Letters to America

Andrew O’Hagan’s Six Favorite Essay Collections

The celebrated Scottish writer, whose book The Atlantic Ocean: Reports From Britain and America is finally available in the U.S., picks his most treasured books.

02.01.13 12:05 AM ET

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics)” by Joan Didion. 256 p. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $9.37

I read this in Glasgow in one big sitting when I was a teenager, and I couldn’t speak for like a week and a half. These essays capture the moral temperament of the 1960s and the weather as well as the inner life of the author.

Table Talk
by William Hazlitt

“Table Talk Essays on Men and Manners” by William Hazlitt. 500 p. Forgotten Books. $11.99.

This guy was a friend of the great romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, and he shared their project to marry politics and culture—and to do so into lines filled with common sense and beautiful thought. Read his essay on boxing and you’ll feel your pulse quicken.

Essays of Elia
by Charles Lamb

“Essays of Elia” by Charles Lamb. 476 p. University of Iowa Press. $24.00.

Perfection is the objective in the good essay. And Lamb would find it in subjects as small (and yet as universal) as chimney sweeps and “The Londoner.” His writing seems as fresh as this morning’s milk, and two times as nourishing.

Pieces and Pontifications
by Norman Mailer

“Pieces and Pontifications” by Norman Mailer. 192 p. Little Brown.

People have forgotten how daring and how charming Mailer was, but not how offensive. He could turn his hand to anything, and was a prodigious and brilliant essayist. In a way that today’s timid, prize-loving American novelists almost never do, he went underneath the culture in his essays and pulled out some unforgettable insights.

by George Orwell

“Essays” by George Orwell. 1416 p. Everyman's Library. $27.38.

He was never afraid to go inside his own life, his own experience, his own past, and his own prejudices. Yet he was a writer for everyone. He would look around the subject of Boys’ Weeklies, for instance, and find the essence of boyhood, the essence of heroism, and the habits of reading for a certain class at a certain time. Magical.

“Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” by David Sedaris. 257 p. Back Bay Books. $10.19.

I once spat a whole mouthful of cornflakes at my beloved child because of Sedaris. It was an essay of his about Anne Frank’s house. Please read it. I can’t remember if it’s in this book or not, but, it doesn’t matter—he’s never written a bad essay.