Much like Carol, I’ve got a fondness for brevity when it comes to reading. I could blame this tendency on the evil information age shortening my attention span. Really though I’ve liked short reads long before the interweb came on the scene. I’m told that The Snowy Day and The Story of Ferdinand were two of my childhood favorites. Moby Dick they are not. When it comes to brief adult books, short stories are a perennial favorite but I’m also very fond of their non-fiction relative: the essay.
Essays are great for many reasons, but one of my favorites is the way an author can focus in on a specific topic and essentially riff on it. A good essay is often like a good stand-up comedy set, just not necessarily funny. The author can make you think about a familiar topic in a totally different way and challenge your assumptions. There is also the pleasure of cheering them on if you agree with their point of view. Best of all, there is no two drink minimum to start reading.
Here are three newish essay collections to wet your whistle.
Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum
While the confrontational, yet entertaining, title of this collection might make you think this book is simply a screed promoting the ‘child free by choice’ concept at all costs, the essays are actually quite thoughtful. To be sure there is plenty of material to offend, but unless you take the extreme position that every person must breed, you should find yourself chuckling, cheering, or shaking your head at many of the writers’ positions. All the big questions are addressed (What is natural? Is a child required for a fulfilling life? What is the point of it all?) with wit, style, and humor.
Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett
In this collection, the author sets out to explore many of the odd, quirky and downright weird places that dot the globe. Each short essay examines places that are hard to define. There is the Principality of Sealand, an old World War II gun platform off the coast of England that has been declared a sovereign nation. And don’t forget Sandy Island which was placed on maps, even Google maps, for years despite never having existed. The author also explores odd communities, the RV Camp next to the runway at LAX, and strange unclaimed environments, the meridians between major highways, to get you thinking about what a place actually is.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
The far ranging topics of these essays, from Sweet Valley High to Django, are served up by cultural critic and novelist Roxane Gay with humor and personal insight. She is a bona fide consumer of popular culture, who lists the Hunger Games and Scrabble as obsessions, but is not shy about pointing out the misogyny and racism that can be lurking in the many books, films, TV shows and albums that we choose to consume. Gay understands the oddly conflicted nature of enjoying and abhorring many aspects of popular culture simultaneously. It is this understanding that makes these essays humorous, confrontational and insightful but never boring.