement , the Economist , the New Republic , and the Washington Post , among other places. She holds BA in English literature from Princeton University and an MA in English literature from Stanford University.

- p. 278, The Best American Essays 2020 .

Philip Weinstein

PHILIP WEINSTEIN, the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor Emeritus at Swarthmore College, has published widely on nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction. The Society for the Study of Southern Literature chose his Becoming Faulkner (2010) for the C. Hugh Holman Award. "Soul-Error" is the signature essay in his current manuscript of the same title.

- p. 277, The Best American Essays 2020 .

Stephanie Powell Watts

STEPHANIE POWELL WATTS won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for her short story collection We Are Taking Only What We Need . Her novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us , was the inaugural American Library Association selection by Sarah Jessica Parker and the winner of a 2018 NAACP Image Award.

Jerald Walker

Recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michener Foundation, JERALD WALKER is a professor of creative writing at Emerson College. His essays have appeared in publications such as The Harvard Review , Mother Jones , The Iowa Review , The Missouri Review , Oxford American , and Creative Nonfiction , and he has been widely anthologized. He is the author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult ; Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption , winner of the PEN/New England Award for Nonfiction, and How to Make a Slave and Other Essays , which includes "Breathe." This is his fifth appearance in the Best American Essays series.

David L. Ulin

David L. Ulin on Amazon

DAVID L. ULIN is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles , shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology , which won a California Book Award. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times , he has written for The Atlantic , Virginia Quarterly Review , The Paris Review , and the New York Times , among other publications. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and Lannan Foundation and teaches at the University of Southern California. Most recently he edited the Library of America's Joan Didion: The 1960's & 70s , the first in a three-volume edition of the author's collected works.

Alison Townsend

ALISON TOWNSEND is the author of The Persistence of Rivers: An Essay on Moving Water , Persephone in America , and The Blue Dress . Emerita professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, she lives in the farm country outside Madison, the inspiration for her essay collection, American Lady: A Natural History of My Search for Home (forthcoming in 2021).

- p. 276-7, The Best American Essays 2020 .

Mark Sundeen

MARK SUNDEEN is the author of five books, including The Unsettlers (2017), The Man Who Quit Money (2012), and The Making of Toro (2003). His work has been translated into seven languages and has appeared in the New York Times , Believer , McSweeney's , and many other publications. A contributing editor for Outside magazine, he has held the Russo Chair in Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico and teaches fiction and nonfiction at the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA Program. He lives with his wife and son in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

- p. 276, The Best American Essays 2020 .

Mark Sullivan

MARK SULLIVAN is the author of a collection of poetry, Slag , and his poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including Alaska Quarterly Review , New England Review , and the Southern Review . He has received a number of awards for his writing, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

A. O. Scott

A. O. SCOTT has been a critic at the New York Times since 2000, writing mostly about film and sometimes about books, music, television, and other subjects. He is the author of Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth and a distinguished professor in the College of Film and the Moving Image at Wesleyan University.

Peter Schjeldahl

PETER SCHJELDAHL has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine's art critic. He came to the magazine from The Village Voice , where he was the art critic from 1990 to 1998. Previously he had written frequently for the New York Times's Arts and Leisure section. His writing has also appeared in Artforum , Art in America , The New York Times Magazine , Vogue , and Vanity Fair . He has received the Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; the Frank Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association, for excellence in art criticism; the Howard D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for "recent prose that merits recognition for the quality of its style"; and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is the author of four books of criticism, including The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings , and Let's See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker . His latest book is Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018 .

- p. 275-6, The Best American Essays 2020 .

Matthew Salesses

MATTHEW SALESSES is the author of three novels, Disappear Dopelgänger Disappear , The Hundred-Year Flood , and I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying , and two forthcoming books of nonfiction: a craft book, Craft in the Real World (2021), and a collection of essays. He has written for NPR's Code Switch , the New York Times's Motherlode , Gay Magazine , Vice , and many others. He is an assistant professor of English at Coe College.

- p. 275, The Best American Essays 2020 .

Susan Fox Rogers

SUSAN FOX ROGERS is the author of My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir and the editor of eleven anthologies, including Solo: On Her Own Adventure and Antarctica: Life on the Ice , which was created while in Antarctica on a National Science Foundation award for artists and writers. Her most recent collection, When Birds Are Near: Dispatches from Contemporary Writers , celebrates the birding life. "The Other Leopold" is part of a longer work, Learning the Birds: A Mid-life Journey , to be published in fall 2021. Rogers has taught the creative essay, nature writing, and bird-related classes at Bard College since 2001.

Clinton Crockett Peters

Clinton Crockett Peters on Amazon

CLINTON CROCKETT PETERS is an assistant professor of creative writing at Berry College. He is the author of Pandora's Garden (2018) and Mountain Madness (forthcoming in 2021). He has been awarded literary prizes by The Iowa Review , Shenandoah , North American Review , Crab Orchard Review , and Columbia Journal . Peters has been noted four times in the Best American series. He holds an Iowa Arts Fellow, and a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion , Southern Review , Utne Reader , Catapult , The Threepenny Review , Electric Literature , and elsewhere.

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

ALEX MARZANO-LESNEVICH is the author of  The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir , which received a Lambda Literary Award, the Chautauqua Prize, and awards in France and Canada. It was translated into eleven languages and is in development with HBO. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, Civitella Ranieri, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Marzano-Lesnevich has written for  The New York Times ,  Harper’s Magazine ,  AGNI ,  Elle France , and many other publications. They live in Portland, Maine, and are an assistant professor at Bowdoin College. Their next book,  Both and Neither , about living beyond the binary, is forthcoming and was excerpted in  The Best American Essays 2020 .

-   The Best American Essays 2022   (p. 288). HarperCollins.

ALEX MARZANO-LESNEVICH is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir , which received a Lambda Literary Award, the Chautauqua Prize, and awards in France and Canada and was translated into nine languages. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, as well as a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich has written for the New York Times , the Boston Globe , Oxford American , Harper's Magazine , and many other publications. They live in Portland, Maine, and are an assistant professor at Bowdoin College. They are at work on a book about gender, from which "Body Language" was adapted.

- The Best American Essays 2020  (p. 274).

Jamaica Kincaid

JAMAICA KINCAID is a writer, novelist, and professor. Her works include Annie John , Lucy , The Autobiography of My Mother , and Mr. Potter , as well as her classic history of her Antigua, A Small Place , and a memoir, My Brother . Her first book, the collection of stories At the Bottom of the River , won the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Kincaid's last novel, See Now Then , was published in 2013. Professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University, Kincaid was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004. She has received a Guggenheim Award, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Prix Femina Éstranger, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Clifton Fadiman Medal, and the Dan David Prize for Literature in 2017.

- p. 274, The Best American Essays 2020 .
- The Best American Essays 1995 .

Joseph Leo Koerner

JOSEPH LEO KOERNER is the Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture and Senior Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He is the author most recently of Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2016). His film The Burning Child was released in 2019.

RON HUETT graduated from Kurt T. Shery continuation high school in June 1995; he received a BA in creative writing from Columbia University's School of General Studies in May 2018. An alumnus of the CRIT writing workshop, Ron teaches third grade in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He is working on his first novel.

Gari Fincke

GARI FINCKE's latest collection of personal essays, The Darkness Call , won the Robert C. Jones Prize for a book of short prose (2018). Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Prize for Short Fiction and the Wheeler Prize for Poetry for earlier collections, Fincke has published thirty-four books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. He founded and then directed the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University for twenty-one years.

- p. 273, The Best American Essays 2020 .

Barbara Ehrenreich

BARBARA EHRENREICH is a contributing editor of The Baffler . Her newest book is Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer .

Rachel Cusk

RACHEL CUSK is the author of ten novels and four works of nonfiction, which have won and been shortlisted for numerous prizes. In 2015 Cusk's version of Medea was staged at the Almeida Theatre.

Born in Bosnia, ELVIS BEGO left that country at the age of twelve and now lives in Copenhagen. His fiction and essays ahve appeared in Agni , The Common , Kenyon Review , New England Review , The Threepenny Review , Tin House , and elsewhere. He is at work on a novel and completing a book of stories.

Oxford American

New England Review

Another Chicago Magazine

Virginia Quarterly Review

Cimarron Review

Michigan Quarterly Review

The Atlantic

The Best American Essays 1987

  • PHYLLIS ROSE .     Tools of Torture: An Essay on Beauty and Pain

The Normal School

Kenyon Review Online

The Baffler

The New York Times Magazine

The Best American Essays 2021

  • Joyce Carol Oates .    ON BOXING    204

Monday, November 16, 2020

Paul crenshaw.

- p. 279, The Best American Essays 2018 .

Noam Chomsky

Sunday, november 15, 2020, andré aciman.

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2020 .

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Marilyn abildskov, the gettysburg review.

  • MARILYN ABILDSKOV   The Trick: Notes Toward a Theory of Plot    1

Monday, July 13, 2020

Joseph epstein.

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 1993 .
-  The Best American Essays 1987  (p. 316). Ticknor & Fields.

Susan Sontag

- p. 586,  The Best American Essays of the Century .
- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 1992 .

Justin Kaplan

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 1990 .

Geoffrey Wolff

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 1989 .

Annie Dillard

- p. 573,  The Best American Essays of the Century .
- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 1988 .

Adam Gopnik

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2008 .

Mary Oliver

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2009 .

Christopher Hitchens

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2010 .

Monday, June 15, 2020

Anne fadiman.

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2003 .

Kathleen Norris

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2001 .

Joyce Carol Oates

"As I am not drawn to art that makes me feel good, comfortable, or at ease," writes Joyce Carol Oates , "so I am not drawn to essays that 'smile,' except in the context of larger, more complex ambitions." Born (1938) in Lockport, New York, Oates graduated from Syracuse University in 1960 (having won Mademoiselle 's college fiction award a year earlier) and received a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1961. She published the first of more than two dozen novels, With Shuddering Fall , in 1964, and with the novel them  (1969) became the youngest writer ever to receive the National Book Award for fiction. Oates taught in the English department of the University of Windsor, in Ontario, from 1967 to 1978, when she moved to Princeton University, where she is Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor. Besides her novels (some of them written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith) and many volumes of short stories (for which she won an O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement), Oates has published numerous volumes of poetry and plays (many of which have been produced). Her nonfiction includes such literary criticism as The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature  (1972) and New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature  (1974) and several essay collections: Contraries: Essays  (1981),   The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews  (1983), and (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities  (1988). She served as a guest editor of The Best American Essays 1991 .

- p. 583,  The Best American Essays of the Century .
- Back Cover, The Best American Essays of the Century .

JOYCE CAROL OATES is the author most recently of Marya: A Life and Raven's Wing , a collection of short stories. Her essay "On Boxing" will be published in an expanded version, with photographs by John Ranard, in 1987. She teaches at Princeton University and helps edit The Ontario Review .

- p. 284, The Best American Essays 1986 .
- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 1987 .

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Edwidge danticat.

- p. , The Best American Essays 2018 .
- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2011 .

Joseph Brodsky

- p. 283, The Best American Essays 1986 .

Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme on Amazon

DONALD BARTHELME has published many collections of short stories, among them Come Back, Dr. Caligari; Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts ; City Life ; Guilty Pleasures ; Sadness ; Amateurs ; Great Days ; and Overnight to Many Distant Cities . He has also written two novels, Snow White and The Dead Father .

Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes on Amazon

JULIAN BARNES is the author of Metroland , Before She Met Me , and Flaubert's Parrot . He was recently awarded the 1986 E. M. Forster Award by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His next novel, Staring at the Sun , will be published by Knopf in 1987.

David Brooks

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2012 .

Elizabeth Hardwick

- p. 577,  The Best American Essays of the Century .
- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 1986 .

Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed on Amazon

CHERYL STRAYED is the author of Wild , Torch , and Tiny Beautiful Things . Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages around the world. Her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine , Vogue , Salon , and elsewhere and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays three times. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

- The Best American Essays 2015 (p. 223). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. 
- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2013 .

Saturday, June 13, 2020

John jeremiah sullivan.

John Jeremiah Sullivan on Amazon

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2014 .
- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2015 .

Jonathan Franzen

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2016 .

Leslie Jamison

LESLIE JAMISON is the author of The Recovering , a critical memoir; two essay collections, The Empathy Exams and Make It Scream, Make It Burn ; and a novel, The Gin Closet . She directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University.

- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2017 .

Dayna Tortorici

- p. 212, The Best American Essays 2019 .

Jia Tolentino

Gary taylor, kai minosh pyle, dawn lundy martin.

Dawn Lundy Martin on Amazon

DAWN LUNDY MARTIN is an American poet and essayist. She is the author of four books of poems, including Good Stock Strange Blood , winner of the 2019 Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry. Her nonfiction can be found in n+I , The New Yorker , Ploughshares , The Believer , and The Best American Essays 2019 . Martin holds the Toi Derricotte Endowed Chair in English at the University of Pittsburgh and is the director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. 

-  The Best American Essays 2021  (p. 204). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- The Best American Essays 2019 .

Terese Marie Mailhot

J. drew lanham.

J. Drew Lanham on Amazon

J. DREW LANHAM's work probes the intersections between nature, race, and identity. His book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature , was named a John Burroughs Association Book of Uncommon Merit in 2017, and won the Southern Environmental Law Center's Reed Writing Award in 2018 and the Southern Book Prize. His work appears in Orion , Places Journal , Oxford American , and numerous anthologies. He is the poet laureate of Edgefield, South Carolina, and the author of Sparrow Envy: Poems . He is the Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University in South Carolina.

- p. 211, The Best American Essays 2019 .

Lili Loofbourow

Elizabeth kolbert, walter johnson, lacy m. johnson.

Lacy M. Johnson on Amazon

LACY M. JOHNSON is a Houston-based professor, curator, and activist, and is the author of the essay collection The Reckonings , the memoir The Other Side — both National Book Critics Circle Award finalists—and the memoir Trespasses . Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker , the New York Times , the Los Angeles Times , Virginia Quarterly Review , Tin House , Guernica , and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Rice University and is the founding director of the Houston Flood Museum.

- pp. 210-211, The Best American Essays 2019 .

Jean Guerrero

Jean Guerrero on Amazon

- p. 210, The Best American Essays 2019 .

Friday, June 12, 2020

Masha gessen, camille t. dungy, alexander chee, jabari asim, mario alejandro ariza.

- p. 209, The Best American Essays 2019 .

Hilton Als on Amazon

-  The Best American Essays 2021  (p. 201). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Back Cover, The Best American Essays 2018 .
- Contributors’ Notes, The Best American Essays 2015 .
  • JEAN GUERRERO   My Father Says He's a "Targeted Individual." Maybe We All Are.   88

The Yale Review

The Best American Essays 2019

  • JABARI ASIM    Getting It Twisted    40

The Best American Essays 1986

  • Robert Fitzgerald .    WHEN THE COCKROACH STOOD BY THE MICKLE WOOD    130 
  • LACY M. JOHNSON   On Likability   105

The Sewanee Review

  • ALEXANDER CHEE   The Autobiography of My Novel    52

The New Yorker

  • ELIZABETH KOLBERT      How to Write About a Vanishing World
  • JIA TOLENTINO      The Rage of the Incels

The Best American Essays 2015

  • CALVIN TRILLIN .     Rumors Around Town
  • Joseph Brodsky .     FLIGHT FROM BYZANTIUM

The New York Review of Books

  • MASHA GESSEN   Stories of a Life    77
  • Gore Vidal .    ON ITALO CALVINO    254

The New York Times

  • MICHELLE ALEXANDER    We Are Not the Resistance   11

The Georgia Review

  • CAMILLE T. DUNGY   Is All Writing Environmental Writing?    70
  • Donald Barthelme .    NOT-KNOWING    9 

The Boston Review

  • WALTER JOHNSON   Guns in the Family   113

Tampa Bay Times

  • GARY TAYLOR   Death of an English Major    189
  • LILI LOOFBOUROW   Men Are More Afraid Than Ever   145

The Believer

  • MARIO ALEJANDRO ARIZA    Come Heat and High Water    23
  • KAI MINOSH PYLE   Autobiography of an Iceheart    176

Pacific Standard

  • TERESE MARIE MAILHOT   Silence Breaking Woman   151
  • DAWN LUNDY MARTIN   When a Person Goes Missing    162
  • DAYNA TORTORICI   In the Maze    197

Harper's Magazine

  • RABIH ALAMEDDINE      Comforting Myths
  • JOHN BARTH .     Teacher
  • ROBERT STONE .     A Higher Horror of the Whiteness: Cocaine's Coloring of the American Psyche

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Heather altfeld, narrative magazine.

  • J. DREW LANHAM   Forever Gone   131


HEATHER ALTFELD    Obituary for Dead Languages    16

Georgia Review

Michelle alexander.

- p. 2o9, The Best American Essays 2019 .

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Book awards, american book award.

  • GARY GIDDINS , a staff writer for  The Village Voice , is the author of three books on music,  Riding on a Blue Note ,  Rhythm-a-ning , and  Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker , which won an American Book Award and has been adapted by Giddins as a documentary film. [ The Best American Essays 1987  (p. 316). Ticknor & Fields.]

National Book Award

  •   RABIH ALAMEDDINE 's " An Unnecessary Woman was a finalist for the National Book Award 2014" - The Best American Essays 2019 , p. 209.

Prix Femina Étranger

  •   RABIH ALAMEDDINE was "the winner of the prestigious Prix Femina Étranger." - The Best American Essays 2019 , p. 209.

Lambda Literary Award  

  • RABIH ALAMEDDINE 's "novel, The Angel of History , won the Lambda Literary Award." - The Best American Essays 2019 , p. 209.

Poets at Work Prize

  • HEATHER ALTFELD's poetry collection The Disappearing Theatre won the 2016 Poets at Work Prize, selected by Stephen Dunn. - The Best American Essays 2019 , p. 209.
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The Best American Essays 2020

A collection of the year’s best essays selected by André Aciman, author of the worldwide bestseller Call Me by Your Name .

“An essay is the child of uncertainty,” André Aciman contends in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2020 . “The struggle to write what one hopes is entirely true, and the long incubation every piece of writing requires of a writer who is thinking difficult thoughts, are what ultimately give the writing its depth, its magnitude, its grace.” The essays Aciman selected center on people facing moments of deep uncertainty, searching for a greater truth. From a Black father’s confrontation of his son’s illness, to a divorcée’s transcendent experience with strangers, to a bartender grieving the tragic loss of a friend, these stories are a master class not just in essay writing but in empathy, artfully imbuing moments of hardship with understanding and that elusive grace.


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ebook ∣ Best American Essays

By robert atwan.

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Best American Essays

Robert Atwan


03 November 2020

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The Best American Essays 2020


A collection of the year's best essays selected by André Aciman, author of the worldwide bestseller Call Me by Your Name. "An essay is the child of uncertainty," André Aciman contends in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2020. "The struggle to write what one hopes is entirely true, and the long incubation every piece of writing requires of a writer who is thinking difficult thoughts, are what ultimately give the writing its depth, its magnitude, its grace." The essays Aciman selected center on people facing moments of deep uncertainty, searching for a greater truth. From a Black father's confrontation of his son's illness, to a divorcée's transcendent experience with strangers, to a bartender grieving the tragic loss of a friend, these stories are a master class not just in essay writing but in empathy, artfully imbuing moments of hardship with understanding and that elusive grace. The Best American 2020 Essays includes RABIH ALAMEDDINE • BARBARA EHRENREICH • LESLIE JAMISON JAMAICA KINCAID • ALEX MARZANO-LESNEVICH • A. O. SCOTT • JERALD WALKER • STEPHANIE POWELL WATTS and others

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best essays 2020

The 10 Best Essay Collections of the Decade

Ever tried. ever failed. no matter..

Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some damn fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.

So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists. We began with the best debut novels , the best short story collections , the best poetry collections , and the best memoirs of the decade , and we have now reached the fifth list in our series: the best essay collections published in English between 2010 and 2019.

The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. As ever, free to add any of your own favorites that we’ve missed in the comments below.

The Top Ten

Oliver sacks, the mind’s eye (2010).

Toward the end of his life, maybe suspecting or sensing that it was coming to a close, Dr. Oliver Sacks tended to focus his efforts on sweeping intellectual projects like On the Move (a memoir), The River of Consciousness (a hybrid intellectual history), and Hallucinations (a book-length meditation on, what else, hallucinations). But in 2010, he gave us one more classic in the style that first made him famous, a form he revolutionized and brought into the contemporary literary canon: the medical case study as essay. In The Mind’s Eye , Sacks focuses on vision, expanding the notion to embrace not only how we see the world, but also how we map that world onto our brains when our eyes are closed and we’re communing with the deeper recesses of consciousness. Relaying histories of patients and public figures, as well as his own history of ocular cancer (the condition that would eventually spread and contribute to his death), Sacks uses vision as a lens through which to see all of what makes us human, what binds us together, and what keeps us painfully apart. The essays that make up this collection are quintessential Sacks: sensitive, searching, with an expertise that conveys scientific information and experimentation in terms we can not only comprehend, but which also expand how we see life carrying on around us. The case studies of “Stereo Sue,” of the concert pianist Lillian Kalir, and of Howard, the mystery novelist who can no longer read, are highlights of the collection, but each essay is a kind of gem, mined and polished by one of the great storytellers of our era.  –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (2011)

The American essay was having a moment at the beginning of the decade, and Pulphead was smack in the middle. Without any hard data, I can tell you that this collection of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s magazine features—published primarily in GQ , but also in The Paris Review , and Harper’s —was the only full book of essays most of my literary friends had read since Slouching Towards Bethlehem , and probably one of the only full books of essays they had even heard of.

Well, we all picked a good one. Every essay in Pulphead is brilliant and entertaining, and illuminates some small corner of the American experience—even if it’s just one house, with Sullivan and an aging writer inside (“Mr. Lytle” is in fact a standout in a collection with no filler; fittingly, it won a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize). But what are they about? Oh, Axl Rose, Christian Rock festivals, living around the filming of One Tree Hill , the Tea Party movement, Michael Jackson, Bunny Wailer, the influence of animals, and by god, the Miz (of Real World/Road Rules Challenge fame).

But as Dan Kois has pointed out , what connects these essays, apart from their general tone and excellence, is “their author’s essential curiosity about the world, his eye for the perfect detail, and his great good humor in revealing both his subjects’ and his own foibles.” They are also extremely well written, drawing much from fictional techniques and sentence craft, their literary pleasures so acute and remarkable that James Wood began his review of the collection in The New Yorker with a quiz: “Are the following sentences the beginnings of essays or of short stories?” (It was not a hard quiz, considering the context.)

It’s hard not to feel, reading this collection, like someone reached into your brain, took out the half-baked stuff you talk about with your friends, researched it, lived it, and represented it to you smarter and better and more thoroughly than you ever could. So read it in awe if you must, but read it.  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (2013)

Such is the sentence-level virtuosity of Aleksandar Hemon—the Bosnian-American writer, essayist, and critic—that throughout his career he has frequently been compared to the granddaddy of borrowed language prose stylists: Vladimir Nabokov. While it is, of course, objectively remarkable that anyone could write so beautifully in a language they learned in their twenties, what I admire most about Hemon’s work is the way in which he infuses every essay and story and novel with both a deep humanity and a controlled (but never subdued) fury. He can also be damn funny. Hemon grew up in Sarajevo and left in 1992 to study in Chicago, where he almost immediately found himself stranded, forced to watch from afar as his beloved home city was subjected to a relentless four-year bombardment, the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare. This extraordinary memoir-in-essays is many things: it’s a love letter to both the family that raised him and the family he built in exile; it’s a rich, joyous, and complex portrait of a place the 90s made synonymous with war and devastation; and it’s an elegy for the wrenching loss of precious things. There’s an essay about coming of age in Sarajevo and another about why he can’t bring himself to leave Chicago. There are stories about relationships forged and maintained on the soccer pitch or over the chessboard, and stories about neighbors and mentors turned monstrous by ethnic prejudice. As a chorus they sing with insight, wry humor, and unimaginable sorrow. I am not exaggerating when I say that the collection’s devastating final piece, “The Aquarium”—which details his infant daughter’s brain tumor and the agonizing months which led up to her death—remains the most painful essay I have ever read.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)

Of every essay in my relentlessly earmarked copy of Braiding Sweetgrass , Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s gorgeously rendered argument for why and how we should keep going, there’s one that especially hits home: her account of professor-turned-forester Franz Dolp. When Dolp, several decades ago, revisited the farm that he had once shared with his ex-wife, he found a scene of destruction: The farm’s new owners had razed the land where he had tried to build a life. “I sat among the stumps and the swirling red dust and I cried,” he wrote in his journal.

So many in my generation (and younger) feel this kind of helplessness–and considerable rage–at finding ourselves newly adult in a world where those in power seem determined to abandon or destroy everything that human bodies have always needed to survive: air, water, land. Asking any single book to speak to this helplessness feels unfair, somehow; yet, Braiding Sweetgrass does, by weaving descriptions of indigenous tradition with the environmental sciences in order to show what survival has looked like over the course of many millennia. Kimmerer’s essays describe her personal experience as a Potawotami woman, plant ecologist, and teacher alongside stories of the many ways that humans have lived in relationship to other species. Whether describing Dolp’s work–he left the stumps for a life of forest restoration on the Oregon coast–or the work of others in maple sugar harvesting, creating black ash baskets, or planting a Three Sisters garden of corn, beans, and squash, she brings hope. “In ripe ears and swelling fruit, they counsel us that all gifts are multiplied in relationship,” she writes of the Three Sisters, which all sustain one another as they grow. “This is how the world keeps going.”  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Hilton Als, White Girls (2013)

In a world where we are so often reduced to one essential self, Hilton Als’ breathtaking book of critical essays, White Girls , which meditates on the ways he and other subjects read, project and absorb parts of white femininity, is a radically liberating book. It’s one of the only works of critical thinking that doesn’t ask the reader, its author or anyone he writes about to stoop before the doorframe of complete legibility before entering. Something he also permitted the subjects and readers of his first book, the glorious book-length essay, The Women , a series of riffs and psychological portraits of Dorothy Dean, Owen Dodson, and the author’s own mother, among others. One of the shifts of that book, uncommon at the time, was how it acknowledges the way we inhabit bodies made up of variously gendered influences. To read White Girls now is to experience the utter freedom of this gift and to marvel at Als’ tremendous versatility and intelligence.

He is easily the most diversely talented American critic alive. He can write into genres like pop music and film where being part of an audience is a fantasy happening in the dark. He’s also wired enough to know how the art world builds reputations on the nod of rich white patrons, a significant collision in a time when Jean-Michel Basquiat is America’s most expensive modern artist. Als’ swerving and always moving grip on performance means he’s especially good on describing the effect of art which is volatile and unstable and built on the mingling of made-up concepts and the hard fact of their effect on behavior, such as race. Writing on Flannery O’Connor for instance he alone puts a finger on her “uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” From Eminem to Richard Pryor, André Leon Talley to Michael Jackson, Als enters the life and work of numerous artists here who turn the fascinations of race and with whiteness into fury and song and describes the complexity of their beauty like his life depended upon it. There are also brief memoirs here that will stop your heart. This is an essential work to understanding American culture.  –John Freeman, Executive Editor

Eula Biss, On Immunity (2014)

We move through the world as if we can protect ourselves from its myriad dangers, exercising what little agency we have in an effort to keep at bay those fears that gather at the edges of any given life: of loss, illness, disaster, death. It is these fears—amplified by the birth of her first child—that Eula Biss confronts in her essential 2014 essay collection, On Immunity . As any great essayist does, Biss moves outward in concentric circles from her own very private view of the world to reveal wider truths, discovering as she does a culture consumed by anxiety at the pervasive toxicity of contemporary life. As Biss interrogates this culture—of privilege, of whiteness—she interrogates herself, questioning the flimsy ways in which we arm ourselves with science or superstition against the impurities of daily existence.

Five years on from its publication, it is dismaying that On Immunity feels as urgent (and necessary) a defense of basic science as ever. Vaccination, we learn, is derived from vacca —for cow—after the 17th-century discovery that a small application of cowpox was often enough to inoculate against the scourge of smallpox, an etymological digression that belies modern conspiratorial fears of Big Pharma and its vaccination agenda. But Biss never scolds or belittles the fears of others, and in her generosity and openness pulls off a neat (and important) trick: insofar as we are of the very world we fear, she seems to be suggesting, we ourselves are impure, have always been so, permeable, vulnerable, yet so much stronger than we think.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor-in-Chief 

Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (2016)

When Rebecca Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” was published in 2008, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon unlike almost any other in recent memory, assigning language to a behavior that almost every woman has witnessed—mansplaining—and, in the course of identifying that behavior, spurring a movement, online and offline, to share the ways in which patriarchal arrogance has intersected all our lives. (It would also come to be the titular essay in her collection published in 2014.) The Mother of All Questions follows up on that work and takes it further in order to examine the nature of self-expression—who is afforded it and denied it, what institutions have been put in place to limit it, and what happens when it is employed by women. Solnit has a singular gift for describing and decoding the misogynistic dynamics that govern the world so universally that they can seem invisible and the gendered violence that is so common as to seem unremarkable; this naming is powerful, and it opens space for sharing the stories that shape our lives.

The Mother of All Questions, comprised of essays written between 2014 and 2016, in many ways armed us with some of the tools necessary to survive the gaslighting of the Trump years, in which many of us—and especially women—have continued to hear from those in power that the things we see and hear do not exist and never existed. Solnit also acknowledges that labels like “woman,” and other gendered labels, are identities that are fluid in reality; in reviewing the book for The New Yorker , Moira Donegan suggested that, “One useful working definition of a woman might be ‘someone who experiences misogyny.'” Whichever words we use, Solnit writes in the introduction to the book that “when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by a society sometimes becomes intolerable.” This storytelling work has always been vital; it continues to be vital, and in this book, it is brilliantly done.  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends (2017)

The newly minted MacArthur fellow Valeria Luiselli’s four-part (but really six-part) essay  Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions  was inspired by her time spent volunteering at the federal immigration court in New York City, working as an interpreter for undocumented, unaccompanied migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Written concurrently with her novel  Lost Children Archive  (a fictional exploration of the same topic), Luiselli’s essay offers a fascinating conceit, the fashioning of an argument from the questions on the government intake form given to these children to process their arrivals. (Aside from the fact that this essay is a heartbreaking masterpiece, this is such a  good  conceit—transforming a cold, reproducible administrative document into highly personal literature.) Luiselli interweaves a grounded discussion of the questionnaire with a narrative of the road trip Luiselli takes with her husband and family, across America, while they (both Mexican citizens) wait for their own Green Card applications to be processed. It is on this trip when Luiselli reflects on the thousands of migrant children mysteriously traveling across the border by themselves. But the real point of the essay is to actually delve into the real stories of some of these children, which are agonizing, as well as to gravely, clearly expose what literally happens, procedural, when they do arrive—from forms to courts, as they’re swallowed by a bureaucratic vortex. Amid all of this, Luiselli also takes on more, exploring the larger contextual relationship between the United States of America and Mexico (as well as other countries in Central America, more broadly) as it has evolved to our current, adverse moment.  Tell Me How It Ends  is so small, but it is so passionate and vigorous: it desperately accomplishes in its less-than-100-pages-of-prose what centuries and miles and endless records of federal bureaucracy have never been able, and have never cared, to do: reverse the dehumanization of Latin American immigrants that occurs once they set foot in this country.  –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Zadie Smith, Feel Free (2018)

In the essay “Meet Justin Bieber!” in Feel Free , Zadie Smith writes that her interest in Justin Bieber is not an interest in the interiority of the singer himself, but in “the idea of the love object”. This essay—in which Smith imagines a meeting between Bieber and the late philosopher Martin Buber (“Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German surname,” she explains in one of many winning footnotes. “Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe?”). Smith allows that this premise is a bit premise -y: “I know, I know.” Still, the resulting essay is a very funny, very smart, and un-tricky exploration of individuality and true “meeting,” with a dash of late capitalism thrown in for good measure. The melding of high and low culture is the bread and butter of pretty much every prestige publication on the internet these days (and certainly of the Twitter feeds of all “public intellectuals”), but the essays in Smith’s collection don’t feel familiar—perhaps because hers is, as we’ve long known, an uncommon skill. Though I believe Smith could probably write compellingly about anything, she chooses her subjects wisely. She writes with as much electricity about Brexit as the aforementioned Beliebers—and each essay is utterly engrossing. “She contains multitudes, but her point is we all do,” writes Hermione Hoby in her review of the collection in The New Republic . “At the same time, we are, in our endless difference, nobody but ourselves.”  –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays (2019)

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an academic who has transcended the ivory tower to become the sort of public intellectual who can easily appear on radio or television talk shows to discuss race, gender, and capitalism. Her collection of essays reflects this duality, blending scholarly work with memoir to create a collection on the black female experience in postmodern America that’s “intersectional analysis with a side of pop culture.” The essays range from an analysis of sexual violence, to populist politics, to social media, but in centering her own experiences throughout, the collection becomes something unlike other pieces of criticism of contemporary culture. In explaining the title, she reflects on what an editor had said about her work: “I was too readable to be academic, too deep to be popular, too country black to be literary, and too naïve to show the rigor of my thinking in the complexity of my prose. I had wanted to create something meaningful that sounded not only like me, but like all of me. It was too thick.” One of the most powerful essays in the book is “Dying to be Competent” which begins with her unpacking the idiocy of LinkedIn (and the myth of meritocracy) and ends with a description of her miscarriage, the mishandling of black woman’s pain, and a condemnation of healthcare bureaucracy. A finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, Thick confirms McMillan Cottom as one of our most fearless public intellectuals and one of the most vital.  –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Dissenting Opinions

The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed (2010)

In The Possessed Elif Batuman indulges her love of Russian literature and the result is hilarious and remarkable. Each essay of the collection chronicles some adventure or other that she had while in graduate school for Comparative Literature and each is more unpredictable than the next. There’s the time a “well-known 20th-centuryist” gave a graduate student the finger; and the time when Batuman ended up living in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for a summer; and the time that she convinced herself Tolstoy was murdered and spent the length of the Tolstoy Conference in Yasnaya Polyana considering clues and motives. Rich in historic detail about Russian authors and literature and thoughtfully constructed, each essay is an amalgam of critical analysis, cultural criticism, and serious contemplation of big ideas like that of identity, intellectual legacy, and authorship. With wit and a serpentine-like shape to her narratives, Batuman adopts a form reminiscent of a Socratic discourse, setting up questions at the beginning of her essays and then following digressions that more or less entreat the reader to synthesize the answer for herself. The digressions are always amusing and arguably the backbone of the collection, relaying absurd anecdotes with foreign scholars or awkward, surreal encounters with Eastern European strangers. Central also to the collection are Batuman’s intellectual asides where she entertains a theory—like the “problem of the person”: the inability to ever wholly capture one’s character—that ultimately layer the book’s themes. “You are certainly my most entertaining student,” a professor said to Batuman. But she is also curious and enthusiastic and reflective and so knowledgeable that she might even convince you (she has me!) that you too love Russian literature as much as she does. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)

Roxane Gay’s now-classic essay collection is a book that will make you laugh, think, cry, and then wonder, how can cultural criticism be this fun? My favorite essays in the book include Gay’s musings on competitive Scrabble, her stranded-in-academia dispatches, and her joyous film and television criticism, but given the breadth of topics Roxane Gay can discuss in an entertaining manner, there’s something for everyone in this one. This book is accessible because feminism itself should be accessible – Roxane Gay is as likely to draw inspiration from YA novels, or middle-brow shows about friendship, as she is to introduce concepts from the academic world, and if there’s anyone I trust to bridge the gap between high culture, low culture, and pop culture, it’s the Goddess of Twitter. I used to host a book club dedicated to radical reads, and this was one of the first picks for the club; a week after the book club met, I spied a few of the attendees meeting in the café of the bookstore, and found out that they had bonded so much over discussing  Bad Feminist  that they couldn’t wait for the next meeting of the book club to keep discussing politics and intersectionality, and that, in a nutshell, is the power of Roxane. –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Rivka Galchen, Little Labors (2016)

Generally, I find stories about the trials and tribulations of child-having to be of limited appeal—useful, maybe, insofar as they offer validation that other people have also endured the bizarre realities of living with a tiny human, but otherwise liable to drift into the musings of parents thrilled at the simple fact of their own fecundity, as if they were the first ones to figure the process out (or not). But Little Labors is not simply an essay collection about motherhood, perhaps because Galchen initially “didn’t want to write about” her new baby—mostly, she writes, “because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact, those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” Like many new mothers, though, Galchen soon discovered her baby—which she refers to sometimes as “the puma”—to be a preoccupying thought, demanding to be written about. Galchen’s interest isn’t just in her own progeny, but in babies in literature (“Literature has more dogs than babies, and also more abortions”), The Pillow Book , the eleventh-century collection of musings by Sei Shōnagon, and writers who are mothers. There are sections that made me laugh out loud, like when Galchen continually finds herself in an elevator with a neighbor who never fails to remark on the puma’s size. There are also deeper, darker musings, like the realization that the baby means “that it’s not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” It is a slim collection that I happened to read at the perfect time, and it remains one of my favorites of the decade. –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Charlie Fox, This Young Monster (2017)

On social media as in his writing, British art critic Charlie Fox rejects lucidity for allusion and doesn’t quite answer the Twitter textbox’s persistent question: “What’s happening?” These days, it’s hard to tell.  This Young Monster  (2017), Fox’s first book,was published a few months after Donald Trump’s election, and at one point Fox takes a swipe at a man he judges “direct from a nightmare and just a repulsive fucking goon.” Fox doesn’t linger on politics, though, since most of the monsters he looks at “embody otherness and make it into art, ripping any conventional idea of beauty to shreds and replacing it with something weird and troubling of their own invention.”

If clichés are loathed because they conform to what philosopher Georges Bataille called “the common measure,” then monsters are rebellious non-sequiturs, comedic or horrific derailments from a classical ideal. Perverts in the most literal sense, monsters have gone astray from some “proper” course. The book’s nine chapters, which are about a specific monster or type of monster, are full of callbacks to familiar and lesser-known media. Fox cites visual art, film, songs, and books with the screwy buoyancy of a savant. Take one of his essays, “Spook House,” framed as a stage play with two principal characters, Klaus (“an intoxicated young skinhead vampire”) and Hermione (“a teen sorceress with green skin and jet-black hair” who looks more like The Wicked Witch than her namesake). The chorus is a troupe of trick-or-treaters. Using the filmmaker Cameron Jamie as a starting point, the rest is free association on gothic decadence and Detroit and L.A. as cities of the dead. All the while, Klaus quotes from  Artforum ,  Dazed & Confused , and  Time Out. It’s a technical feat that makes fictionalized dialogue a conveyor belt for cultural criticism.

In Fox’s imagination, David Bowie and the Hydra coexist alongside Peter Pan, Dennis Hopper, and the maenads. Fox’s book reaches for the monster’s mask, not really to peel it off but to feel and smell the rubber schnoz, to know how it’s made before making sure it’s still snugly set. With a stylistic blend of arthouse suavity and B-movie chic,  This Young Monster considers how monsters in culture are made. Aren’t the scariest things made in post-production? Isn’t the creature just duplicity, like a looping choir or a dubbed scream? –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (2017)

Elena Passarello’s collection of essays Animals Strike Curious Poses picks out infamous animals and grants them the voice, narrative, and history they deserve. Not only is a collection like this relevant during the sixth extinction but it is an ambitious historical and anthropological undertaking, which Passarello has tackled with thorough research and a playful tone that rather than compromise her subject, complicates and humanizes it. Passarello’s intention is to investigate the role of animals across the span of human civilization and in doing so, to construct a timeline of humanity as told through people’s interactions with said animals. “Of all the images that make our world, animal images are particularly buried inside us,” Passarello writes in her first essay, to introduce us to the object of the book and also to the oldest of her chosen characters: Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2010. It was an occasion so remarkable and so unfathomable given the span of human civilization that Passarello says of Yuka: “Since language is epically younger than both thought and experience, ‘woolly mammoth’ means, to a human brain, something more like time.” The essay ends with a character placing a hand on a cave drawing of a woolly mammoth, accompanied by a phrase which encapsulates the author’s vision for the book: “And he becomes the mammoth so he can envision the mammoth.” In Passarello’s hands the imagined boundaries between the animal, natural, and human world disintegrate and what emerges is a cohesive if baffling integrated history of life. With the accuracy and tenacity of a journalist and the spirit of a storyteller, Elena Passarello has assembled a modern bestiary worthy of contemplation and awe. –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias (2019)

Esmé Weijun Wang’s collection of essays is a kaleidoscopic look at mental health and the lives affected by the schizophrenias. Each essay takes on a different aspect of the topic, but you’ll want to read them together for a holistic perspective. Esmé Weijun Wang generously begins The Collected Schizophrenias by acknowledging the stereotype, “Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy.” From there, she walks us through the technical language, breaks down the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ( DSM-5 )’s clinical definition. And then she gets very personal, telling us about how she came to her own diagnosis and the way it’s touched her daily life (her relationships, her ideas about motherhood). Esmé Weijun Wang is uniquely situated to write about this topic. As a former lab researcher at Stanford, she turns a precise, analytical eye to her experience while simultaneously unfolding everything with great patience for her reader. Throughout, she brilliantly dissects the language around mental health. (On saying “a person living with bipolar disorder” instead of using “bipolar” as the sole subject: “…we are not our diseases. We are instead individuals with disorders and malfunctions. Our conditions lie over us like smallpox blankets; we are one thing and the illness is another.”) She pinpoints the ways she arms herself against anticipated reactions to the schizophrenias: high fashion, having attended an Ivy League institution. In a particularly piercing essay, she traces mental illness back through her family tree. She also places her story within more mainstream cultural contexts, calling on groundbreaking exposés about the dangerous of institutionalization and depictions of mental illness in television and film (like the infamous Slender Man case, in which two young girls stab their best friend because an invented Internet figure told them to). At once intimate and far-reaching, The Collected Schizophrenias is an informative and important (and let’s not forget artful) work. I’ve never read a collection quite so beautifully-written and laid-bare as this. –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Ross Gay, The Book of Delights (2019)

When Ross Gay began writing what would become The Book of Delights, he envisioned it as a project of daily essays, each focused on a moment or point of delight in his day. This plan quickly disintegrated; on day four, he skipped his self-imposed assignment and decided to “in honor and love, delight in blowing it off.” (Clearly, “blowing it off” is a relative term here, as he still produced the book.) Ross Gay is a generous teacher of how to live, and this moment of reveling in self-compassion is one lesson among many in The Book of Delights , which wanders from moments of connection with strangers to a shade of “red I don’t think I actually have words for,” a text from a friend reading “I love you breadfruit,” and “the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything .”

Gay does not linger on any one subject for long, creating the sense that delight is a product not of extenuating circumstances, but of our attention; his attunement to the possibilities of a single day, and awareness of all the small moments that produce delight, are a model for life amid the warring factions of the attention economy. These small moments range from the physical–hugging a stranger, transplanting fig cuttings–to the spiritual and philosophical, giving the impression of sitting beside Gay in his garden as he thinks out loud in real time. It’s a privilege to listen. –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Honorable Mentions

A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).

Terry Castle, The Professor and Other Writings (2010) · Joyce Carol Oates, In Rough Country (2010) · Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (2011) · Christopher Hitchens, Arguably (2011) ·  Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer, Between Parentheses (2011) · Dubravka Ugresic, tr. David Williams, Karaoke Culture (2011) · Tom Bissell, Magic Hours (2012)  · Kevin Young, The Grey Album (2012) · William H. Gass, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012) · Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012) · Herta Müller, tr. Geoffrey Mulligan, Cristina and Her Double (2013) · Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (2014)  · Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable (2014)  · Daphne Merkin, The Fame Lunches (2014)  · Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering (2015) · Wendy Walters, Multiply/Divide (2015) · Colm Tóibín, On Elizabeth Bishop (2015) ·  Renee Gladman, Calamities (2016)  · Jesmyn Ward, ed. The Fire This Time (2016)  · Lindy West, Shrill (2016)  · Mary Oliver, Upstream (2016)  · Emily Witt, Future Sex (2016)  · Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (2016)  · Mark Greif, Against Everything (2016)  · Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood (2017)  · Sarah Gerard, Sunshine State (2017)  · Jim Harrison, A Really Big Lunch (2017)  · J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays: 2006-2017 (2017) · Melissa Febos, Abandon Me (2017)  · Louise Glück, American Originality (2017)  · Joan Didion, South and West (2017)  · Tom McCarthy, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (2017)  · Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until they Kill Us (2017)  · Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017)  ·  Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (2017)  · Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018)  · Alice Bolin, Dead Girls (2018)  · Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? (2018)  · Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done (2018)  · Maggie O’Farrell, I Am I Am I Am (2018)  · Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018)  · Rachel Cusk, Coventry (2019)  · Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror (2019)  · Emily Bernard, Black is the Body (2019)  · Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard (2019)  · Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations (2019)  ·  Rachel Munroe, Savage Appetites (2019)  · Robert A. Caro,  Working  (2019) · Arundhati Roy, My Seditious Heart (2019).

Emily Temple

Emily Temple

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The best video essays of 2020

Creators continue to push the envelope of criticism on YouTube

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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For the last few years, video essays have gained more and more prominence on YouTube . With more and more creators choosing a video essay — or video essay-inspired — format, there are video essays about almost any topic you want to learn more about.

To discuss what makes a video essay one of the best of the year, let’s first break down what a video essay was in the year 2020 . There’s more gray area between formats than it initially may seem, especially given how many videos that lack an essay structure take on an essay aesthetic. We used the following criteria for this list:

  • The video must be scripted. Momentary improvised asides are fine, especially if they come in the form of voice over added in editing, but the video must otherwise follow a written script.
  • The video must have a thesis, and that thesis must be more than “this is good” or “this is bad.” The thesis should concern the impact of the subject matter, not just its content. This means no straight reviews (like La’Ron Readus’s review of Candyman ), no commentary/discussion videos (like Sherliza Moé’s series on cultural appropriation in the Star Wars prequels and Avatar: The Last Airbender ), no lore recaps (like My Name Is Byf’s meticulous archival works of the Destiny 2 lore), and no straight-up histories (like Sarah Z’s retelling of the infamous DashCon).
  • The video also shouldn’t be a documentary (like NoClip’s documentary about the making of Pyre ). The focus should be a subject from an analytical standpoint, not an interview standpoint.
  • But this doesn’t mean the video should necessarily aim for pure objectivity; personal video essays are, in fact, a thing.

This isn’t to say the excluded videos aren’t great. On the contrary: the ones mentioned above absolutely rule. Defining the parameters of a video essay, though, puts the videos discussed here on an equal playing field. When you watch, you know you’ll come away understanding the subject matter, and likely how art and society impact each other, a little better. Almost all of these videos contain spoilers, so watch at your own risk — but most can be enjoyed regardless of your familiarity with the subject matter, too.

1. “In Search of Flat Earth,” Dan Olson (Folding Ideas)

Dan Olson of Folding Ideas has been a video essayist for years, helping solidify the medium on YouTube. “In Search of Flat Earth,” though, is his masterpiece to date. The video is shot beautifully, with loving and reverent shots of nature that not only contribute to the video’s content and concepts, but also capture a sense of still beauty. If the video seeks to claim that flat earthers feel powerlessness in the face of the government and science, the way this video is shot makes the claim that maybe our powerlessness can be good, actually. But “In Search of Flat Earth” isn’t just a response to flat earthers; it’s also a response to Olson’s contemporaries who have made videos trying to convince flat earthers that their ideas are wrong. “In Search of Flat Earth” argues that flat earthers, and people with similar mindsets, can’t be logicked out of their mindsets — which turns into a surprise, mind-blowing third-act twist.

2. “The Satirical Resurgence of Reefer Madness,” Yhara Zayd

Yhara Zayd is somewhat of a newcomer to video essays, posting her first, “The Remake That Couldn’t: Skins U.S. ” in June 2019. Her catalogue of work has boomed in 2020, making selecting a video to feature difficult; her work is consistently standout, mixing analysis with dry comedy and heavy aesthetics. In a landmark year for marijuana legalization, “The Satirical Resurgence of Reefer Madness ” feels especially timely and important, but it’s also just a delight to watch. The video is not just a look into a criminally underrated musical starring Kristen Bell, Alan Cummings, and Ana Gasteyer. It’s a look into the real 1936 propaganda film of the same name, how the laws around marijuana criminalization were formed, and the deeply racist roots of anti-marijuana campaigns. Zayd’s soft but direct voice and distinctly internet-culture-informed humor make the video consistently engaging and fun while never shying away from what makes Reefer Madness so worthy of a campy parody musical.

3. “The Strange Reality of Roller Coaster Tycoon,” Jacob Geller

Roller Coaster Tycoon is a nostalgic classic — but what can it teach us about death? A weird amount, as Geller explains in “The Strange Reality of Roller Coaster Tycoon .” This video opens with the sentence, “There is at least one roller coaster designed specifically to kill you.” The “Euthanasia Coaster,” Geller explains, was never made, but would effectively kill a rider in just about a minute. As he breaks down the rituals around death, he winds his way around curves and loops, masterfully bringing the audience back to the game at the core of the video: Roller Coaster Tycoon . In just over 18 minutes, Geller’s analysis breaks down how the game allows for meaningful struggle in its mechanics — which the video essayist notes are similar in their coding to a roller coaster — while allowing for monstrosities, lethal roller coasters that bring your virtual park-goers to their grave. A roller coaster is meant to scare us, meant to spike adrenaline, meant to put the fear of death right in us, but fun! Geller’s discussion of Roller Coaster Tycoon shows just how much coasters, real or virtual, say about how we deal with death.

Disclosure: Jacob Geller has written for Polygon.

4. “ CATS ! And the Weird Mind of TS Eliot,” Maggie Mae Fish

Cats may have come out in 2019, but Maggie Mae Fish’s video essay on it came out in March 2020, so early into what the rest of the year would become. It was a small, but wonderfully unhinged blessing for video essay lovers who needed something bonkers to keep us afloat during quarantine. Fish’s performance background is in comedy and improv, notably working with Cracked before starting on her own video essays. Her writing and performance have a level of effervescent delight and bewilderment at most of the trash media she discusses, coming through most in her discussion of Cats .

But while a video on why Cats was bad could have been engaging and funny, Fish takes a step deeper, looking into the musical’s source material: the poetry of T.S. Eliot, a homophobic, antisemitic weirdo. Fish doesn’t just express Eliot’s politics, but explains why Cats pulls from fascist ideologies in its depiction of a tradition-heavy death cult. (Just, you know, with cats.) From there, Fish’s analysis goes even deeper. This video isn’t about not liking problematic media, or even “bad” media. It’s a video about deeply loving something that winds up parodying and subverting its roots.

5. “The Anatomy of Stan Culture,” Elexus Jionde (Intelexual Media)

Historian Elexius Jionde of Intelexual Media often takes a cultural anthropology lens in her videos, discussing topics like life in the American 1970s and the history of Black homelessness . In “The Anatomy of Stan Culture,” Jionde breaks down a current social phenomenon through a historical lens, asking why we stan and how we got here. Jionde dissects “celebrity worship disorder” and how fans obsess over their favorite celebrities, while not letting people who think they’re too good for the goss off the hook either. Using examples ranging from Bhad Babie to Selena Quintanilla to Victorian actors, Jionde shows how current celebrity culture is rooted in everything from politics to evolutionary biology. This 18-minute video is a crash course in how the celebrity industry runs, and it’s also an analysis of how we interact with celebrity right now. How do stans go from liking Ariana Grande’s music to replicating Ariana Grande’s voice to sending death threats to people who besmirch Ariana Grande’s name? Jionde doesn’t necessarily judge stans; instead, she shows how celebrity culture affects the rest of culture.

6. “On Writing: Mental Illness in Video Games,” Tim Hickson (Hello Future Me)

Before talking about what makes this video essay great, a warning: this video discusses struggles with mental health, including several aspects of suicide. It’s the heaviest video essay on this list, so make sure you know what you’re getting into before you watch.

Tim Hickson of the channel Hello Future Me opens the video by disclosing his experience working for a youth mental health and suicide intervention hotline. From there, he first discusses the ways in which video games, immersive narratives where players have control and make choices, can be cathartic for people with mental illnesses and informative for people who don’t. Citing games from World of Warcraft to Celeste to Prey to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice , Hickson shows the different ways games dive into depression, social anxiety, and schizophrenia. A segment focused on Life is Strange ’s Kate Marsh dissects how a story can be cathartic for one person, but harmful for another. It’s a deeply empathetic video essay with rich research. It’s sobering, emotional, and moving.

7. “Why Anime is for Black People - Hip Hop x Anime,” Yedoye Travis (Beyond the Bot)

Beyond the Bot is a new New York-based collective making video essays about how anime impacts culture, and like with Yhara Zaid’s work, it was difficult to choose a favorite. “Why Anime is for Black People” is a standout for just how deep the analysis goes into the crossover between Black and East Asian culture. Going back to ’70s Blaxploitation and kung fu films, host and writer Yedoye Travis chronicles how East Asian media permeated Black culture, eventually leading to the Wu-Tang Clan sourcing their samples from films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Shaolin and Wu Tang . Legendary producer J Dilla would later go on to sample East Asian music as well. And, of course, Travis spends a good deal talking about the important of the Toonami block of Adult Swim, and the importance of the network playing music from bands like Gorillaz and their lo-fi hip-hop bed music for bumps. Travis explains how the shows themselves — namely Cowboy Bebop , Samurai Champloo , and, of course, The Boondocks — made an impact on Black youth who grew up alongside the programming. The historical lens of the cross-culture influences allows this analysis to go deeper than similar video essays, but the tone stays casual, giving plenty of asides and jokes for people familiar with the content.

8. “What Is *Good* Queer Representation in 2020?,” Princess Weekes (MelinaPendulum)

2020 has been a landmark year for queer representation in the media, and Princess Weekes’ “What Is *Good* Queer Representation in 2020?” seeks to pick apart what has been “good,” what has been “bad,” and most often, what has just been complicated. Like any discussion of representation, Weekes talks about how important it is for queer people to see different versions of queer people in a variety of media, and the tendency for queer people to overlook works by queer creators, or judge them more harshly than works by creators who aren’t queer. She breaks down queer assimilation and respectability politics, taking a stance that’s emotional and personal, while still being relatable and pervasive. This video essay is a great start for how we can start discussing ways to complicate representation, to move away from the sanitization of queer narratives, and understand that what makes one person feel seen might do the opposite for someone else.

9. “Fallout: New Vegas Is Genius, And Here’s Why,” Harry Brewis (hbomberguy)

Harry Brewis’ trend of surprisingly long videos with sarcastically simplistic titles continues with his hour-and-a-half testament to what makes a good narrative-heavy RPG, using Fallout: New Vegas as an example of the best of the best. Don’t let the title trick you into thinking the video is a review. It’s much closer to a masterclass on writing for games, and implementing your story and worldbuilding into every single aspect of that game. From the world to the companions to the main plot to the side quests to the combat to the continuity of consequences, Brewis lays out how Fallout: New Vegas gives its players genuine choices, and then makes those choices genuinely significant in the game. He argues the game actually deals in “gray morality” instead of just saying it does while pushing players to be Good or Evil. The choices in the game often leave the player ambivalent, while placing them in a wild world that players can choose to make even wilder. Brewis uses the video to talk about what makes Fallout: New Vegas work, and why so many games pale in comparison. It isn’t just that Fallout: New Vegas is good —it’s that it’s a meticulous game made by people who cared about every single detail they developed.

40 Best Essays of All Time (Including Links & Writing Tips)

Author: Rafal Reyzer

I wanted to improve my writing skills. I thought that reading the forty best essays of all time would bring me closer to my goal.

I had little money (buying forty collections of essays was out of the question) so I’ve found them online instead. I’ve hacked through piles of them, and finally, I’ve found the great ones. Now I want to share the whole list with you (with the addition of my notes about writing). Each item on the list has a direct link to the essay, so please click away and indulge yourself. Also, next to each essay, there’s an image of the book that contains the original work.

About this essay list:

Reading essays is like indulging in candy; once you start, it’s hard to stop. I sought out essays that were not only well-crafted but also impactful. These pieces genuinely shifted my perspective. Whether you’re diving in for enjoyment or to hone your writing, these essays promise to leave an imprint. It’s fascinating how an essay can resonate with you, and even if details fade, its essence remains. I haven’t ranked them in any way; they’re all stellar. Skim through, explore the summaries, and pick up some writing tips along the way. For more essay gems, consider “Best American Essays” by Joyce Carol Oates or “101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think” curated by Brianna Wiest.

George Orwell Typing

40 Best Essays of All Time (With Links And Writing Tips)

1. david sedaris – laugh, kookaburra.

david sedaris - the best of me essay collection

A great family drama takes place against the backdrop of the Australian wilderness. And the Kookaburra laughs… This is one of the top essays of the lot. It’s a great mixture of family reminiscences, travel writing, and advice on what’s most important in life. You’ll also learn an awful lot about the curious culture of the Aussies.

Writing tips from the essay:

  • Use analogies (you can make it funny or dramatic to achieve a better effect): “Don’t be afraid,” the waiter said, and he talked to the kookaburra in a soothing, respectful voice, the way you might to a child with a switchblade in his hand”.
  • You can touch a few cognate stories in one piece of writing . Reveal the layers gradually. Intertwine them and arrange for a grand finale where everything is finally clear.
  • Be on the side of the reader. Become their friend and tell the story naturally, like around the dinner table.
  • Use short, punchy sentences. Tell only as much as is required to make your point vivid.
  • Conjure sentences that create actual feelings: “I had on a sweater and a jacket, but they weren’t quite enough, and I shivered as we walked toward the body, and saw that it was a . . . what, exactly?”
  • You may ask a few tough questions in a row to provoke interest and let the reader think.

2. Charles D’Ambrosio – Documents

Charles D'Ambrosio - Loitering - New and Collected Essays

Do you think your life punches you in the face all too often? After reading this essay, you will change your mind. Reading about loss and hardships often makes us sad at first, but then enables us to feel grateful for our lives . D’Ambrosio shares his documents (poems, letters) that had a major impact on his life, and brilliantly shows how not to let go of the past.

  • The most powerful stories are about your family and the childhood moments that shaped your life.
  • You don’t need to build up tension and pussyfoot around the crux of the matter. Instead, surprise the reader by telling it like it is: “The poem was an allegory about his desire to leave our family.” Or: “My father had three sons. I’m the eldest; Danny, the youngest, killed himself sixteen years ago”.
  • You can use real documents and quotes from your family and friends. It makes it so much more personal and relatable.
  • Don’t cringe before the long sentence if you know it’s a strong one.
  • At the end of the essay, you may come back to the first theme to close the circuit.
  • Using slightly poetic language is acceptable, as long as it improves the story.

3. E. B. White – Once more to the lake

E.B. White - Essays

What does it mean to be a father? Can you see your younger self, reflected in your child? This beautiful essay tells the story of the author, his son, and their traditional stay at a placid lake hidden within the forests of Maine. This place of nature is filled with sunshine and childhood memories. It also provides for one of the greatest meditations on nature and the passing of time.

  • Use sophisticated language, but not at the expense of readability.
  • Use vivid language to trigger the mirror neurons in the reader’s brain: “I took along my son, who had never had any fresh water up his nose and who had seen lily pads only from train windows”.
  • It’s important to mention universal feelings that are rarely talked about (it helps to create a bond between two minds): “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing. I guess I remembered clearest of all the early mornings when the lake was cool and motionless”.
  • Animate the inanimate: “this constant and trustworthy body of water”.
  • Mentioning tales of yore is a good way to add some mystery and timelessness to your piece.
  • Using double, or even triple “and” in one sentence is fine. It can make the sentence sing.

4. Zadie Smith – Fail Better

Zadie Smith - Changing My Mind

Aspiring writers feel tremendous pressure to perform. The daily quota of words often turns out to be nothing more than gibberish. What then? Also, should the writer please the reader or should she be fully independent? What does it mean to be a writer, anyway? This essay is an attempt to answer these questions, but its contents are not only meant for scribblers. Within it, you’ll find some great notes about literary criticism, how we treat art , and the responsibility of the reader.

  • A perfect novel ? There’s no such thing.
  • The novel always reflects the inner world of the writer. That’s why we’re fascinated with writers.
  • Writing is not simply about craftsmanship, but about taking your reader to the unknown lands. In the words of Christopher Hitchens: “Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.”
  • Style comes from your unique personality and the perception of the world. It takes time to develop it.
  • Never try to tell it all. “All” can never be put into language. Take a part of it and tell it the best you can.
  • Avoid being cliché. Try to infuse new life into your writing .
  • Writing is about your way of being. It’s your game. Paradoxically, if you try to please everyone, your writing will become less appealing. You’ll lose the interest of the readers. This rule doesn’t apply in the business world where you have to write for a specific person (a target audience).
  • As a reader, you have responsibilities too. According to the critics, every thirty years, there’s just a handful of great novels. Maybe it’s true. But there’s also an element of personal connection between the reader and the writer. That’s why for one person a novel is a marvel, while for the other, nothing special at all. That’s why you have to search and find the author who will touch you.

5. Virginia Woolf – Death of the Moth

Virginia Woolf - Essays

Amid an ordinary day, sitting in a room of her own, Virginia Woolf tells about the epic struggle for survival and the evanescence of life. This short essay is truly powerful. In the beginning, the atmosphere is happy. Life is in full force. And then, suddenly, it fades away. This sense of melancholy would mark the last years of Woolf’s life.

  • The melody of language… A good sentence is like music: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow- underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us”.
  • You can show the grandest in the mundane (for example, the moth at your window and the drama of life and death).
  • Using simple comparisons makes the style more lucid: “Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure”.

6. Meghan Daum – My Misspent Youth

Meghan Daum - My Misspent Youth - Essays

Many of us, at some point or another, dream about living in New York. Meghan Daum’s take on the subject differs slightly from what you might expect. There’s no glamour, no Broadway shows, and no fancy restaurants. Instead, there’s the sullen reality of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. You’ll get all the juicy details about credit cards, overdue payments, and scrambling for survival. It’s a word of warning. But it’s also a great story about shattered fantasies of living in a big city. Word on the street is: “You ain’t promised mañana in the rotten manzana.”

  • You can paint a picture of your former self. What did that person believe in? What kind of world did he or she live in?
  • “The day that turned your life around” is a good theme you may use in a story. Memories of a special day are filled with emotions. Strong emotions often breed strong writing.
  • Use cultural references and relevant slang to create a context for your story.
  • You can tell all the details of the story, even if in some people’s eyes you’ll look like the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived. It adds to the originality.
  • Say it in a new way: “In this mindset, the dollars spent, like the mechanics of a machine no one bothers to understand, become an abstraction, an intangible avenue toward self-expression, a mere vehicle of style”.
  • You can mix your personal story with the zeitgeist or the ethos of the time.

7. Roger Ebert – Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Roger Ebert - The Great Movies

Probably the greatest film critic of all time, Roger Ebert, tells us not to rage against the dying of the light. This essay is full of courage, erudition, and humanism. From it, we learn about what it means to be dying (Hitchens’ “Mortality” is another great work on that theme). But there’s so much more. It’s a great celebration of life too. It’s about not giving up, and sticking to your principles until the very end. It brings to mind the famous scene from Dead Poets Society where John Keating (Robin Williams) tells his students: “Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary”.

  • Start with a powerful sentence: “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear.”
  • Use quotes to prove your point -”‘Ask someone how they feel about death’, he said, ‘and they’ll tell you everyone’s gonna die’. Ask them, ‘In the next 30 seconds?’ No, no, no, that’s not gonna happen”.
  • Admit the basic truths about reality in a childlike way (especially after pondering quantum physics) – “I believe my wristwatch exists, and even when I am unconscious, it is ticking all the same. You have to start somewhere”.
  • Let other thinkers prove your point. Use quotes and ideas from your favorite authors and friends.

8. George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant

George Orwell - A collection of Essays

Even after one reading, you’ll remember this one for years. The story, set in British Burma, is about shooting an elephant (it’s not for the squeamish). It’s also the most powerful denunciation of colonialism ever put into writing. Orwell, apparently a free representative of British rule, feels to be nothing more than a puppet succumbing to the whim of the mob.

  • The first sentence is the most important one: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me”.
  • You can use just the first paragraph to set the stage for the whole piece of prose.
  • Use beautiful language that stirs the imagination: “I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains.” Or: “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.”
  • If you’ve ever been to war, you will have a story to tell: “(Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.)”
  • Use simple words, and admit the sad truth only you can perceive: “They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching”.
  • Share words of wisdom to add texture to the writing: “I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his freedom that he destroys.”
  • I highly recommend reading everything written by Orwell, especially if you’re looking for the best essay collections on Amazon or Goodreads.

9. George Orwell – A Hanging

George Orwell - Essays

It’s just another day in Burma – time to hang a man. Without much ado, Orwell recounts the grim reality of taking another person’s life. A man is taken from his cage and in a few minutes, he’s going to be hanged. The most horrible thing is the normality of it. It’s a powerful story about human nature. Also, there’s an extraordinary incident with the dog, but I won’t get ahead of myself.

  • Create brilliant, yet short descriptions of characters: “He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting mustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the mustache of a comic man on the films”.
  • Understand and share the felt presence of a unique experience: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man”.
  • Make your readers hear the sound that will stay with them forever: “And then when the noose was fixed, the prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”
  • Make the ending original by refusing the tendency to seek closure or summing it up.

10. Christopher Hitchens – Assassins of The Mind

Christopher Hitchens - Arguably - Essays

In one of the greatest essays written in defense of free speech, Christopher Hitchens shares many examples of how modern media kneel to the explicit threats of violence posed by Islamic extremists. He recounts the story of his friend, Salman Rushdie, author of Satanic Verses who, for many years, had to watch over his shoulder because of the fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini. With his usual wit, Hitchens shares various examples of people who died because of their opinions and of editors who refuse to publish anything related to Islam because of fear (and it was written long before the Charlie Hebdo massacre). After reading the essay, you realize that freedom of expression is one of the most precious things we have and that we have to fight for it. I highly recommend all essay collections penned by Hitchens, especially the ones written for Vanity Fair.

  • Assume that the readers will know the cultural references. When they do, their self-esteem goes up – they are a part of an insider group.
  • When proving your point, give a variety of real-life examples from eclectic sources. Leave no room for ambiguity or vagueness. Research and overall knowledge are essential here.
  • Use italics to emphasize a specific word or phrase (here I use the underlining): “We live now in a climate where every publisher and editor and politician has to weigh in advance the possibility of violent Muslim reprisal. In consequence, several things have not happened.”
  • Think about how to make it sound more original: “So there is now a hidden partner in our cultural and academic and publishing and the broadcasting world: a shadowy figure that has, uninvited, drawn up a chair to the table.”

11. Christopher Hitchens – The New Commandments

Christopher Hitchens - Essays

It’s high time to shatter the tablets and amend the biblical rules of conduct. Watch, as Christopher Hitchens slays one commandment after the other on moral, as well as historical grounds. For example, did you know that there are many versions of the divine law dictated by God to Moses which you can find in the Bible? Aren’t we thus empowered to write our version of a proper moral code? If you approach it with an open mind, this essay may change the way you think about the Bible and religion.

  • Take the iconoclastic approach. Have a party on the hallowed soil.
  • Use humor to undermine orthodox ideas (it seems to be the best way to deal with an established authority).
  • Use sarcasm and irony when appropriate (or not): “Nobody is opposed to a day of rest. The international Communist movement got its start by proclaiming a strike for an eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, against Christian employers who used child labor seven days a week”.
  • Defeat God on legal grounds: “Wise lawmakers know that it is a mistake to promulgate legislation that is impossible to obey”.
  • Be ruthless in the logic of your argument. Provide evidence.

12. Phillip Lopate – Against Joie de Vivre

Philip Lopate - The Art Of Personal Essay

While reading this fantastic essay, this quote from Slavoj Žižek kept coming back to me: “I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself. If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves”. I can bear the onus of happiness or joie de vivre for some time. But this force enables me to get free and wallow in the sweet feelings of melancholy and nostalgia. By reading this work of Lopate, you’ll enter into the world of an intelligent man who finds most social rituals a drag. It’s worth exploring.

  • Go against the grain. Be flamboyant and controversial (if you can handle it).
  • Treat the paragraph like a group of thoughts on one theme. Next paragraph, next theme.
  • Use references to other artists to set the context and enrich the prose: “These sunny little canvases with their talented innocence, the third-generation spirit of Montmartre, bore testimony to a love of life so unbending as to leave an impression of rigid narrow-mindedness as extreme as any Savonarola. Their rejection of sorrow was total”.
  • Capture the emotions in life that are universal, yet remain unspoken.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your intimate experiences.

13. Philip Larkin – The Pleasure Principle

Philip Larkin - Jazz Writings, and other essays

This piece comes from the Required Writing collection of personal essays. Larkin argues that reading in verse should be a source of intimate pleasure – not a medley of unintelligible thoughts that only the author can (or can’t?) decipher. It’s a sobering take on modern poetry and a great call to action for all those involved in it. Well worth a read.

  • Write about complicated ideas (such as poetry) simply. You can change how people look at things if you express yourself enough.
  • Go boldly. The reader wants a bold writer: “We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry, not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try”.
  • Play with words and sentence length. Create music: “It is time some of you playboys realized, says the judge, that reading a poem is hard work. Fourteen days in stir. Next case”.
  • Persuade the reader to take action. Here, direct language is the most effective.

14. Sigmund Freud – Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

Sigmund Freud - On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia

This essay reveals Freud’s disillusionment with the whole project of Western civilization. How the peaceful European countries could engage in a war that would eventually cost over 17 million lives? What stirs people to kill each other? Is it their nature, or are they puppets of imperial forces with agendas of their own? From the perspective of time, this work by Freud doesn’t seem to be fully accurate. Even so, it’s well worth your time.

  • Commence with long words derived from Latin. Get grandiloquent, make your argument incontrovertible, and leave your audience discombobulated.
  • Use unending sentences, so that the reader feels confused, yet impressed.
  • Say it well: “In this way, he enjoyed the blue sea and the grey; the beauty of snow-covered mountains and green meadowlands; the magic of northern forests and the splendor of southern vegetation; the mood evoked by landscapes that recall great historical events, and the silence of untouched nature”.
  • Human nature is a subject that never gets dry.

15. Zadie Smith – Some Notes on Attunement

“You are privy to a great becoming, but you recognize nothing” – Francis Dolarhyde. This one is about the elusiveness of change occurring within you. For Zadie, it was hard to attune to the vibes of Joni Mitchell – especially her Blue album. But eventually, she grew up to appreciate her genius, and all the other things changed as well. This top essay is all about the relationship between humans, and art. We shouldn’t like art because we’re supposed to. We should like it because it has an instantaneous, emotional effect on us. Although, according to Stansfield (Gary Oldman) in Léon, liking Beethoven is rather mandatory.

  • Build an expectation of what’s coming: “The first time I heard her I didn’t hear her at all”.
  • Don’t be afraid of repetition if it feels good.
  • Psychedelic drugs let you appreciate things you never appreciated.
  • Intertwine a personal journey with philosophical musings.
  • Show rather than tell: “My friends pitied their eyes. The same look the faithful give you as you hand them back their “literature” and close the door in their faces”.
  • Let the poets speak for you: “That time is past, / And all its aching joys are now no
  • more, / And all its dizzy raptures”.
  • By voicing your anxieties, you can heal the anxieties of the reader. In that way, you say: “I’m just like you. I’m your friend in this struggle”.
  • Admit your flaws to make your persona more relatable.

16. Annie Dillard – Total Eclipse

Annie Dillard - Teaching A stone to talk

My imagination was always stirred by the scene of the solar eclipse in Pharaoh, by Boleslaw Prus. I wondered about the shock of the disoriented crowd when they saw how their ruler could switch off the light. Getting immersed in this essay by Annie Dillard has a similar effect. It produces amazement and some kind of primeval fear. It’s not only the environment that changes; it’s your mind and the perception of the world. After the eclipse, nothing is going to be the same again.

  • Yet again, the power of the first sentence draws you in: “It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass”.
  • Don’t miss the extraordinary scene. Then describe it: “Up in the sky, like a crater from some distant cataclysm, was a hollow ring”.
  • Use colloquial language. Write as you talk. Short sentences often win.
  • Contrast the numinous with the mundane to enthrall the reader.

17. Édouard Levé – When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue

Édouard Levé - Suicide

This suicidally beautiful essay will teach you a lot about the appreciation of life and the struggle with mental illness. It’s a collection of personal, apparently unrelated thoughts that show us the rich interior of the author. You look at the real-time thoughts of another person, and then recognize the same patterns within yourself… It sounds like a confession of a person who’s about to take their life, and it’s striking in its originality.

  • Use the stream-of-consciousness technique and put random thoughts on paper. Then, polish them: “I have attempted suicide once, I’ve been tempted four times to attempt it”.
  • Place the treasure deep within the story: “When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss”.
  • Don’t worry about what people might think. The more you expose, the more powerful the writing. Readers also take part in the great drama. They experience universal emotions that mostly stay inside.  You can translate them into writing.

18. Gloria E. Anzaldúa – How to Tame a Wild Tongue

Gloria Anzaldúa - Reader

Anzaldúa, who was born in south Texas, had to struggle to find her true identity. She was American, but her culture was grounded in Mexico. In this way, she and her people were not fully respected in either of the countries. This essay is an account of her journey of becoming the ambassador of the Chicano (Mexican-American) culture. It’s full of anecdotes, interesting references, and different shades of Spanish. It’s a window into a new cultural dimension that you’ve never experienced before.

  • If your mother tongue is not English, but you write in English, use some of your unique homeland vocabulary.
  • You come from a rich cultural heritage. You can share it with people who never heard about it, and are not even looking for it, but it is of immense value to them when they discover it.
  • Never forget about your identity. It is precious. It is a part of who you are. Even if you migrate, try to preserve it. Use it to your best advantage and become the voice of other people in the same situation.
  • Tell them what’s really on your mind: “So if you want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language”.

19. Kurt Vonnegut – Dispatch From A Man Without a Country

Kurt Vonnegut - A man without a country

In terms of style, this essay is flawless. It’s simple, conversational, humorous, and yet, full of wisdom. And when Vonnegut becomes a teacher and draws an axis of “beginning – end”, and, “good fortune – bad fortune” to explain literature, it becomes outright hilarious. It’s hard to find an author with such a down-to-earth approach. He doesn’t need to get intellectual to prove a point. And the point could be summed up by the quote from Great Expectations – “On the Rampage, Pip, and off the Rampage, Pip – such is Life!”

  • Start with a curious question: “Do you know what a twerp is?”
  • Surprise your readers with uncanny analogies: “I am from a family of artists. Here I am, making a living in the arts. It has not been a rebellion. It’s as though I had taken over the family Esso station.”
  • Use your natural language without too many special effects. In time, the style will crystalize.
  • An amusing lesson in writing from Mr. Vonnegut: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college”.
  • You can put actual images or vignettes between the paragraphs to illustrate something.

20. Mary Ruefle – On Fear

Mary Ruefle - Madness, rack and honey

Most psychologists and gurus agree that fear is the greatest enemy of success or any creative activity. It’s programmed into our minds to keep us away from imaginary harm. Mary Ruefle takes on this basic human emotion with flair. She explores fear from so many angles (especially in the world of poetry-writing) that at the end of this personal essay, you will look at it, dissect it, untangle it, and hopefully be able to say “f**k you” the next time your brain is trying to stop you.

  • Research your subject thoroughly. Ask people, have interviews, get expert opinions, and gather as much information as possible. Then scavenge through the fields of data, and pull out the golden bits that will let your prose shine.
  • Use powerful quotes to add color to your story: “The poet who embarks on the creation of the poem (as I know by experience), begins with the aimless sensation of a hunter about to embark on a night hunt through the remotest of forests. Unaccountable dread stirs in his heart”. – Lorca.
  • Writing advice from the essay: “One of the fears a young writer has is not being able to write as well as he or she wants to, the fear of not being able to sound like X or Y, a favorite author. But out of fear, hopefully, is born a young writer’s voice”.

21. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation

Susan Sontag - Against Interpretation

In this highly intellectual essay, Sontag fights for art and its interpretation. It’s a great lesson, especially for critics and interpreters who endlessly chew on works that simply defy interpretation. Why don’t we just leave the art alone? I always hated it when at school they asked me: “What did the author have in mind when he did X or Y?” Iēsous Pantocrator! Hell if I know! I will judge it through my subjective experience!

  • Leave the art alone: “Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities”.
  • When you have something really important to say, style matters less.
  • There’s no use in creating a second meaning or inviting interpretation of our art. Just leave it be and let it speak for itself.

22. Nora Ephron – A Few Words About Breasts

Nora Ephron - The most of Nora Ephron

This is a heartwarming, coming-of-age story about a young girl who waits in vain for her breasts to grow. It’s simply a humorous and pleasurable read. The size of breasts is a big deal for women. If you’re a man, you may peek into the mind of a woman and learn many interesting things. If you’re a woman, maybe you’ll be able to relate and at last, be at peace with your bosom.

  • Touch an interesting subject and establish a strong connection with the readers (in that case, women with small breasts). Let your personality shine through the written piece. If you are lighthearted, show it.
  • Use hyphens to create an impression of real talk: “My house was full of apples and peaches and milk and homemade chocolate chip cookies – which were nice, and good for you, but-not-right-before-dinner-or-you’ll-spoil-your-appetite.”
  • Use present tense when you tell a story to add more life to it.
  • Share the pronounced, memorable traits of characters: “A previous girlfriend named Solange, who was famous throughout Beverly Hills High School for having no pigment in her right eyebrow, had knitted them for him (angora dice)”.

23. Carl Sagan – Does Truth Matter – Science, Pseudoscience, and Civilization

Carl Sagan - The Demon Haunted World

Carl Sagan was one of the greatest proponents of skepticism, and an author of numerous books, including one of my all-time favorites – The Demon-Haunted World . He was also a renowned physicist and the host of the fantastic Cosmos: A Personal Voyage series, which inspired a whole generation to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. He was also a dedicated weed smoker – clearly ahead of his time. The essay that you’re about to read is a crystallization of his views about true science, and why you should check the evidence before believing in UFOs or similar sorts of crap.

  • Tell people the brutal truth they need to hear. Be the one who spells it out for them.
  • Give a multitude of examples to prove your point. Giving hard facts helps to establish trust with the readers and show the veracity of your arguments.
  • Recommend a good book that will change your reader’s minds – How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life

24. Paul Graham – How To Do What You Love

Paul Graham - Hackers and Painters

How To Do What You Love should be read by every college student and young adult. The Internet is flooded with a large number of articles and videos that are supposed to tell you what to do with your life. Most of them are worthless, but this one is different. It’s sincere, and there’s no hidden agenda behind it. There’s so much we take for granted – what we study, where we work, what we do in our free time… Surely we have another two hundred years to figure it out, right? Life’s too short to be so naïve. Please, read the essay and let it help you gain fulfillment from your work.

  • Ask simple, yet thought-provoking questions (especially at the beginning of the paragraph) to engage the reader: “How much are you supposed to like what you do?”
  • Let the readers question their basic assumptions: “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like”.
  • If you’re writing for a younger audience, you can act as a mentor. It’s beneficial for younger people to read a few words of advice from a person with experience.

25. John Jeremiah Sullivan – Mister Lytle

John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead

A young, aspiring writer is about to become a nurse of a fading writer – Mister Lytle (Andrew Nelson Lytle), and there will be trouble. This essay by Sullivan is probably my favorite one from the whole list. The amount of beautiful sentences it contains is just overwhelming. But that’s just a part of its charm. It also takes you to the Old South which has an incredible atmosphere. It’s grim and tawny but you want to stay there for a while.

  • Short, distinct sentences are often the most powerful ones: “He had a deathbed, in other words. He didn’t go suddenly”.
  • Stay consistent with the mood of the story. When reading Mister Lytle you are immersed in that southern, forsaken, gloomy world, and it’s a pleasure.
  • The spectacular language that captures it all: “His French was superb, but his accent in English was best—that extinct mid-Southern, land-grant pioneer speech, with its tinges of the abandoned Celtic urban Northeast (“boned” for burned) and its raw gentility”.
  • This essay is just too good. You have to read it.

26. Joan Didion – On Self Respect

Joan Didion - The white album

Normally, with that title, you would expect some straightforward advice about how to improve your character and get on with your goddamn life – but not from Joan Didion. From the very beginning, you can feel the depth of her thinking, and the unmistakable style of a true woman who’s been hurt. You can learn more from this essay than from whole books about self-improvement . It reminds me of the scene from True Detective, where Frank Semyon tells Ray Velcoro to “own it” after he realizes he killed the wrong man all these years ago. I guess we all have to “own it”, recognize our mistakes, and move forward sometimes.

  • Share your moral advice: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs”.
  • It’s worth exploring the subject further from a different angle. It doesn’t matter how many people have already written on self-respect or self-reliance – you can still write passionately about it.
  • Whatever happens, you must take responsibility for it. Brave the storms of discontent.

27. Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp

Susan Sontag - Essays of the 1960 and 1970

I’ve never read anything so thorough and lucid about an artistic current. After reading this essay, you will know what camp is. But not only that – you will learn about so many artists you’ve never heard of. You will follow their traces and go to places where you’ve never been before. You will vastly increase your appreciation of art. It’s interesting how something written as a list could be so amazing. All the listicles we usually see on the web simply cannot compare with it.

  • Talking about artistic sensibilities is a tough job. When you read the essay, you will see how much research, thought and raw intellect came into it. But that’s one of the reasons why people still read it today, even though it was written in 1964.
  • You can choose an unorthodox way of expression in the medium for which you produce. For example, Notes on Camp is a listicle – one of the most popular content formats on the web. But in the olden days, it was uncommon to see it in print form.
  • Just think about what is camp: “And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling”.

28. Ralph Waldo Emerson – Self-Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Self Reliance and other essays

That’s the oldest one from the lot. Written in 1841, it still inspires generations of people. It will let you understand what it means to be self-made. It contains some of the most memorable quotes of all time. I don’t know why, but this one especially touched me: “Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design, and posterity seems to follow his steps as a train of clients”. Now isn’t it purely individualistic, American thought? Emerson told me (and he will tell you) to do something amazing with my life. The language it contains is a bit archaic, but that just adds to the weight of the argument. You can consider it to be a meeting with a great philosopher who shaped the ethos of the modern United States.

  • You can start with a powerful poem that will set the stage for your work.
  • Be free in your creative flow. Do not wait for the approval of others: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness”.
  • Use rhetorical questions to strengthen your argument: “I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly say a new and spontaneous word?”

29. David Foster Wallace – Consider The Lobster

David Foster Wallece - Consider the lobster and other essays

When you want simple field notes about a food festival, you needn’t send there the formidable David Foster Wallace. He sees right through the hypocrisy and cruelty behind killing hundreds of thousands of innocent lobsters – by boiling them alive. This essay uncovers some of the worst traits of modern American people. There are no apologies or hedging one’s bets. There’s just plain truth that stabs you in the eye like a lobster claw. After reading this essay, you may reconsider the whole animal-eating business.

  • When it’s important, say it plainly and stagger the reader: “[Lobsters] survive right up until they’re boiled. Most of us have been in supermarkets or restaurants that feature tanks of live lobster, from which you can pick out your supper while it watches you point”.
  • In your writing, put exact quotes of the people you’ve been interviewing (including slang and grammatical errors). It makes it more vivid, and interesting.
  • You can use humor in serious situations to make your story grotesque.
  • Use captions to expound on interesting points of your essay.

30. David Foster Wallace – The Nature of the Fun

David Foster Wallece - a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

The famous novelist and author of the most powerful commencement speech ever done is going to tell you about the joys and sorrows of writing a work of fiction. It’s like taking care of a mutant child that constantly oozes smelly liquids. But you love that child and you want others to love it too. It’s a very humorous account of what it means to be an author. If you ever plan to write a novel, you should read that one. And the story about the Chinese farmer is just priceless.

  • Base your point on a chimerical analogy. Here, the writer’s unfinished work is a “hideously damaged infant”.
  • Even in expository writing, you may share an interesting story to keep things lively.
  • Share your true emotions (even when you think they won’t interest anyone). Often, that’s exactly what will interest the reader.
  • Read the whole essay for marvelous advice on writing fiction.

31. Margaret Atwood – Attitude

Margaret Atwood - Writing with Intent - Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005

This is not an essay per se, but I included it on the list for the sake of variety. It was delivered as a commencement speech at The University of Toronto, and it’s about keeping the right attitude. Soon after leaving university, most graduates have to forget about safety, parties, and travel and start a new life – one filled with a painful routine that will last until they drop. Atwood says that you don’t have to accept that. You can choose how you react to everything that happens to you (and you don’t have to stay in that dead-end job for the rest of your days).

  • At times, we are all too eager to persuade, but the strongest persuasion is not forceful. It’s subtle. It speaks to the heart. It affects you gradually.
  • You may be tempted to talk about a subject by first stating what it is not, rather than what it is. Try to avoid that.
  • Simple advice for writers (and life in general): “When faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it”.

32. Jo Ann Beard – The Fourth State of Matter

Jo Ann Beard - The boys of my youth

Read that one as soon as possible. It’s one of the most masterful and impactful essays you’ll ever read. It’s like a good horror – a slow build-up, and then your jaw drops to the ground. To summarize the story would be to spoil it, so I recommend that you just dig in and devour this essay in one sitting. It’s a perfect example of “show, don’t tell” writing, where the actions of characters are enough to create the right effect. No need for flowery adjectives here.

  • The best story you will tell is going to come from your personal experience.
  • Use mysteries that will nag the reader. For example, at the beginning of the essay, we learn about the “vanished husband” but there’s no explanation. We have to keep reading to get the answer.
  • Explain it in simple terms: “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma”. Why complicate?

33. Terence McKenna – Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness

Terrence McKenna - Food of gods

To me, Terence McKenna was one of the most interesting thinkers of the twentieth century. His many lectures (now available on YouTube) attracted millions of people who suspect that consciousness holds secrets yet to be unveiled. McKenna consumed psychedelic drugs for most of his life and it shows (in a positive way). Many people consider him a looney, and a hippie, but he was so much more than that. He dared to go into the abyss of his psyche and come back to tell the tale. He also wrote many books (the most famous being Food Of The Gods ), built a huge botanical garden in Hawaii , lived with shamans, and was a connoisseur of all things enigmatic and obscure. Take a look at this essay, and learn more about the explorations of the subconscious mind.

  • Become the original thinker, but remember that it may require extraordinary measures: “I call myself an explorer rather than a scientist because the area that I’m looking at contains insufficient data to support even the dream of being a science”.
  • Learn new words every day to make your thoughts lucid.
  • Come up with the most outlandish ideas to push the envelope of what’s possible. Don’t take things for granted or become intellectually lazy. Question everything.

34. Eudora Welty – The Little Store

Eudora Welty - The eye of the story

By reading this little-known essay, you will be transported into the world of the old American South. It’s a remembrance of trips to the little store in a little town. It’s warm and straightforward, and when you read it, you feel like a child once more. All these beautiful memories live inside of us. They lay somewhere deep in our minds, hidden from sight. The work by Eudora Welty is an attempt to uncover some of them and let you get reacquainted with some smells and tastes of the past.

  • When you’re from the South, flaunt it. It’s still good old English but sometimes it sounds so foreign. I can hear the Southern accent too: “There were almost tangible smells – licorice recently sucked in a child’s cheek, dill-pickle brine that had leaked through a paper sack in a fresh trail across the wooden floor, ammonia-loaded ice that had been hoisted from wet Croker sacks and slammed into the icebox with its sweet butter at the door, and perhaps the smell of still-untrapped mice”.
  • Yet again, never forget your roots.
  • Childhood stories can be the most powerful ones. You can write about how they shaped you.

35. John McPhee – The Search for Marvin Gardens

John Mc Phee - The John Mc Phee reader

The Search for Marvin Gardens contains many layers of meaning. It’s a story about a Monopoly championship, but also, it’s the author’s search for the lost streets visible on the board of the famous board game. It also presents a historical perspective on the rise and fall of civilizations, and on Atlantic City, which once was a lively place, and then, slowly declined, the streets filled with dirt and broken windows.

  • There’s nothing like irony: “A sign- ‘Slow, Children at Play’- has been bent backward by an automobile”.
  • Telling the story in apparently unrelated fragments is sometimes better than telling the whole thing in a logical order.
  • Creativity is everything. The best writing may come just from connecting two ideas and mixing them to achieve a great effect. Shush! The muse is whispering.

36. Maxine Hong Kingston – No Name Woman

Maxine Hong Kingston - Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston

A dead body at the bottom of the well makes for a beautiful literary device. The first line of Orhan Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red delivers it perfectly: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well”. There’s something creepy about the idea of the well. Just think about the “It puts the lotion in the basket” scene from The Silence of the Lambs. In the first paragraph of Kingston’s essay, we learn about a suicide committed by uncommon means of jumping into the well. But this time it’s a real story. Who was this woman? Why did she do it? Read the essay.

  • Mysterious death always gets attention. The macabre details are like daiquiris on a hot day – you savor them – you don’t let them spill.
  • One sentence can speak volumes: “But the rare urge west had fixed upon our family, and so my aunt crossed boundaries not delineated in space”.
  • It’s interesting to write about cultural differences – especially if you have the relevant experience. Something normal for us is unthinkable for others. Show this different world.
  • The subject of sex is never boring.

37. Joan Didion – On Keeping A Notebook

Joan Didion - We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of the most famous collections of essays of all time. In it, you will find a curious piece called On Keeping A Notebook. It’s not only a meditation about keeping a journal. It’s also Didion’s reconciliation with her past self. After reading it, you will seriously reconsider your life’s choices and look at your life from a wider perspective.

  • When you write things down in your journal, be more specific – unless you want to write a deep essay about it years later.
  • Use the beauty of the language to relate to the past: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice and listening to Les Paul and Mary Ford and their echoes sing ‘How High the Moon’ on the car radio”.
  • Drop some brand names if you want to feel posh.

38. Joan Didion – Goodbye To All That

Joan Didion - Slouching Towards Bethlehem

This one touched me because I also lived in New York City for a while. I don’t know why, but stories about life in NYC are so often full of charm and this eerie-melancholy-jazz feeling. They are powerful. They go like this: “There was a hard blizzard in NYC. As the sound of sirens faded, Tony descended into the dark world of hustlers and pimps.” That’s pulp literature but in the context of NYC, it always sounds cool. Anyway, this essay is amazing in too many ways. You just have to read it.

  • Talk about New York City. They will read it.
  • Talk about the human experience: “It did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young?”
  • Look back at your life and reexamine it. Draw lessons from it.

39. George Orwell – Reflections on Gandhi

George Orwell could see things as they were. No exaggeration, no romanticism – just facts. He recognized totalitarianism and communism for what they were and shared his worries through books like 1984 and Animal Farm . He took the same sober approach when dealing with saints and sages. Today, we regard Gandhi as one of the greatest political leaders of the twentieth century – and rightfully so. But did you know that when asked about the Jews during World War II, Gandhi said that they should commit collective suicide and that it: “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” He also recommended utter pacifism in 1942, during the Japanese invasion, even though he knew it would cost millions of lives. But overall he was a good guy. Read the essay and broaden your perspective on the Bapu of the Indian Nation.

  • Share a philosophical thought that stops the reader for a moment: “No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid”.
  • Be straightforward in your writing – no mannerisms, no attempts to create ‘style’, and no invocations of the numinous – unless you feel the mystical vibe.

40. George Orwell – Politics and the English Language

Let Mr. Orwell give you some writing tips. Written in 1946, this essay is still one of the most helpful documents on writing in English. Orwell was probably the first person who exposed the deliberate vagueness of political language. He was very serious about it and I admire his efforts to slay all unclear sentences (including ones written by distinguished professors). But it’s good to make it humorous too from time to time. My favorite examples of that would be the immortal Soft Language sketch by George Carlin or the “Romans Go Home” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Overall, it’s a great essay filled with examples from many written materials. It’s a must-read for any writer.

  • Listen to the master: “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.” Do something about it.
  • This essay is all about writing better, so go to the source if you want the goodies.

The thinker

Other Essays You May Find Interesting

The list that I’ve prepared is by no means complete. The literary world is full of exciting essays and you’ll never know which one is going to change your life. I’ve found reading essays very rewarding because sometimes, a single one means more than reading a whole book. It’s almost like wandering around and peeking into the minds of the greatest writers and thinkers that ever lived. To make this list more comprehensive, below I included more essays you may find interesting.

Oliver Sacks – On Libraries

One of the greatest contributors to the knowledge about the human mind, Oliver Sacks meditates on the value of libraries and his love of books.

Noam Chomsky – The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Chomsky did probably more than anyone else to define the role of the intelligentsia in the modern world . There is a war of ideas over there – good and bad – intellectuals are going to be those who ought to be fighting for the former.

Sam Harris – The Riddle of The Gun

Sam Harris, now a famous philosopher and neuroscientist, takes on the problem of gun control in the United States. His thoughts are clear of prejudice. After reading this, you’ll appreciate the value of logical discourse overheated, irrational debate that more often than not has real implications on policy.

Tim Ferriss – Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide

This piece was written as a blog post , but it’s worth your time. The author of the NYT bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek shares an emotional story about how he almost killed himself, and what can you do to save yourself or your friends from suicide.

Edward Said – Reflections on Exile

The life of Edward Said was a truly fascinating one. Born in Jerusalem, he lived between Palestine and Egypt and finally settled down in the United States, where he completed his most famous work – Orientalism. In this essay, he shares his thoughts about what it means to be in exile.

Richard Feynman – It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three…

Richard Feynman is one of the most interesting minds of the twentieth century. He was a brilliant physicist, but also an undeniably great communicator of science, an artist, and a traveler. By reading this essay, you can observe his thought process when he tries to figure out what affects our perception of time. It’s a truly fascinating read.

Rabindranath Tagore – The Religion of The Forest

I like to think about Tagore as my spiritual Friend. His poems are just marvelous. They are like some of the Persian verses that praise love, nature, and the unity of all things. By reading this short essay, you will learn a lot about Indian philosophy and its relation to its Western counterpart.

Richard Dawkins – Letter To His 10-Year-Old Daughter

Every father should be able to articulate his philosophy of life to his children. With this letter that’s similar to what you find in the Paris Review essays , the famed atheist and defender of reason, Richard Dawkins, does exactly that. It’s beautifully written and stresses the importance of looking at evidence when we’re trying to make sense of the world.

Albert Camus – The Minotaur (or, The Stop In Oran)

Each person requires a period of solitude – a period when one’s able to gather thoughts and make sense of life. There are many places where you may attempt to find quietude. Albert Camus tells about his favorite one.

Koty Neelis – 21 Incredible Life Lessons From Anthony Bourdain

I included it as the last one because it’s not really an essay, but I just had to put it somewhere. In this listicle, you’ll find the 21 most original thoughts of the high-profile cook, writer, and TV host, Anthony Bourdain. Some of them are shocking, others are funny, but they’re all worth checking out.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca – On the Shortness of Life

It’s similar to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because it praises life. Seneca shares some of his stoic philosophy and tells you not to waste your time on stupidities. Drink! – for once dead you shall never return.

Bertrand Russell – In Praise of Idleness

This old essay is a must-read for modern humans. We are so preoccupied with our work, our phones, and all the media input we drown in our business. Bertrand Russell tells you to chill out a bit – maybe it will do you some good.

James Baldwin – Stranger in the Village

It’s an essay on the author’s experiences as an African-American in a Swiss village, exploring race, identity, and alienation while highlighting the complexities of racial dynamics and the quest for belonging.

Bonus – More writing tips from two great books

The mission to improve my writing skills took me further than just going through the essays. I’ve come across some great books on writing too. I highly recommend you read them in their entirety. They’re written beautifully and contain lots of useful knowledge. Below you’ll find random (but useful) notes that I took from The Sense of Style and On Writing.

The Sense of Style – By Steven Pinker

  • Style manuals are full of inconsistencies. Following their advice might not be the best idea. They might make your prose boring.
  • Grammarians from all eras condemn students for not knowing grammar. But it just evolves. It cannot be rigid.
  • “Nothing worth learning can be taught” – Oscar Wilde. It’s hard to learn to write from a manual – you have to read, write, and analyze.
  • Good writing makes you imagine things and feel them for yourself – use word pictures.
  • Don’t fear using voluptuous words.
  • Phonesthetics – or how the words sound.
  • Use parallel language (consistency of tense).
  • Good writing finishes strong.
  • Write to someone. Never write for no one in mind. Try to show people your view of the world.
  • Don’t tell everything you are going to say in summary (signposting) – be logical, but be conversational.
  • Don’t be pompous.
  • Don’t use quotation marks where they don’t “belong”. Be confident about your style.
  • Don’t hedge your claims (research first, and then tell it like it is).
  • Avoid clichés and meta-concepts (concepts about concepts). Be more straightforward!
  • Not prevention – but prevents or prevented – don’t use dead nouns.
  • Be more vivid while using your mother tongue – don’t use passive where it’s not needed. Direct the reader’s gaze to something in the world.
  • The curse of knowledge – the reader doesn’t know what you know – beware of that.
  • Explain technical terms.
  • Use examples when you explain a difficult term.
  • If you ever say “I think I understand this” it probably means you don’t.
  • It’s better to underestimate the lingo of your readers than to overestimate it.
  • Functional fixedness – if we know some object (or idea) well, we tend to see it in terms of usage, not just as an object.
  • Use concrete language instead of an abstraction.
  • Show your work to people before you publish (get feedback!).
  • Wait for a few days and then revise, revise, revise. Think about clarity and the sound of sentences. Then show it to someone. Then revise one more time. Then publish (if it’s to be serious work).
  • Look at it from the perspective of other people.
  • Omit needless words.
  • Put the heaviest words at the end of the sentence.
  • It’s good to use the passive, but only when appropriate.
  • Check all text for cohesion. Make sure that the sentences flow gently.
  • In expository work, go from general to more specific. But in journalism start from the big news and then give more details.
  • Use the paragraph break to give the reader a moment to take a breath.
  • Use the verb instead of a noun (make it more active) – not “cancellation”, but “canceled”. But after you introduce the action, you can refer to it with a noun.
  • Avoid too many negations.
  • If you write about why something is so, don’t spend too much time writing about why it is not.

On Writing Well – By William Zinsser

  • Writing is a craft. You need to sit down every day and practice your craft.
  • You should re-write and polish your prose a lot.
  • Throw out all the clutter. Don’t keep it because you like it. Aim for readability.
  • Look at the best examples of English literature . There’s hardly any needless garbage there.
  • Use shorter expressions. Don’t add extra words that don’t bring any value to your work.
  • Don’t use pompous language. Use simple language and say plainly what’s going on (“because” equals “because”).
  • The media and politics are full of cluttered prose (because it helps them to cover up for their mistakes).
  • You can’t add style to your work (and especially, don’t add fancy words to create an illusion of style). That will look fake. You need to develop a style.
  • Write in the “I” mode. Write to a friend or just for yourself. Show your personality. There is a person behind the writing.
  • Choose your words carefully. Use the dictionary to learn different shades of meaning.
  • Remember about phonology. Make music with words .
  • The lead is essential. Pull the reader in. Otherwise, your article is dead.
  • You don’t have to make the final judgment on any topic. Just pick the right angle.
  • Do your research. Not just obvious research, but a deep one.
  • When it’s time to stop, stop. And finish strong. Think about the last sentence. Surprise them.
  • Use quotations. Ask people. Get them talking.
  • If you write about travel, it must be significant to the reader. Don’t bother with the obvious. Choose your words with special care. Avoid travel clichés at all costs. Don’t tell that the sand was white and there were rocks on the beach. Look for the right detail.
  • If you want to learn how to write about art, travel, science, etc. – read the best examples available. Learn from the masters.
  • Concentrate on one big idea (“Let’s not go peeing down both legs”).
  • “The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.”
  • One very helpful question: “What is the piece really about?” (Not just “What the piece is about?”)

Now immerse yourself in the world of essays

By reading the essays from the list above, you’ll become a better writer , a better reader, but also a better person. An essay is a special form of writing. It is the only literary form that I know of that is an absolute requirement for career or educational advancement. Nowadays, you can use an AI essay writer or an AI essay generator that will get the writing done for you, but if you have personal integrity and strong moral principles, avoid doing this at all costs. For me as a writer, the effect of these authors’ masterpieces is often deeply personal. You won’t be able to find the beautiful thoughts they contain in any other literary form. I hope you enjoy the read and that it will inspire you to do your writing. This list is only an attempt to share some of the best essays available online. Next up, you may want to check the list of magazines and websites that accept personal essays .

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10 Successful Harvard Application Essays | 2020

Our new 2022 version is up now.

Our 2022 edition is sponsored by HS2 Academy—a premier college counseling company that has helped thousands of students gain admission into Ivy League-level universities across the world. Learn more at . Also made possible by The Art of Applying, College Confidential, Crimson Education, Dan Lichterman, Key Education, MR. MBA®, Potomac Admissions, Prep Expert, and Prepory.

best essays 2020

I am standing behind my high school when a snowball pelts my side with a thud and splatters across my jacket, covering me with a fine, icy dust. My bewildered eyes trace the snowball’s trajectory until they fall upon a pair of snickering hoodlums crouched behind a small mountain of snowballs. They must have been waiting all afternoon for an unsuspecting student to walk by, and perhaps for emphasis, one of the boys looks me in the eye and raises a grimy middle finger. Quickly, I mold a handful of snow into a sphere with cupped hands and cock my arm back.

I haven’t thrown anything in a while, but muscle memory guides me through the requisite motions. I played softball for eight years, and my athletic strength was always my throwing arm; in fifth grade, when my coach asked me to throw the ball from third to first, I hurled the ball with such force that the catch knocked him off-balance. Upon entering high school, it seemed natural that I would play on the school’s softball team.

However, my body had other ideas. Throughout middle school I’d developed increasingly painful body aches, and in freshman year I awoke one morning with a brutal headache penetrating the crown of my head and the bones of my face as though a vice had been clamped to my skull overnight. After consulting more doctors than I can remember, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is characterized by chronic widespread pain and extreme sensitivity to touch. My neurologist describes fibromyalgia as “headache of the body.” Personally, I favor my father’s description; after one particularly painful and exhausting day he aptly proclaimed, “Fibromyalgia is your body’s way of giving you the finger.”

Agonizing muscle cramps mocked me constantly, preventing me from walking longer than five minutes without growing exhausted. The pressure above my eyes sneered at me whenever I attempted to read or write. Even after I found medications to temper the headaches just enough so I could return to school with sporadic attendance, sharp pains gnawed at my body with haughty derision if I even thought about returning to the softball fields and the activities I loved.

For months I tried to ignore the cruel obscenities fibromyalgia hurled my way, steadfastly believing the pain would soon subside and I would achieve everything I had planned for myself if I simply disregarded the taunting aches and worked doggedly to catch up at school. But when softball season arrived, it became apparent that while determination and intelligence could preserve my GPA in the face of fibromyalgia, there was no personal attribute or skill that could heal my body and allow me to join my teammates on the field.

It was time to confront the beast.

In doing so, I kept in mind the schoolyard aphorism that there is strength in numbers. I did not face fibromyalgia alone, but with mathematics by my side. Baseball is a game of statistics, and if fibromyalgia threatened to steal the sport I loved through physical deterioration, I would outsmart this insolent illness and reclaim ownership of baseball through intellectual pursuits. I began a mathematical research project, analyzing the effectiveness of current baseball statistics, as well as deriving my own.

Fibromyalgia forced me to redefine my goals and personal standards for success. This baseball project was my first step toward reclaiming my life and laying the foundation for victory over my illness. As calculations replaced pitching drills, my passion for baseball was channeled into a burgeoning love of science and math. Hours I had previously devoted to softball became filled with scientific journals and books, and summers I used to spend at athletic camps were devoted to research at local universities. Baseball provided a link to my pre-fibromyalgia life at a time when I desperately needed one, and through baseball I realized that if I wanted to beat fibromyalgia, I could not simply hope it would disappear overnight. Whether I modified my medications or adapted my schedule, I needed to devise my own way to face fibromyalgia’s antagonizing aches head-on.

So when that taunting rascal waves his middle finger in my direction, my cheeks do not flush with angry humiliation and my legs do not run away, but my hands mold a snowball and my arm pulls back. As I follow through with my throw, pain radiating up my arm, I know instantly that I will pay for this exertion in the morning. But my icy comeback hits the sniggering boy squarely in the chest, knocking him backward into the snow as his accomplice’s mouth lies agape in shock.

Well. I guess I’ve still got it.

Sarah's story opens with a vivid anecdote of being pelted by a snowball that brings the reader to the scene of the crime with detailed sensory descriptions. She skillfully ties the story to her talent for athletics, which in turn leads to her struggle with fibromyalgia and howin the face of physical limitation she redirected her passions to science and math. The story comes full circle and ties together nicely at the end with the conclusion of the snowball scene, which leaves the reader feeling victorious and vindicated for Sarah, as well as proud of her determination.

Sarah manages to cover a lot in this essay. The personal statement is an evident combination of overcoming obstacles and discovering academic passions, and also discreetly includes résumé- worthy accomplishments, such as her own mathematical research project on baseball statistics and summer research at local universities. What is important about her personal statement is that she goes beyond the résumé and gives the admissions officers a look at her character and personal struggle. Even though her essay is a bit long, Sarah does not waste a word and ensures that every detail she includes contributes in some way to the overall message she is trying to convey about herself. Rather than simply evoking sympathy for her situation, Sarah weaves humor and a cheeky attitude throughout her narrative. She introduces her love of mathematics with a creative twist on the common saying, “strength in numbers," and affectionately alludes to her father's depiction of fibromyalgia as "your body's way of giving you the finger."

Her vivacious and tenacious personality shines through in her colorful and descriptive language, painting a clear picture of Sarah as a determined person who doesn't let a chronic illness defeat her and instead finds another passion.


I look over at the digital clock at the front of the bus just as the time changes to 8:30. The engine begins to rumble, the seat begins to shake, and the bus slowly pulls onto Route 6 and heads toward JPA—the Jay Pritzker Academy—near Siem Reap, Cambodia. The bus is alive with chatter. Peace Corps volunteers trade stories about their experiences in their assigned villages; international schoolteachers discuss their plans for the day’s lessons. I overhear one of the Peace Corps volunteers, Deidre, say, “I have to say, the Peace Corps offers incredible health care. They medevaced me to Bangkok when I got dengue fever.”

Today, I find myself unable to join the conversation. I stare blankly at the blue cloth seat in front of me, trying to gently coax my knotted stomach out of my throat. All I can think about is the empty seat beside me and the uncomfortable feeling of entering uncertain territory alone.

My friend and co-teacher, Shahriyar, is in the Angkor Hospital recovering from a serious bout of amoebic dysentery. I visited him yesterday. He was lying in bed with his summer reading in his right hand and an IV in his left. Looking pale and exhausted, he weakly lifted his head and greeted me. “I don’t know if you know this yet,” he said, “but I’m flying home tomorrow. Are you coming with me?” Though the news didn’t surprise me, the question caught me off guard. As I left the hospital room, I couldn’t help but think how easily this could have been me in his situation.

The bus drives over a speed bump faster than it should have, and I’m jolted back to the present. I try to take my mind off Shahriyar and look out the window at the world around me. Everything is so much different than it is in Deerfield, yet it all somehow feels very natural to me. To my left I see an elderly woman wearing a mask sweeping dust off the street; I smile at her, but she doesn’t notice. As the bus gets closer and closer to JPA, the fact that I will have to teach today’s lessons by myself begins to set in. I wonder if I’m physically capable of teaching three hours of class by myself in the ninetydegree heat and 90 percent humidity. In the past, Shahriyar and I had always taken turns leading the class, giving each other a few moments to rest and rehydrate while the other taught. A part of me is afraid to do it. I’ve never had to lead the class without the comfort and support of having Shahriyar by my side. As I think about the challenges I will face, I realize how easy it would be to turn back. I only have to call Sokun—a local tuk-tuk driver and he’d take me to the airport. Knowing my co-teacher has become seriously ill, nobody would think less of me if I went home today.

As I sit in my seat, planning my trip home, the bus slows nearly to a stop and then turns onto a narrow red dirt road. I’ve suddenly plunged into a new world. The mess of worn-down concrete buildings and mopeds gives way to miles of flooded rice paddies stretching as far as I can see. Every few hundred yards I see boys and young men working barefoot in the fields. The bamboo huts that dot the landscape make me think back to my visit to the house of one of my students, Dari. I remember looking into his room and seeing a wooden table on his dirt floor. Close by, a bamboo shelf was filled with books. The globe he had won for being on the Honor Roll was proudly displayed on the bookshelf among his prized possessions. Smiling ear to ear, he told us that JPA was the best thing in his life. I realize that it really is too late to go home. I’ve already fallen in love with my students.

As the bus pulls into JPA’s driveway, the rest of the teachers begin gathering their materials. I remain seated, deep in thought. “Are you coming?” I hear a familiar voice ask me. I look up and see Deidre looking at me.

“Of course I am.”

In essays about community service, it is easy to fall into the trap of self-aggrandizement— emphasizing your own personal sacrifices and good deeds and in the process making yourself look like someone more interested in self-service than community service. Josh’s essay, on the other hand, steers well clear of this pitfall, skillfully conveying compassion, humility, and devotion to the people with and for whom he works—he does not stay on because he pities his students, but because he loves them. As a result, instead of coming off like résumé padding, Josh’s work feels motivated by a genuine desire to do good.

Structurally, Josh’s essay is solid—it traces the trajectory of his thought process from uncertainty to renewed resolve. This seemingly straightforward story arc is enlivened by choice details and images—the off-hand conversation about dengue fever in the first paragraph, for example, adds a good jolt of surprise, and the descriptions of the Cambodian countryside are vivid and well-executed. The passage detailing Josh’s visit to his student Dari’s home is one of the essay’s highlights, a scene that is both believable as the essay’s “inspiration moment” and memorable for the deep empathy it contains.

While it’s true that Josh has the advantage of a rather unique experience—not every Harvard applicant is in a position to write their personal statement about volunteering with the Peace Corps— the main strengths of his essay are certainly translatable beyond this context. Josh’s essay is a personal statement at its best: it not just narrates an experience but hints at deeper elements of his personality and expresses them in a way that does not come off as forced. Someone reading Josh’s essay can tell that his volunteering experience was far more to him than résumé fodder. And as the admissions office gets deluged with more and more applications every year, this spark of sincerity goes very far indeed.

I sat under the table, burying my head tightly in my folded arms, while the other children sat on the carpet, listening to the teacher’s story. The language barrier was like a tsunami, gurgling with strange and indistinguishable vocalizations. Elementary school wasn’t as fun as I expected at all.

Hearing a whisper, I raised my head up, only to notice a boy’s face merely inches away. I bolted up in surprise, my head colliding gracefully with the underside of the table. Yelping in pain, I noticed that the entire class was staring at me.

That was the story of how I met my first friend in Canada.

That boy, Jack, came to visit me during my lonely recesses. It was rather awkward at first—I could only stare at him as he rambled on in English. But it was comforting to have some company.

From there, our friendship blossomed. Our initial conversations must have been hilarious to the hapless bystander. Jack would speak in fluent English while I spurted sentence after sentence of Mandarin. It was like watching tennis—rallies of English and Mandarin back and forth. But I learned quickly, and in no time I was fluent.

Jack also showed me the ropes of Western culture. Heaven knows how embarrassing my birthday party would’ve been if he hadn’t told me about those so-called “loot-bags” beforehand.

Today, I volunteer at a community service agency for new immigrants where I work with children. I do it because I understand the confusion and frustration of dealing with a strange and sometimes hostile environment; I remember how it feels to be tangled up in an amalgam of unfamiliar words and sounds. And so I teach them; I give seminars on reading, writing, and speaking skills as well as Western culture, history, and sometimes, a bit of social studies.

But I strive to do more than just that. I try to be a friend—because I remember how Jack helped me. I organize field trips to the science center, the museum, and the symphony: double-whammy trips where children can have fun while improving their literacy skills.

Through these experiences, I try to understand each of them as unique individuals—their likes, dislikes, pet peeves, background.

Everyone needs a guiding light through the lonesome process of adaptation, a friendly bump to lift them from the dark shroud of isolation. That’s what Jack did for me—with a rather painful bump to the head—and it’s also what I do for these immigrant children.

My hope is that, one day, these children will also feel compelled to do the same, helping others adapt to an unfamiliar environment. With this, we can truly create a caring and cohesive network of support for the children of our society.

Lucien's essay depicts a personal connection with his community service activity and provides the why to an extracurricular that probably shows up college application. He starts off with an endearing anecdote of meeting his first friend in Canada and connects the encounter to his current passion, then delves even deeper by concluding with self- reflection and a bigger goal for society that he hopes to achieve. His personal statement gives the reader a glimpse at his background and assimilation into a new culture, and how his qwn experience as an immigrant motivates him to help other immigrants adapt to life in a new place.

The strengths of this essay lie in the vivid and charming recounting of his first encounter with Jack, his first friend in a foreign new environment, and how he uses that story to explain his passion for volunteering. He connects his community service to a bigger goal at the end of the essay that leaves the reader feeling inspired, and alludes to his thoughts, hopes, and dreams. There is a tone of humility and humor as he depicts how he met his first friend by bumping his head under the table, and makes a motif out of the head bump by referring to it again later when he's talking about helping other immigrant children. He modestly credits his noble deeds at the community service agency to meeting his first friend, and humbly reveals his hope that his own good deeds will inspire others to pay it forward. He does a good job of exhibiting his accomplishments in community service without sounding like he's bragging.

Lucien could also make the essay more memorable and distinctive by including anecdotes of his experiences at the community service agency where he gave seminars and organized field trips. He denotes his volunteering responsibilities in list form, which can seem a bit impersonal and résumé- like. For example, he mentions how he tried to understand the people he helped, but does not include how he goes about doing this, or whether learning about those unique individuals contributed to his experience. Adding a story of how he changed the lives of the immigrants he helped would enhance his message and create a fitting parallel with the anecdote of how Jack helped him as he assimilated only one line on the activities portion of his into Western culture. Overall, Lucien combines humor with humility and leaves the reader feeling inspired.

Options for College

I think the most tragic part of my childhood originated from my sheer inability to find anything engraved with my name. I never had a CHAFFEE license plate on my hand-me-down red Schwinn. No one ever gave me a key chain or coffee mug with the beautiful loops of those double Fs and Es. Alas, I was destined to search through the names; longingly staring at the space between CHAD and CHARLOTTE hoping one day a miracle would occur. Fortunately, this is one of the few negative aspects of a name like “Chaffee Duckers.”

My name has always been an integral part of my identity. Sure, it sounds a bit like my parents created it from a bag of Scrabble tiles, but it comes from a long-lost ancestor, Comfort Chaffee. Now it’s all mine. In my opinion, a name can make or break a person. The ability to embody a name depends on the individual. My greatest goal in life is to be the kind of unique person deserving of a name so utterly random and absurd.

I began my journey in preschool. Nothing about me screamed normal. I was not prim, proper, and poised. I preferred sneaking away from my preschool classroom, barefoot, in the purple velvet dress I wore every single day to resting obediently during nap time.

I grew up in a family akin to a modified Brady Bunch. Stepsisters, half sisters, stepbrothers, and stepparents joined my previously miniscule household. But in a family of plain names like Chris, Bill, John, Liz, Katherine, and Mark, I was still the only Chaffee.

I was a bit of a reverse black sheep in my family. My name helped me carve an identity separate from my myriad of siblings. Instead of enriching my brain with Grand Theft Auto, I preferred begging my parents to take me to the bookstore. While my parents mandated homework time for my brothers, they never questioned my work ethic or wiretapped my assignment notebook. The thing that set me apart from the herd was that I was self-disciplined enough to take control of my own life. From the very beginning I never depended on my parents’ help or motivation to finish my schoolwork. Putting school first came naturally to me, much to the distaste and confusion of my siblings. My work ethic became known as the patented “Chaffee Method.”

As I got older, I began to embody my name more and more. I didn’t want to be that girl with the weird name in the back of the class eating her hair, so I learned how to project my ideas in both written and spoken forms. I was often picked to lead classroom discussions and my complete disregard for making a fool of myself bolstered that skill. The manner in which I operate academically is perfectly described as Chaffee-esque; including but not limited to elaborate study songs, complex pneumonic devices, study forts, and the occasional John C. Calhoun costume.

I take pride in the confusion on a person’s face when they first read my name. Seeing someone struggle over those two unfamiliar syllables fills me with glee. I feel as though I am adding a new word to their vocabulary. So on my last day as a page in the U.S. Senate, I prepared myself for the anticipated awkward stumbling as Senator Harry Reid thanked me by name in his closing address. But the stumble never came. I felt very humbled by his perfect pronunciation. Perhaps Chaffee is actually catching on!

Chaffee’s essay is strong because it follows a clear narrative, all enabled by her rather unusual name. While not everyone has a name as unique as “Chaffee,” and are therefore unable to use this approach, writing an essay about an experience or aspect of one’s life that is singular to oneself is a smart approach for any college essay. She shapes her development from preschool to high school in the lens of her name, demonstrating the importance that it has played throughout her life.

Chaffee’s initial anecdote immediately grips the reader; many people have shared the experience of looking for engraved merchandise, and the fact that she can find none bearing her name sets the stage for the rest of the essay. Chaffee quickly qualifies her discontent with her name, stating that this anecdote “is one of the few negative aspects of a name like ‘Chaffee Duckers.’” Unfortunately this qualification is a bit misplaced since she immediately returns to tell a story of her upbringing while failing to address any of the positive aspects of her name until paragraphs later. This is a bit of hedging that isn’t entirely necessary in the limited space allowed by most personal statements.

Yet, the essay works quite well. Chaffee spends a great deal of time elaborating on how she was different from both her family and others with examples of her transgressions in preschool and her penchant for schoolwork and education as opposed to procrastination or video games like Grand Theft Auto. Chaffee toots her own horn just a little bit when describing the merits of her work ethic, but it is still fairly endearing overall, and there is no shame in sharing a desire for learning. Chaffee states in the conclusion of her essay that she now takes “pride in the confusion on a person’s face,” as they try to read her name, demonstrating how she has now accepted and come to appreciate the fact that she does not share a name with the average Mary, Dick, or Jane.

Upward College Planning

“Let’s face it, you’re slow,” my violin teacher said.

He was, as always, complaining that running was detracting from my practice time.

That summed up what running had always meant to me, ever since I was a seventh grader, choosing his sport for the first time. I was fine and content, however. I always had Jeffrey and Archie, classmates like me who ran slowly. We were good friends. We laughed together; we raced together; we pushed each other, and endured tough workouts together. But after middle school the people I trained with went on to do things they were better at. I remained, even though I was not good enough to be considered for varsity.

High school running was hell. I struggled with workouts, most of which I had to run alone. In the hot, dry days of autumn, I often coughed on the dust trails left by my teammates as they vanished into the distance. During the workouts, I got passed incessantly, almost getting run over on occasion. It hurt not to be important; to be dead weight for the team. I looked forward to the next year, when I could hopefully run with the incoming freshmen.

It didn’t happen that way. Even a year later, I was still the slowest on the team. How could the freshmen who had snored off the whole summer beat me, a veteran from middle school and high school with decent summer training? I nevertheless reconsidered the effectiveness of my training, and looked forward to getting “back in shape.” It was only after my condition had been deteriorating steadily for a few weeks that I began to feel a new level of humiliation. I started to have trouble keeping up with old ladies in the park, and each day I worked frantically to prevent the discovery of that fact by my teammates, running toward the sketchy areas of the ramble, in the south, where there’s barely anybody. My mother, worried about the steady deterioration of my condition, contacted a doctor.

I was anemic.

The doctor prescribed a daily iron pill, and the results were exhilarating. I joked that I was taking steroids. I sunk into endless oxygen. I got tired less. During the workouts, I felt more machine than man. Iron therapy taught me something fundamental. It reminded me why I was running; why I had stuck to this damn sport for four straight years. When I was anemic, I struggled to gather what little motivation I had for those painfully slow jogs in those parks. Putting the effort in, and seeing the dramatic results fooled my mind like a well-administered placebo. Iron therapy was the training wheels that would jump-start my dramatic improvement.

It took four months—four months of iron pills, blood tests, and training—to get back to my personal best: the 5:46 mile that I had run the year before. Early February that year, the training wheels came off. I was running close to seven miles a day on my own. But I wasn’t counting. I could catch a light. I could walk as many stairs as I wanted without getting tired. I was even far ahead of where I was the year before. After two and a half years as a 5:50 miler, I finally had a breakthrough race. I ran a 5:30. I asked coach if I could eventually break 5 minutes. He told me to focus more on maintaining my fitness through spring break.

I ran the mile again, this time outdoors. Coach had me seeded at a 5:30. I ran the first lap, holding back. I didn’t want to overextend myself. I hoped to squeeze by with a 5:35. The euphoria was unprecedented as I realized by the second lap that I was a dozen seconds ahead and still holding back. I finished with a 5:14.

On the bus ride back from the meet, one of my long-standing dreams came true. I pretended to ignore Coach sitting next to me, but he kept on giving me glances. He was excited about my time. We talked a lot about the race. We talked about my continuous and dramatic improvement. He said it was early in the season and that I would break 5 minutes after only a few weeks of training.

Six weeks later, Mr. Song, my chemistry teacher, asked me if I had broken 5 minutes for the mile yet. I told him all about how I had run in three meets over the past month and had failed to break 5:15 on every one of them. I told him that 5 minutes was now for me a mirage in the distance. Mr. Song, however, did not show much concern: “You’re just overtrained. Once you ease up before the big meet, you’ll drop in time once more.”

Even though these consoling words were from the man who had baffled my nutritionist when he had guessed that I was anemic, I still doubted his wisdom. On Sunday, I would run the mile once. My last mile of the year. This was it. Using my tried-and-true racing strategy, I finished with a 5:02, a 12- second drop in time. Mr. Song’s predictions had again turned out to be correct.

Before I was anemic, the correlation between hard work and success was something that only appeared in the cliché success stories of the talented few. Now, I am running more mileage than I ever have before. And my violin teacher still complains.

But I smile. I know it’s going somewhere.

John opens this essay by illustrating the iconic “grabber” done well: simple, unexpected, and leaving the reader wanting more. Is he actually “slow” at the violin (but that doesn’t quite make sense, does it)? We then learn all about John’s true passion: running.

Although challenging (and not to mention the fact that he always finishes last), John has stuck with running for many years. Eventually, his “slowness” deteriorates to the point where he needs medical intervention and finds his kryptonite: iron. This magic mineral allows him to heal, excel in his running, and ultimately exceed his wildest expectations by almost breaking the 5-minute mark by a few seconds.

The themes that permeate this essay are perseverance and tenacity: that all-powerful “grit” that distinguishes this student. John guides us through his story through the lens of his infallible work ethic. Even though he did not reach his exact goal, he is seconds away from it, and the reader knows he will keep pushing to achieve it.

As a reader, I would love to hear more about what happens next. Is there another instance that demonstrates John’s persistence or has he applied this newfound confidence and self-awareness to other aspects of his life? This self-reflection section is the most important element of the essay as it allows admissions readers a window into what drives a student. It is important to develop this and “show” the evidence of how the student has changed or what they have learned from this experience.

As the essay culminates, John makes us smile as he smiles (even though his violin teacher is still not too happy with him). We know John has learned to appreciate the beauty of the journey rather than the destination and we are just thrilled for him!

Lora Lewis

Soft Wooden Heart

The backbone of my life is my writing desk. I like to describe its surface as an organized mess (despite my parents’ overdramatized description of a bomb site), a state of positive entropy and minimum energy. Math exercises overlap an organizer, set next to almost-empty tubes of paint and overdue library books. A constantly filled bottle of water sits behind a glasses’ case full of guitar picks, and carved into a mountain of paper, right in the middle, is a space reserved for my laptop—on days when I am slouching, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare needs to be slid under it. An eclectic desk shows an eclectic personality; mine has had the honor of being the training grounds prior to the Great (final) Battle (exam) of Chemistry, the peaceful meadow of relaxed reading afternoons, and all in all the pristine-turned-colorful canvas of an inquisitive mind.

I remember buying it with my mother five years ago, when my bruised knees protested against the tiny white-paint-gone-yellow one I had used since childhood. My new desk was made of native Rimu heartwood—solid, resilient, dependable—a perfect role model for me to grow into. Over the years, its material became representative of my New Zealand identity, its surface slowly coated in quirky personality, and its compartments filled with treasured memories; the heartwood desk echoed my heart.

At first, it did not fit with the decor of the rest of my room, which even now appears boxy and stark next to my grandiosely elegant writing desk, but its quiet strength is unafraid of individuality, just as I have learned to become. It has watched as I grew stronger branches, a straighter trunk, firmer roots; whereas I had once been but a shy young seedling, I sprouted leaves and with them the ability and yearning to provide shade for others. I have certainly physically grown into it, but although I would like to think that I have become completely independent, I remain human; in inevitable times of need, it is still my steadfast, sturdy desk that offers its support.

I sit here and, well, I write: joyfully, desolately, irately, wistfully—at times paralyzed by excitement, at others crippled by fear. I scrawl notes in my organizer (which is, naturally, not in the least organized), words overflow my blog, overemotional oranges and blues plague my illustrations; shallow scratch marks indent the wood from where I have pressed too passionately into paper. It may be solid, but it is elastic enough to be shaped, resilient enough to adapt: This is my soft wooden heart.

It can take it. My desk remains constant despite scars of experience—unassuming, stoic, ever watchful. Even when I dismembered dying cell phones, their frail key tones pleading for mercy, the desk stood there, nonchalant. Regardless of what fervor goes on from time to time, it knows there will eventually be a constant calm; my lively nest of rebuilt mobiles still calls this place home. Sometimes, I rest my uncertain head on its reassuring solid surface and the wood presses back into my heartbeat, communicating in Morse: “Don’t worry. Some things will never change.”

And, like a mother, it always turns out to be right. Beneath my seemingly chaotic coat of papers and objects; beneath the superfluous, temporary things that define my present life, my desk and my heart remain still—solid, stable, and evergreen, ready to be written onto and scratched into by experience.

Winnie’s piece shows us that a meaningful essay doesn’t have to be about a major accomplishment or a painful personal experience; oftentimes, the most inspired writing can evolve from something as simple and unexpected as a writing desk. Winnie’s essay is successful because it invites readers into her world, where we discover a smart, unique, and self-aware young woman. Through her “eclectic” desk, we see her interest in the arts, her academic prowess, and her challenges with procrastination. We glimpse her pride in her heritage, her struggles with self-doubt, and her faith in herself to adapt to change and embrace new experiences. By the final sentence, we feel that if we heard Winnie’s voice in a classroom or sat next to her in the library, we would recognize her right away.

Winnie’s ability to bring herself to life through language also creates some challenges in her essay. She has so much to show us and does so in such creative ways that readers can feel overwhelmed by the information and figurative language that competes for our attention. Your college essay is a valuable opportunity to show who you are, but it’s not necessary to weave every aspect of your life into 650 words. For even the most gifted writers, less is often more.

Spider Web Education

Why a Republican Read The Communist Manifesto

I am a conservative. Point-blank. I’m not talking “hardcore, no gay marriage, abortion equates to eternity in Hell, Catholicism is the only religion worthy of my acknowledgment” conservative, but I believe in limited government intervention in private business. I may seem like an unlikely candidate for such beliefs; I live in Springfield, Massachusetts, an urban environment where the majority of the population utilizes some sort of government assistance to supplement the costs of living. Well, maybe not the absolute majority, but I certainly see a lot of it. Though raised as a Catholic, I believe in nothing more than simple spirituality, and do not abide by all the stipulations of the strict Catholic community (although I do continue to attend church because I find the environment welcoming and the people overwhelmingly happy and uplifting). I attend the Drama Studio, a small, conservatory style acting community where I am considered the token Republican (artsy and conservative—is this what Harold Camping meant by the Rapture?) Not surprisingly, my colleagues have made many attempts at conversion (“Watch MSNBC, Danielle; I promise you’ll love it!”) But I stick to my guns— no pun intended. However, I have found that sharing the majority of my time with those of conflicting opinions has enlightened me in the ways of respect and compromise.

Enter Jacob Mueller. Literally the son of a preacher man (his father is the minister at Trinity United Methodist Church), his political views on Facebook are listed as “Member of the Communist Party of America.” Oh, boy … He entered my Advanced Scene Work class in its second semester, and as is the Drama Studio custom, I welcomed him with open arms and commenced what I soon discovered to be the long and interesting process of getting to know him. Through this, I discovered a few important things; like me, he loved politics. Like me, he was well informed. And, like me, he was more than willing to argue his opinion.

Through our Odd Couple dynamic, we found an endless number of conversation topics. Every day was a new, “Did you see what the Tea Party’s newest legislation entails?” countered by a, “How about that Scott Brown, eh?” I was the Michele Bachmann to his Al Gore. But the remarkable thing about our debates was not their intensity or their depth, but how much I was learning by listening to him talk.

A strange thing was happening to me. For the girl who had always been staunchly opinionated and stubborn, who had never been one for agreeing with the opposition, who took pride in her ability to stand her ground even when she represented the minority view, compromise suddenly had a new meaning. Its connotation was no longer negative. And, in turn my ability to not only understand but also respect a view contradictory to my own was growing in strength. In order to foster this newfound mind-set, I presented myself with the ultimate challenge. In a moment of excited passion, I logged on to and, for $4.95, ordered a copy of The Communist Manifesto. The little book, with its floppy laminated cover depicting a hammer and a sickle on a glossy black background and plain white block letters spelling out its title with inconspicuous innocence, took its place at the head of my bed, where it resided for the next month. Bit by bit, it began to fill with marks of pensive notation, speckles of yellow appearing in odd places where the highlighter had bled through, its fragile pages curving with the insistent pen marks that filled their margins.

As I devoured the words of Marx and Engels, I realized something remarkable. I’m not going to tell you I agreed with them; in a lot of instances, I didn’t. But I did understand what they were saying, and I was able to respect them both as visionaries and intellectuals. Where the old voice in my head would have said, “Wow, what idiots,” my new voice was open to more than just the fundamental ideas, but the intelligence it must have taken to form them and the thought process behind them.

When I register to vote, I will not be registering as a Democrat. You won’t see me at any PETA meetings, and you certainly won’t hear me speaking fondly about President Obama’s plans for health care. But I can proudly say that The Communist Manifesto taught this Republican what it means to compromise, and to respect.

Lessard's essay “works” and earned its author a spot at Harvard, yet it circumvents a general guideline of college essay writing by speaking directly about politics and religion—albeit in a funny and personal way. Lessard explains humorously and intimately her status as a curious conservative. If one is going to talk about controversial topics like politics in a college essay, avoid entirely (as this essay does—and even if you do make mention of The Communist Manifesto !) providing your own manifesto. The main problem with manifestoes is that they are not personal, but abstract. By contrast, the college essay needs to tell us all about you, ideally in an unforgettable, up-close, down-to-earth way. Nobody wants to read the RNC or DNC policy platform coughed up as an essay. Instead colleges want to get to know the real you.

One way this essay could be improved might include providing more detail about what exactly Lessard found meaningful in the works of Marx and Engels. As it stands, the essay only touches on The Communist Manifesto in a cursory way despite Lessard's reading of that work being pivotal to the arc of the essay. Even another couple of sentences explaining the writer’s “respect” (Is it grudging admiration for the Marxist theory of history? Some element of the text’s social critique?) could deepen the essay’s analysis.

Very effectively, however, Lessard positions herself in this essay as a person on an intellectual journey who is open to new ideas and experiences. This is an excellent posture to demonstrate to an admissions committee. College is all about learning—intellectually, socially, politically, and beyond—and colleges often find students irresistible when they are hellbent on learning to the utmost. Be an intellectual astronaut and demonstrate that in your college essay, as Lessard did quite effectively.


I wrap my scarf more firmly around my neck, feeling the chill of the brisk January air as I trudge my way to practice. The bus stop isn’t actually that far from the pool, but with a heavy backpack and the fancy shoes that my host sister insisted I wear, the three-minute trek seems to last forever. Turning the corner three blocks down, I finally make it to the parking lot and see one of my friends.

“Salut, Thomas.”

He knows that it’s me without even looking. “Salut, Danielle.” He finishes fiddling with his bicycle lock and stands to greet me. I lean in for my customary kiss, and he obliges, bisous-ing me once on each cheek, before we walk toward Piscine Bréquigny together.

Easy conversation flows between us as our well-trained feet follow the paths to our respective changing rooms. I punch in the code on the girls’ side and open the door. Familiar figures stand in various states of undress, and bisous go all around while we change and speculate on the various tortures Marc will put us through today. Then we head down to the pool deck, ready to meet our fates.

I get to our coach first, and mentally switch back into English. “Hey, Marc, what’s up?”

He shrugs. “Fine.”

I laugh and give him a high five, then move on to bisous and ça va? the rest of the boys. When I get to Islem, who is Algerian, the two of us proceed to execute our exceedingly complex non-French secret handshake, recently perfected at Tours during last week’s three-day meet. (We foreigners have to stick together, after all.) We end with a perfect fist bump, and I smirk.

Islem winks back at me. “Et ouais.” That’s how we roll.

Marc eventually yells at us to get to work, and we all start to put on our caps and goggles. I pull out my team cap from home, reflecting on how much I’ve changed since I left. Four months ago, I was mute, standing awkwardly to the side, hoping that English instructions for the new and frightening social interaction would suddenly appear out of thin air. Now, flawless French rolls off my lips as I greet my friends, laughing freely at inside jokes, not thinking twice about kissing swimsuit-clad swimmers on the cheek. I’m not just on the team anymore—I’m part of it, and every single bisous reminds of that fact.

Someone pushes me into the pool and my shriek is swallowed by the water. I surface and swear my revenge, glaring all the while at Pierre, the obvious culprit, who is grinning unabashedly. Then he yelps and falls as he himself is pushed in as well. The whole team eventually follows us into the water to start the day’s warm up, and a small smile, fond and content, flits across my face before I join them.

One of the first pieces of advice that I share about what makes a strong essay is for a student to not overthink it. Not everybody needs to cure a disease by the time they turn 16 or have had a research paper published in a professional journal. Let me get to know who you are as a person – and it’s often the simplest day-to-day stories that help students do this most effectively.

Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of athletes writing about sports (which often come across as thin and cliched) so I was bit trepidatious when I read the opening paragraph. I got over it quickly.

Here are the notes I took while reading this essay:

Opening: Sets the scene effectively, draws me in to want to learn more about her abroad experience, seems very friendly.

Changing room / interplay with team: Comes across as personable with a fun sense of humor. Exchanges with coach and the conversations and handshakes with teammates show adaptability and an ability to bring people together.

Practice / reflection moment: Spending four months away from home can be intimidating for most people, let alone a high schooler, and shows a true sense of commitment and perseverance. At the beginning of her trip she seemed scared and vulnerable but she learned to push past any initial anxiety and now presents herself as self-aware and appreciative.

End: She has grown from this abroad experience and her spirit, likability and sense of camaraderie are evident.

When I read an interesting and descriptive essay like this, it’s almost like I’m drawn into a mini-movie. I want to keep reading to see how things play out. By the end, I feel like I know the student and I have a sense of how their unique personal attributes would make them an appealing candidate to any college admissions officer.

Sponsored by Dan Lichterman : As an admission essay specialist, Dan Lichterman has been empowering students to find their voice since 2004. He helps students stand out on paper, eliminating the unnecessary so the necessary may speak. Drawing upon his storytelling background, Dan guides applicants to craft authentic essays that leap off the page. He is available for online writing support within the US and internationally. To learn more and schedule a brief complimentary consultation visit .

Dan Lichterman

A light breeze caressing the cornfield makes it look like a gentle swaying sea of gold under the ginger sun of late summer. A child’s chime-like laughter echoes. As I rush through the cornfield, I hear the rustling of leaves and the murmur of life hidden among the stems that tower over me.

I remember the joy of the day when I solved one of my first difficult combinatorics problems at my parents’ house in the countryside. I felt so exhilarated that I ran outside and into the cornfield. As I was passing row after row of stems, I realized the cornfield was actually a giant matrix with thousands of combinations of possible pathways, just like the combinatorics problem I had just solved. I looked at the sky and I thought about the great mathematicians of the past that contributed so much to this field and about how I have added yet another dimension to my matrix. Suddenly, mathematics appeared to me as a 3D live map where staggering arrays of ideas connect each other by steady flows of sheer wisdom.

Suddenly a loud laughter from the next room wakes me up from my reverie. I am back in my room in the drab dormitory where I lived since I was fifteen. The dim sunset barely lightens up my room, while the cold November wind rushes from the broken-and-mended-with-tape window on the hallway, whistling beneath my door. My roommates haven’t returned yet, and I feel alone and isolated.

In moments such as these I always take out the ultimate weapon against gloominess: the picture of my family. I look at myself, my parents, my little sister, and my grandfather at the countryside, under a clear blue sky, hugging, sharing the joy of being together. It reminds me of the old times, when life was simpler, but it also reminds me of why I came to Bucharest to live in a dormitory. It was because mathematics fascinated me with its beautiful and intricate theories and configurations, and my parents and my family supported me 150 percent. They put in long hours at work to pay for school costs and they selflessly accepted my long absences. I decided then to honor their support, follow our common dream, and become an accomplished mathematician.

Finally today I consider I matched at least an infinitesimal part of my parents’ work. After countless Olympiad stages and fierce selection programs, I managed to win a gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad, along with scoring what is called “an ace”: getting gold medals in the National Olympiad, the Balkan Olympiad, and the International Olympiad.

Math, for me, is a vast map of knowledge where theories intersect each other like pathways in a cornfield, and that explains the laws of nature and the universe itself. However, no matter what mathematical sphere shall I soar in, I will always have my family with me and the joy of that day when I was running freely in the cornfield.

Octav’s essay succeeds through its sophisticated use of narrative shift and juxtaposition. He transforms a youthful pastoral image of running through a cornfield into a wholly unexpected and exhilarating mathematical epiphany. The metaphor proves effective by merging his richly tactile experience with a cognitive experience that is maximally abstract: navigating a matrix of thousands of combinatorial pathways. Within this reverie, we see Octav’s intellectual freedom and ability to lose himself in both the contributions of great thinkers and his own original insights.

After leading the reader into his experience of pure mathematical reasoning, the essay takes a deft biographical turn. Through Octav’s austere study in a drab Bucharest boarding school we realize for the first time just how far he has travelled and how much has been sacrificed for his dream of becoming a mathematician. The cornfield takes on further dimensionality, now representing both a nostalgic connection to his family and the unbounded expansiveness that accompanies the life of the mind. When Octav mentions his mathematical “ace” it is almost besides the point–we already wholly believe in the promise of his curiosity-driven journey.



Sensitive to Art & its Discontents

Check Out the Best Video Essays of 2020

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For the past few years, the British cinephile magazine Sight & Sound has polled dozens of video essayists about their favorite videos that have come out. The latest poll recently dropped, with 42 creators collectively naming over a hundred different videos from 2020. If you follow Hyperallergic’s Film & Documentary Newsletter , you’ll have already had some of these essays recommended for you, such as “In Search of a Flat Earth” or “Is the Moon Landing Cinema?” . Now you have a gargantuan list to catch up on! To get you started, here are some of the most-cited videos in the poll.

“ Explosive Paradox ” by Kevin B. Lee

This video was created for the essay series Once Upon a Screen in the journal Cine-Files , about films which traumatized the various contributors when they saw them as children. Lee discusses seeing Platoon with his family by visiting the site of the movie theater they went to in the ’80s (now a BevMo). Childhood experiences are thus reenacted at their original site, making for a remarkably intense rumination on cinematic violence and racism.

“ Forensickness ” by Chloé Galibert-Laîné

Galibert-Laîné collects her thoughts on Chris Kennedy’s 2017 film Watching the Detectives , which is about online sleuths performing amateur investigations into the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. This is therefore a video in which she comments on someone else commenting on other people commenting on videographic evidence. (And for a further layer, all of us are in turn watching her watch.) Galibert-Laîné specializes in these kinds of funhouse mirror refractions of contemporary technology and how we engage with it. This essay continually reveals new ideas and provokes many thoughts.

“ Feeling and Thought as They Take Form: Early Steadicam Labor, Technology, and Style, 1974-1985 ” by Katie Bird

Made for the media journal [in]Transition , this essay explores the history of two competing cinematic technologies during the ’70s and ’80s, Steadicam and Panaglide. These were brands of stabilizer mounts, which greatly expanded possibilities for moving cameras when making films. Bird asks the viewer to consider the stabilizer operator as a creative force, and uses this single example as a way to draw out how just one disruption can change the way both an industry and an art form can operate.

Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here. More by Dan Schindel

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10 Best Reporting Tools and Software of 2024

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  • Best for comprehensive data integration: Zoho Analytics
  • Best for task-based reporting: Asana
  • Best for high-level project reporting: Hive
  • Best for data-driven decision-making: Google Looker
  • Best for customizable project reporting: Wrike
  • Best for visual project tracking:
  • Best for all-in-one project management: ClickUp
  • Best for agile project management: Jira Software
  • Best for data visualization: Tableau
  • Best for Microsoft ecosystem integration: Power BI

Reporting tools and software are crucial to teams, especially in terms of project management as they provide a structured way to track progress, identify risks and make informed decisions. They offer a sweeping view of project health that helps managers to not only pinpoint areas of concern but also identify successes. With effective reporting, an organization gets transparency and ensures its stakeholders are aligned, which plays a part in making projects successful since everyone involved has access to the same information and insights. We’ve analyzed 10 top reporting tools and software worth your consideration.

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Top reporting software: Comparison table

Zoho analytics: best for comprehensive data integration.

Zoho Analytics logo.

Zoho Analytics is a reporting tool that excels at aggregating data from a wide array of sources as it connects with over 250 data sources, including files, feeds, databases and cloud services. Its comprehensive suite of reporting options includes charts, pivot tables, summary views, tabular views and more. Zoho Analytics also offers an intuitive drag-and-drop interface to further simplify the report creation process and make it accessible for users of varying skill levels.

Zoho Analytics offers plans starting at $22 per month for the Basic plan, while the Standard, Premium and Enterprise plans cost $45, $112 and $445 per month, respectively, when billed annually. There’s also a Custom plan for prospective users to share their requirements.

  • Extensive data integration from over 250 sources.
  • Data preparation and management tools for accurate analysis.
  • A wide array of visualization options for insightful reporting ( Figure A ).
  • AI and ML-powered augmented analytics for guided insights.

A dashboard showing a few visualization options in Zoho Analytics.


Zoho Analytics’s integrations include Zoho CRM, Salesforce CRM, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, HubSpot CRM and Zoho Bigin.

  • Comprehensive data integration capabilities.
  • Wide range of visualization tools.
  • Advanced augmented analytics features.
  • May be complex for beginners.
  • Customization can require a learning curve.

Why we chose Zoho Analytics

We selected Zoho Analytics for its broad range of reporting capabilities and user-friendly design. Its ability to present data in various visual formats makes analysis flexible and insightful and caters to diverse reporting needs as well as a wide variety of users.

Learn more about other Zoho products, like Zoho Projects and Zoho Vault .

Asana: Best for task-based reporting

Asana logo.

Asana simplifies project management with its Universal Reporting feature, which provides teams with a clear overview of task progress and project health. Its visual reporting format is designed for easy interpretation, meaning that users at all levels within an organization can easily access and use Asana.

Asana’s paid plans include the Premium plan at $10.99 per user per month, billed annually, and the Business plan at $24.99 per user per month. Its Enterprise plan’s pricing hasn’t been listed publicly.

  • Visual and intuitive reporting tools for task and project tracking ( Figure B ).
  • Goal tracking to align daily tasks with strategic objectives.
  • Real-time updates to keep teams informed on project progress.
  • A variety of highly customizable charts.

Getting started with the reporting feature in Asana.

Asana’s top integrations include Microsoft Teams, Slack, the Asana for Gmail add-on, Asana for Adobe Creative Cloud and Google Calendar.

  • User-friendly reporting and task management.
  • Effective goal alignment features.
  • Wide range of integrations.
  • Limited depth in analytical features.
  • Real-time analytics are somewhat restricted.

Why we chose Asana

We simply selected Asana for its user-friendly approach to task-based reporting. Asana is also highly effective when it comes to aligning tasks with organizational goals.

For more information, check out our full Asana review .

Hive: Best for high-level project reporting

Hive logo.

Hive is recognized for its high-level reporting capabilities, offering a suite of options for a variety of project management use cases. With features like goals, analytics dashboards and timesheet reporting, Hive provides a comprehensive tool for gaining visibility and gathering insights into projects.

Hive has two premium plans atop a free plan. Teams at $12 per user per month when billed annually and $18 when billed monthly, and Enterprise, whose prices aren’t publicly listed.

  • Goals for setting, tracking and monitoring goals across teams.
  • Analytics dashboards to showcase project status, project breakdowns and more.
  • Timesheets reporting to analyze data across timesheets.
  • Multiple views like Portfolio, Summary, Table, Kanban and more ( Figure C ).

A Kanban dashboard in Hive.

Hive’s top integrations include Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Sheets, Google Drive and Slack.

  • Customizable high-level reporting options.
  • Variety of views for different reporting needs.
  • Efficient project and action management features.
  • May require initial setup time to customize views.
  • Some advanced features might be available only on higher-tier plans.

Why we chose Hive

We selected Hive for its versatile high-level reporting options and customizable views. They bring a flexible and comprehensive overview to projects.

For more information, check out our full Hive review .

Google Looker: Best for data-driven decision-making

Google Looker logo.

A rather different entry from most tools on this list, Google Looker stands as a unified business intelligence platform that excels at turning data into actionable insights. It offers self-service BI that allows users to access, analyze and act on up-to-date, trusted data. As a reporting tool, Looker offers reliable data experiences at scale and empowers users with real-time insights.

Looker has a 30-day free trial, and its Standard plan costs $5,000 per month. For an annual quote, as well as quotes for the Enterprise and Embed plans, contact Google sales.

  • Embedded analytics and applications for enhanced data experiences.
  • Data modeling to unify business metrics across teams and applications.
  • Real-time insights to empower users with up-to-date information.
  • An extensive template gallery for templates on many of Google’s applications ( Figure D ).

Looker’s template gallery.

Looker offers extensive integration capabilities, including BigQuery, Spanner, Cloud SQL and Cloud Storage.

  • Unified platform for all BI needs.
  • Real-time insights for up-to-date decision-making.
  • Extensive integration capabilities with data sources.
  • Pricing transparency could be improved.
  • May require a learning curve to fully utilize advanced features.

Why we chose Google Looker

Google Looker’s reporting capabilities can be seen particularly through its embedded analytics and real-time insights. It easily unifies business metrics across teams and applications. It’s also a great tool for users predominantly using applications in the Google ecosystem.

Wrike: Best for customizable project reporting

Wrike logo.

Wrike stands out for its highly customizable reporting features. This flexibility, combined with Wrike’s thorough resource management and advanced analytics, makes Wrike competent enough to provide detailed insights into project performance and resource allocation and flexible enough to adapt to various workflows.

Wrike has five plans: the ones with prices listed are the Free plan, Team plan at $9.80 per user per month and Business plan at $24.80 per user per month. The Enterprise and Pinnacle plans’ pricing plans aren’t publicly listed.

  • Customizable reports for tailored project insights ( Figure E ).
  • Resource management to monitor progress and identify risks.
  • Advanced analytics for deep visibility into project performance.

A reporting dashboard in Wrike.

Wrike’s top integrations include Jira, GitHub, Google Sheets, Azure DevOps and HubSpot.

  • Highly customizable reporting options.
  • Comprehensive project and resource monitoring.
  • Advanced analytics capabilities.
  • Customization options may require time to master.
  • Extensive features can be overwhelming for newcomers.

Why we chose Wrike

Wrike has robust reporting capabilities and customizable features, which give users the flexibility and depth needed to gain extensive insights into their projects and resources.

For more information, check out our full Wrike review . Best for visual project tracking logo. is a favorite among teams that love visual task management and prioritize ease of use as it offers a visually intuitive platform for project tracking. Its advanced reporting features, such as stacked charts and workload views, provide a thorough overview of project progress and team capacity.’s dashboard customization is very flexible; this enables teams to mold their reporting to meet their project needs.

monday has a free plan and a handful of premium plans, namely, Basic at $9 per seat per month, billed annually, or $12 per seat billed monthly; Standard at $12 per seat per month, billed annually, or $14 per seat billed monthly; Pro at $19 per seat per month, billed annually, or $24 per seat billed monthly; and Enterprise, which offers customized pricing.

  • Stacked charts for multi-dimensional data analysis.
  • Workload views for balanced resource allocation.
  • Pivot tables for detailed data breakdowns.
  • Customizable dashboards for tailored project insights ( Figure F ).

A customizable dashboard in monday.

Some of the best integrations include GitLab, OneDrive, Todoist, Slack and Microsoft Teams.

  • Highly visual and intuitive interface.
  • Advanced reporting for comprehensive project insights.
  • Flexible dashboard customization.
  • Can be overwhelming for new users due to numerous features.
  • Some advanced features require higher-tier plans.

Why we chose is a visually intuitive platform and has advanced reporting capabilities. It delivers a balance between visual project tracking and in-depth reporting.

For more information, check out our full review .

ClickUp: Best for all-in-one project management

ClickUp logo.

ClickUp is recognized for its all-in-one approach to project management, offering a wide range of features from task management to time tracking and goal setting. Its reporting features are designed to provide teams with insights into productivity and project progress, supporting data-driven decision-making. ClickUp’s customizable dashboards and reporting tools allow teams to monitor key metrics and track performance effectively.

ClickUp offers a generous free forever plan alongside three premium tiers: Unlimited at $7 per user per month when billed annually, or $10 per user per month when billed monthly; Business at $12 per user per month when billed annually, or $19 per user per month when billed monthly; and Enterprise that needs prospective users to contact ClickUp for a custom quote.

  • Comprehensive dashboards for project overview ( Figure G ).
  • Customizable reporting for tailored insights.
  • Goal tracking to align efforts with objectives.
  • Time tracking to monitor task durations and productivity.

A dashboard showing some of the many views ClickUp offers.

Some of ClickUp’s top integrations include Gmail, Zoom, HubSpot, Make and Google Calendar.

  • Versatile all-in-one project management solution.
  • Extensive customization options for dashboards and reporting.
  • Generous free plan with substantial features.
  • Steep learning curve due to feature richness.
  • Customization can be time-consuming.

Why we chose ClickUp

We included ClickUp because of its comprehensive feature set and flexibility, offering teams an all-in-one solution for project management and reporting. It proves suitable for a wide range of project types and sizes.

For more information, check out our full ClickUp review .

Jira Software: Best for agile project management

Jira Software logo.

Jira Software is tailored for agile project management with specialized reporting features like sprint reports, burndown charts and velocity charts. These agile-centric reports give teams critical insights into their agile processes to help them optimize workflows and improve sprint planning. It’s worth considering for software development teams and those that follow scrum or kanban frameworks.

Jira offers a free plan for 10 users max. Its premium plans are the Standard plan at about $8.15 per user per month and the Premium plan at about $16 per user per month. It also offers an Enterprise plan that’s billed annually. However, you need to contact Jira for a quote.

  • Sprint reports for tracking sprint progress ( Figure H ).
  • Burndown charts for visualizing task completion.
  • Velocity charts for assessing team performance over sprints.
  • Cumulative flow diagrams for Kanban teams.

A sprint report in Jira Software.

Jira has extensive integrations with development tools like Bitbucket, Confluence, GitHub, Opsgenie, Jenkins and Dynatrace.

  • Tailored for agile project management.
  • Comprehensive reporting for scrum and kanban teams.
  • Wide range of integrations with development tools.
  • Primarily focused on software development teams.
  • Can be complex for non-technical users.

Why we chose Jira Software

Jira Software has robust agile reporting features and is capable of providing deep insights into agile project management processes, especially for teams practicing scrum or kanban methodologies.

For more information, check out our full Jira Software review .

Tableau: Best for data visualization

Tableau logo.

Tableau sets the standard for data visualization, offering a wide range of chart types and interactive dashboards that make complex data understandable at a glance. As reporting software, it offers a user-friendly interface and powerful data handling capabilities for users to create detailed and insightful visual reports.

Tableau’s pricing starts at $15 per user per month, with its highest tier costing $75 per user per month, both billed annually.

  • Wide range of visualization options.
  • User-friendly interface for non-technical users ( Figure I ).
  • Powerful data handling and processing capabilities.

Tableau’s user interface.

Tableau’s top integrations include Salesforce, Google Analytics, Microsoft Excel, Amazon Redshift and Snowflake.

  • Leading data visualization capabilities.
  • Intuitive interface for easy use.
  • Strong data connectivity options.
  • Higher price point compared to some competitors.
  • Can require significant resources for large datasets.

Why we chose Tableau

We considered Tableau because of its unparalleled data visualization capabilities and user-friendly interface. It should make it to your shortlist if your teams value both data accessibility and detailed reporting.

For more information, check out our full Tableau review .

Power BI: Best for Microsoft ecosystem integration

Microsoft Power BI logo.

Power BI is a key player in the reporting and analytics space, especially for those deeply embedded in the Microsoft ecosystem. Its seamless integration with other Microsoft products, like Excel and Azure, makes it a no-brainer for teams that want compatibility and ease of use with their reporting tools. What makes it a great reporting and analytics tool is its ability to handle large datasets and provide advanced analytics, including AI capabilities and custom visualizations.

Power BI offers a free version, with premium plans starting at $10 per user per month for the Pro plan and $20 per user per month for the Premium plan.

  • Seamless integration with Microsoft products.
  • Advanced analytics with AI capabilities.
  • Custom visualizations for personalized reporting ( Figure J ).

Visualization of an AI report in Power BI.

Aside from a variety of tools in the Microsoft ecosystem like Microsoft Office 365, Power BI’s top integrations include Asana, HubSpot, Google Sheets and Salesforce Pardot.

  • Strong Microsoft integration.
  • Comprehensive analytics and AI features.
  • Flexible pricing with a robust free version.
  • Can be complex for new users.
  • Limited integration outside the Microsoft ecosystem.

Why we chose Power BI

We chose Power BI due to its strong analytics capabilities combined with its seamless integration with tools in the Microsoft ecosystem. It’s a particularly fitting choice for teams that already use Microsoft products.

For more information, check out our full Power BI review .

Key features of reporting software

Real-time analytics.

Real-time analytics allows users to view, assess and analyze data as it flows into the business, which can be displayed on dashboards or reports. With this, users get to make decisions faster since they get instant, descriptive insights from the most current data.

Custom reports

Custom reports save time as they automate the data gathering and report generation processes. After the initial setup, reporting processes can be entirely streamlined, with live data feeds ensuring that any additional requests can be quickly addressed by making changes to existing reports.

Dashboard customization

Dashboard customization is crucial in reporting software as it allows users to set up their reporting environment based on their needs. Custom dashboards can provide in-depth data on various aspects of business operations, illustrating potential revenue and areas where improvements are needed. Businesses can mix and match data sources for a comprehensive view of their digital environment.

Automated reporting

This kind of reporting streamlines the process of generating regular reports and reduces the manual effort required while making sure that stakeholders receive timely updates. Users can schedule report generation and ensure that reports are always current and reflect the latest data.

Data visualization

Data visualization transforms complex datasets into graphical representations, making it easier to understand trends, patterns and outliers. This feature helps to make data more accessible and actionable, which enables users to quickly grasp the insights presented in the data.

How do I choose the best reporting software for my business?

First things first, when it comes to choosing the best reporting software for you, you must match a tool’s capabilities to your needs. For small to medium-sized businesses, tools like Zoho Analytics and ClickUp offer a vast feature set at a more accessible price point, which makes them great options when seeking value without compromising on functionality. Larger enterprises or those with more complex reporting and data analysis needs might lean towards Power BI or Tableau, known for their advanced analytics and integration within larger ecosystems.

Consider the types of reports you need, the data you’re working with and who will be using the tool. For teams that prioritize real-time data and collaboration, and Asana provide user-friendly interfaces and seamless integration with other productivity tools. On the other hand, if your focus is on in-depth data analysis and visualization, Tableau’s extensive customization options and Power BI’s deep Microsoft integration stand out.

In essence, the best reporting tool is one that not only fits your budget and technical requirements but also grows with your business, adapting to changing needs and helping you make informed decisions based on accurate, up-to-date data.


Our approach to identifying the top reporting tools for 2024 involved a detailed examination of each tool’s core features, ease of use, use cases and pricing. This allowed us to provide popular tools that cut across industries, use cases and team sizes. Additionally, we tested the tools where possible to understand how they approached reporting and compared our findings to verified reviews by real users. From this, we got to understand the pros and cons of each tool.

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Paperback Row

6 New Paperbacks to Read This Week

By Shreya Chattopadhyay March 29, 2024

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Shreya Chattopadhyay

Looking for something new to read? This week’s recommendations include a collection of Harlan Ellison’s famous science fiction, a love story set in 19th-century Sudan, a meditation on birding and more.

Here are six paperbacks we recommend →

Ellison, a major figure in 20th-century science fiction, died in 2018. His short stories, some of which provided the basis for episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “ripped my mind open and showed me what the possibilities of fiction were,” Neil Gaiman writes in the foreword to this new collection of Ellison’s best-known work.

When her former stepmother Jean dies and leaves Leah the sculptures she spent her final years creating, Leah returns to Appalachia, where the two once lived together. Contending with “ambivalence and complexity and discomfort,” our reviewer wrote, this novel traces their relationship over the course of Leah’s life and across divides of generation and class.

In March 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove off a cliff with their eight Black children strapped in. No one survived. Asgarian’s investigation tells the harrowing story of the white married couple’s actions and lays bare the injustices of the foster care system that enabled them.

The British-Bangladeshi conservationist celebrates birding as an activity that can, “even just for moments at a time, lift our eyes away from our lives and up to the skies.”

Perhaps because Akuany, the young woman who is the “beating heart” of this novel set during the Ottoman Empire’s decline in late-1800s Sudan, has spent most of her life forced to move from house to house, she feels most at home in the water. In between her desire for freedom and her feelings for the merchant who once rescued her lies “a love story that endures in a time of cruelty and punishment,” our reviewer wrote.

This history of Ukraine’s 2013-14 Maidan revolution, named for Kyiv’s Independence Square, where thousands of demonstrators were brutally repressed, was first published in 2018, before the Russian invasion. In an updated preface, Shore writes that it was at the Maidan where “Ukrainian society as it now exists was born.”

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