It’s all too easy to the ignore the personal essay as something best left for academia; those of us who have studied the Humanities have almost certainly digested dozens of them a weekly basis at any given time in our lives. I rarely read any essays for pleasure throughout college, but in postgraduate life I have found myself drawn to them; attracted to their brevity and weighty content. That being said, I do not advise one wastes any time on a subpar essay—reading them should be an involved process—as they’re short, you’ll want to savor every single world, so I’ve curated a collection of my personal favorites in order to streamline the process. Without further ado:
Serious Personal Essays & Speeches
On Keeping A Notebook, Joan Didion, 1961
I have made no secret of the fact that Joan Didion is one of my favorite authors of all time; I wrote about her in my post on my top ten favorite books (The Year of Magical Thinking was the one that made the cut, but her anthology Slouching Towards Bethlehem is similarly fantastic). Didion’s essays made their way into the Top Ten lists of two of my fellow voracious readers, Charlotte and Caroline, and with good reason: even when I skim the story for a mere sentence, I am guaranteed to glean something significant. In this particular essay, Didion writes on the importance of—as the title suggests—keeping a notebook, but the meaning of the work extends far beyond just that. The work is a reflection on personal confidence, social graces, and the power of observation from an objective standpoint. The entire work is quotable, but my favorite excerpt is as follows:
“We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing (“You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,” Jessica Mitfrod’s governess would hiss in her ear at the advent of any social occasion; I copied that into my notebook because it is only recently that I have been able to enter a room without hearing that phrase in my inner ear.) Only the very young and very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s dresses, other people’s trout.”
Apologies for the long excerpt, but I found myself unable to cut anything out of the above as I find all of it resonates—even if, sadly, it is partially due to the fact that the opposite is true today. These days people—myself included, unfortunately—can’t get enough of talking about themselves, can’t shake the notion that they are the most important person in the room. If we were all to heed the advice that Didion offers us by way of Ms. Mitford’s governess, perhaps the world could recede from the “I’m special syndrome” and herald a return of simple social graces. This essay is honestly one of my favorite pieces of writing out there—and to me it reads a bit like a non-fiction Anthropology of an American Girl, the number one book on my Top 10 list.
This Is Water, David Foster Wallace
I just graduated college, so perhaps it’s obvious why this essay, which I read for the first time only a few days ago and is the one that prompted me to write this post. But I do think the content will resonate with anyone either currently in or recently graduated from college. I haven’t read much David Foster Wallace, so I can’t exactly comment on how this compares to the alleged brilliance of Infinite Jest, but what I liked about was that, regardless of Foster Wallace’s genius, this did not come off as the pretentious musings of a man who was much smarter than the rest of us. The speech, which was given at Kenyon graduation a few years back, is certainly directed towards a highly educated audience, but its intent is not to increase the bravado and self-importance of those of us who happen to hold degrees. In fact, Wallace argues that we should use our intelligence to see the world in a more forgiving light. He presents mundane suburban scenarios that most commencement speakers might avoid in favor of shelling out platitudes about the places we’ll go and the things we’ll accomplish—Foster Wallace provides us with a dreary image of the ins and outs of quotidian life in the real world and then asserts that, despite how bad or boring it may sounds, we are in complete control of our experiences. The advice Wallace heeds in this speech is derived from the titular anecdote, in which an old and wise fish swims over two younger ones and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two fish, young and self-absorbed as they are, look at each other and say, “What the hell is water?” Foster Wallace insists that its easy to override the selfishness that is inherent in human nature; to sit in traffic surrounded by idiots texting in SUVs adorned with ignorant political bumper stickers or to stand for the better part of an hour in the checkout line of a hideously lit grocery store only to finally reach the cash register and realize you’ve forgotten to purchase what you initially came for without losing your shit, so to speak. Foster Wallace claims: “it is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.’”
Other notable David Foster Wallace: The View from Mrs. Thompson’s (thanks for the rec Charlotte!)
The third essay I recommend everyone read, Anna Quindlen’s A Short Guide to A Happy Life, was a bit disappointing to me, despite the fact that I enjoyed it. I purchased it—by which I mean I literally went to the amazon Kindle store and “saved” $4.00 by paying $11.99 for it—last week, when I finished the book I brought with me on vacation with a few days to spare and really didn’t want to read The Secret History [sorry, rest of the world and the Pulitzer Prize selection committee, I just can’t get behind Donna Tartt]. The “book” was 64 pages including images that appeared on every page, and the font was huge. Condensed, this could’ve ben a seven to ten-page essay. So, yes, it was a waste of money [maybe I should’ve known, what with the ‘short’ in the title], but reading it wasn’t a waste of time. It was a cute book, which I believe contained wisdom adapted from a graduation speech she gave at Villanova. The book isn’t thought provoking in the way that the works of Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace are, but Quindlen certainly does provide a philosophy on life worth adopting. Some notable passages:
“Don’t ever forget the words on a postcard my father sent me last year: if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat”
“All of us want to do well, but if we don’t do good, too, then doing well will never be enough”
“When you leave college, there are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life.”
The Funny Personal Essays & Speeches
Moving on from the essays that dig deep in pursuit of the meaning of life, I would be remiss not to include one of my favorite humorous works; the hilarious short stories of the original master, David Sedaris, are what got me interested in the genre.
Perhaps the best seasonal book of all time [it’s lamentable how few there are; maybe I should get started on a Christmas-themed tale] is David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice, and, more specifically, the story within it—which I first heard him reading on NPR during a particularly fun high school English class during my sophomore year semester abroad in Zermatt, Switzerland [an impossibly charming and traditional town during the holiday season, almost the polar opposite of the scene of the story—Macy’s]. Sedaris details the time he spent working as Crumpet, a Holiday Elf at Macy’s Herald Square. You have to hear Sedaris’ descriptions of quotidian life at Santa’s workshop—more specifically some of the things he said to the children—to believe them. You’ll never look at a seasonal worker in the same way again. I’d be remiss to include my favorite quotes in this one; it is a disservice to the overall brilliance of the story to boil it down to a few sound bites.
Other notable David Sedaris: literally everything.
Yes, I am including an essay published in Glamour Magazine in a post that also features Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace. If it hasn’t yet become clear, my tastes are diverse and I don’t discriminate. I also happen to think that this particular essay, an excerpt from Mindy Kaling’s upcoming book [I have it on pre-order, and I’ll be thrilled if its half as good as the last one], Why Not Me, is New Yorker-caliber [she has written essays for the publication in the past]. In the heartwarming and hilarious essay, Kaling gets introspective about the way she’s built confidence throughout her life, starting with a hilarious childhood story and concluding that, as we can all agree, she is now confident because she deserves it. As she writes:
“’Entitlement is simply the belief that you deserve something. Which is great. The hard part is, you’d better make sure you deserve it. So, how did I make sure that I deserved it? To answer that, I would like to quote from the Twitter bio of one of my favorite people, Kevin Hart. It reads:
My name is Kevin Hart and I WORK HARD!!! That pretty much sums me up!!! Everybody Wants To Be Famous But Nobody Wants To Do The Work!’”
There you have it. Kaling not only provides, in Glamour’s words, “killer” advice on becoming a confident young woman, but also the motivation to shun our generation’s “everyone is special and important” mindset in favor of hard work—and if you didn’t laugh at Kevin Hart’s Twitter bio, we probably aren’t friends. Every girl should read this.