I love reading essays--they are compact, intimate, informative and thought-provoking. I read everything by John McPhee, Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, Susan Orlean and Diane Ackerman. For food writing I love M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Laurie Colwin, and Calvin Trillin. Trillin is humor too, as is David Sedaris. Thoreau and Emerson, of course. Virginia Woolf. E.B. White. Peter Hessler's collections on China. Anne Fadiman, Gretel Ehrlich, Annie Dillard. And so many more...
Styles vary--some, such as McPhee, put a little distance between writer and reader. Others are conversational--I think of them as friends in a book. Anne Lamott is like that. The late, great Laurie Colwin. Here is the opening paragraph from one of her essays in Home Cooking:
"How depressing it is to open a cookbook whose first chapter is devoted to equipment. You look around your kitchen. No chinoise! No flan ring! No salamander! How are you ever going to get anything cooked? What sort of person is it who doesn't own a food mill?" (Laurie Colwin, The Low-Tech Person's Batterie de Cuisine)
Opening sentences from a few writers, to show you how tone can vary:
"In January of the current year (1870) while dining in Paris at the house of an old friend of mine, I received from M. Du Camp, the well-known writer and expert on the statistics of Paris, quite an unexpected invitation to be present at the execution of Tropmann..." (Ivan Tugenev, The Execution of Tropmann)
"No one perhaps has ever felt passionately toward a pencil." (Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting)
"The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place." (Rachel Carson, The Marginal World)
"I have been campaigning to have the national Thanksgiving dish changed from turkey to spaghetti carbonara." (Calvin Trillin)
"It's May and I've just awakened from a nap, curled against sagebrush the way my dog taught me to sleep--sheltered from wind." (Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces)
My shelves are filled with essays and narrative non-fiction. Two excellent anthologies are The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate and the Norton Book of Nature Writing. I highly recommend the Best American series that comes out every year. I am stocking up on winter books (as though I will be living in a 19th century wilderness or post-apocalypse bunker) and will treat myself to the 2012 Best American Essays, Science and Nature Writing, Non-Required Reading, Sports Writing and Travel Writing. Do you enjoy essays?