1 Goltijin

Essays To Read

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in 1948, which might lead some to believe that there is nothing new to write or read on the subject. Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation proves that assumption wrong.

The courageous, groundbreaking collection of essays reflects the peaceful diversity it wishes to see in the world. Edited by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon and his wife, Israeli-born novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman, the book assembles contributors from all literary walks of life: from Colum McCann to Jacqueline Woodson, Geraldine Brooks to Dave Eggers, Hari Kunzru to Mario Vargas Llosa. They are writers from every continent, of all ages, of eight mother tongues. Some identify as Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu, and some have no religious affiliation. Some had never visited Israel before, and most had never been into the occupied territories. All these writers were asked to do was, simply, pay attention.

The portrait they paint is too compelling to look away from.

There’s no two ways about it: Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation has a strong perspective. It was in part created by Breaking the Silence, a nonprofit organization composed of former Israeli soldiers who have come to oppose the occupation and strive to bring it to an end. The perceptive, personal essays reflect the gamut of life in Palestine-Israel. The portrait they paint is too compelling to look away from: What it is to live and work there — the daily frustrations and indignities of multiple checkpoints, the constant fear of arrest or worse.

In one essay, “Love in the Time of Qalandiya,” a reference to another novel birthed during a time of turmoil, death and tragedy, Taiye Selasi explores the possibility of Palestinian-Israeli love, taking Palestine’s national poet Mahmoud Darwish as her inspiration. Selasi visits nightclubs in Ramallah, mingling with the young, looking for and finding the rule breakers. She writes: “These are women after my own heart. They like to flirt, to drink, to smoke, they tell me, laughing. They like sex.” But one behavior for these liberated women is simply out of the question. “Would you date a Jewish man? No, never.” It becomes clear that this is not necessarily because the young have “drunk the Kool-Aid, accepting the purported otherness of their neighbors”; it is simply because the system, the “legal and logistical barriers,” are impossibly high.

But sometimes, as this collection deftly explores, these differences can be surmounted. The highlight for me is McCann’s extraordinary piece, “Two Stories, So Many Stories.” In it he records a meeting with two middle-aged men in Beit Jala: One is a Jew, the other a Muslim. Both are bereaved fathers who have forged an alliance out of their mutual grief. The Muslim man cuts through to a courageous argument; he refuses to be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. He says of others: “I demand of them to be pro-peace, to be against injustice, and against this ongoing situation in which one people is dominating another.”

These are all stories of separation, from one’s own fields, family, place of work and worship. As McCann says, they can “pry open our rib cages and twist our hearts backwards a notch. They can aim a punch at the back of your brain.” The going can be hard, the material often tragic. Desperate and repeated themes mirror the seemingly intractable situation in Palestine-Israel. But these are real human tales from behind the borders. What better way to be educated and enlightened than through the words of some of the world’s greatest writers?

Isabel Duffy spent more than 10 years working in the publishing industry in the U.K. before moving to San Francisco, where she interviewed many authors on stage for City Arts and Lectures. She has contributed to The Believer and recently trained as a psychotherapist.

There’s something about a shiny new collection of essays that makes my heart beat a little faster. If you feel the same way, can we be friends? If not, might I suggest that perhaps you just haven’t found the right collection yet? I don’t expect everyone to love the thought of sitting down with a nice, juicy personal essay, but I also think the genre gets a bad rap because people associate it with the kind of thing they had to write in school.

Well, essays don’t have to be like the kind of thing you wrote in school. Essays can be anything, really. They can be personal, confessional, argumentative, informative, funny, sad, shocking, sexy, and all of the above. The best essayists can make any subject interesting. If I love an essayist, I’ll read whatever they write. I’ll follow their minds anywhere. Because that’s really what I want out of an essay — the sense that I’m spending time with an interesting mind. I want a companionable, challenging, smart, surprising voice in my head.

So below is my list, not of essay collections I think everybody “must read,” even if that’s what my title says, but collections I hope you will consider checking out if you want to.

1. Against Interpretation — Susan Sontag
2. Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere — André Aciman
3. American Romances — Rebecca Brown
4. Art and Ardor — Cynthia Ozick
5. The Art of the Personal Essay — anthology, edited by Phillip Lopate
6. Bad Feminist — Roxane Gay
7. The Best American Essays of the Century — anthology, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
8. The Best American Essays series — published every year, series edited by Robert Atwan
9. Book of Days — Emily Fox Gordon
10. The Boys of My Youth — Jo Ann Beard
11. The Braindead Megaphone — George Saunders
12. Broken Republic: Three Essays — Arundhati Roy
13. Changing My Mind — Zadie Smith
14. A Collection of Essays — George Orwell
15. The Common Reader — Virginia Woolf
16. Consider the Lobster — David Foster Wallace
17. The Crack-up — F. Scott Fitzgerald
18. Discontent and its Civilizations — Mohsin Hamid
19. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric — Claudia Rankine
20. Dreaming of Hitler — Daphne Merkin
21. Self-Reliance and Other Essays — Ralph Waldo Emerson
22. The Empathy Exams — Leslie Jameson
23. Essays After Eighty — Donald Hall
24. Essays in Idleness — Yoshida Kenko
25. The Essays of Elia— Charles Lamb
26. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader — Anne Fadiman
27. A Field Guide to Getting Lost — Rebecca Solnit
28. Findings — Kathleen Jamie
29. The Fire Next Time — James Baldwin
30. The Folded Clock — Heidi Julavits
31. Forty-One False Starts — Janet Malcolm
32. How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America — Kiese Laymon
33. I Feel Bad About My Neck — Nora Ephron
34. I Just Lately Started Buying Wings — Kim Dana Kupperman
35. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction — anthology, edited by Lee Gutkind
36. In Praise of Shadows — Junichiro Tanizaki
37. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens — Alice Walker
38. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? — Mindy Kaling
39. I Was Told There’d Be Cake — Sloane Crosley
40. Karaoke Culture — Dubravka Ugresic
41. Labyrinths — Jorge Luis Borges
42. Living, Thinking, Looking — Siri Hustvedt
43. Loitering — Charles D’Ambrosio
44. Lunch With a Bigot — Amitava Kumar
45. Madness, Rack, and Honey — Mary Ruefle
46. Magic Hours — Tom Bissell
47. Meatless Days — Sara Suleri
48. Meaty — Samantha Irby
49. Meditations from a Movable Chair — Andre Dubus
50. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood — Mary McCarthy
51. Me Talk Pretty One Day — David Sedaris
52. Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal — Wendy S. Walters
53. My 1980s and Other Essays — Wayne Koestenbaum
54. The Next American Essay, The Lost Origins of the Essay, and The Making of the American Essay — anthologies, edited by John D’Agata
55. The Norton Book of Personal Essays — anthology, edited by Joseph Epstein
56. Notes from No Man’s Land — Eula Biss
57. Notes of a Native Son — James Baldwin
58. Not That Kind of Girl — Lena Dunham
59. On Beauty and Being Just — Elaine Scarry
60. Once I Was Cool — Megan Stielstra
61. 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write — Sarah Ruhl
62. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored — Adam Phillips
63. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence — Adrienne Rich
64. The Opposite of Loneliness — Marina Keegan
65. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition — Geoff Dyer
66. Paris to the Moon — Adam Gopnik
67. Passions of the Mind — A.S. Byatt
68. The Pillow Book — Sei Shonagon
69. A Place to Live — Natalia Ginzburg
70. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination — Toni Morrison
71. Pulphead — John Jeremiah Sullivan
72. Selected Essays — Michel de Montaigne
73. Shadow and Act — Ralph Ellison
74. Sidewalks — Valeria Luiselli
75. Sister Outsider — Audre Lorde
76. The Size of Thoughts — Nicholson Baker
77. Slouching Towards Bethlehem — Joan Didion
78. The Souls of Black Folk — W. E. B. Du Bois
79. The Story About the Story — anthology, edited by J.C. Hallman
80. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again — David Foster Wallace
81. Ten Years in the Tub — Nick Hornby
82. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man — Henry Louis Gates
83. This Is Running for Your Life — Michelle Orange
84. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage — Ann Patchett
85. Tiny Beautiful Things — Cheryl Strayed
86. Tuxedo Junction: Essays on American Culture — Gerald Early
87. Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints — Joan Acocella
88. The Unspeakable — Meghan Daum
89. Vermeer in Bosnia — Lawrence Weschler
90. The Wave in the Mind — Ursula K. Le Guin
91. We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think— Shirley Hazzard
92. We Should All Be Feminists — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
93. What Are People For? — Wendell Berry
94. When I Was a Child I Read Books — Marilynne Robinson
95. The White Album — Joan Didion
96. White Girls — Hilton Als
97. The Woman Warrior — Maxine Hong Kinston
98. The Writing Life — Annie Dillard
99. Writing With Intent — Margaret Atwood
100. You Don’t Have to Like Me — Alida Nugent

If you have a favorite essay collection I’ve missed here, let me know in the comments!

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Amanda and Jenn recommend books like it's their job... because it is their job. Listen to Get Booked on Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

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