Despite this, I am only a so-so reader of books. I only read about fifty a year, which is paltry. I don't have sufficient attentiveness for fiction, and I'm a slow reader and easily distracted; putting that in the affirmative, I could claim that I use reading as a series of triggers for the cascading multiplicities of my own thinking—ahem. For those reasons and more, essays (and articles too, because the best articles are essays) are to me the most natural, most appealing form of writing to read. Home territory, if you will. I read all sorts of things, and love all sorts of the things I read, but it's essays that I love the best.
Here's a list I've been meaning to put together for some time now, of my favorite essayists, more or less in order. If you have your own favorites, by all means share; I hope to learn something here.
There are lots of links in this, but what am I gonna do, not link to the books? Hope you don't mind.
1. George Orwell. A rationalist with a passion for the truth, a man of few illusions and of both personal and intellectual courage, and in my opinion one of the great prose writers of the modern era. And he got more predictions right than Nostradamus. Thoreau is my favorite writer, but whenever I feel my faith in humankind lacking or lagging I pull my well-thumbed Everyman's Library edition of the Essays off the shelf and read one at random. The world is always a little better after reminding oneself that Orwell was once in it. There are many samplers as well, if you lack the commitment for the big brick.
2. E. B. White. The consummate essayist, White's is a voice close to the soul of the mid-century middlebrow middle-class moderate American, the literary counterpart to the politics of, say, Walter Lippmann*. But while he had his age's great faith in liberal democracy and Americanism (and more of a comfort level with the conceits of that age than he might have been comfortable with, if he could see himself at our present remove), he was also a crank, and a humorist, and magic with words. Some people (Coetzee, Barthelme, Hemingway) have an alchemical ability to invest their distinctive style into even short strings of words—how, I know not. White was one of those. The Essays of E.B. White is that great rarity in literature, a perfect book that is not quite a great book. I suppose it's inevitable that White should go on being best known for his popular children's stories, Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, and of course for his bit part in his teacher Bill Strunk's evergreen primer about diction, all of which are certainly worthy, while his essays slowly fade. But no one, and I mean but no one, can invest the trivial with interest quite like White, or sound more elegant doing it.
John Szarkowski by Eamon McCabe
3. John Szarkowski. This choice should surprise no one, as Szarkowski writes—exceedingly well—on photography. Not perhaps a natural writer, there is an effortful, sometimes overcrafted quality to his expression—he was never glib—and he wasn't prolific; his collected works (I hope I live to see the day) will probably be shorter than almost any other great writer's. But the quality of his thought is lucid and erudite, and his writing, one senses, is as faithful as a ray-tracing to his thinking. As I said in the most famous essay I ever wrote myself, "Szarkowski the writer will never waste a reader's time."
4. Hendrik Hertzberg. On a quotidian level perhaps not an atypical New York Jewish liberal intellectual, on a higher plane Rik Hertzberg is the ideal observer: reasonable, compassionate, astute, articulate, incisive, often right, and never not good to read. He has a book out—several, in fact—but I don't actually recommend them, because Hertzberg is best read in the moment. The way to do it is to get a subscription to what could well be the last magazine for readers, The New Yorker, and follow "The Talk of the Town," which he writes most weeks. (Being Andy White's distant heir.) There are other good things in that magazine, too, not the least of which are cartoons (I am going to win the caption contest one day, g-ddammit).
5. Gail Collins. I never heard of her before she retired from wasting her time making a living and began doing what she ought to have been doing always, and I still don't have a sense that I "know who she is" in the way I feel I have the measure of, say, Tina Fey, or Shaq. But I adore this woman's wonderfully wry and playful sense of humor. Every column she writes is full of indirection and gentle zingers and chuckles that linger. Like this, from the most recent one, about our troubled times: "It’s pretty clear that no matter what happens, the voters are sending a message that they are in a bad mood. You cannot fail to notice that people are ticked off. The economy feels awful. The weather feels awful. Did you know that the cold snap in Florida hit the people who breed tropical fish so hard that there is a national guppy shortage? Things are bad, bad, bad." She has a book out too—about the rise of women since the 1950s—it's in my stack—but you can read her columns for free, online.
6. Michel de Montaigne. The standard translation is Donald Frame's, which can be purchased in a highly kempt hardcover omnibus at a bargain price, courtesy of the laudable and useful Everyman's Library. Montaigne was a man of the world who retired to an actual tower stuffed with books (as Craig Ferguson would say, remind you of anyone?), from whence he wrote everlastingly and entertainingly on himself and on life; he is said to have invented the essay. His humanity, personality, and learning ring down through the crusted centuries.
7. Francis Bacon. Not the painter, but the Jacobean polymath credited with inventing, or at least laying the philosophical groundwork for, the scientific method. It's an oddity of language that translations of antiquarian writers who wrote in other languages can be more clear and accessible than antiquarian writers of one's own tongue (I'm personally an aficionado of the worst of both worlds, having had a lifelong interest in Elizabethan translations). It takes a bit of patience, now, for an English speaker to read the language of Bacon. But in the small bites of the essays, hardly an insurmountable task. The book should be available for free or nearly so with any e-reader; available in any library; or stocked in most any used bookstore. If you want a nice version for a personal library, I recommend the Peter Pauper Press edition, which isn't as fancy a book as it looks but imparts a bit of the flavor of ancient letterpress.
For a nice immersive reading experience, let me recommend a leisurely traverse of Catherine Drinker Bowen's 1963 pop biography Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man, which you can find at your local library or readily available used, interspersed with forays into the essays as taste and impulse dictates. Such sojourns are what passeth as fun for me, peoples!
8. Bernard Darwin. Not well known today, there is only one book that I know of that is anywhere near current. (And by the way, thank you, Jeff Silverman.) Grandson of the great biologist, by whom he was raised, he wrote about golf, his lifelong passion. Much of what he reported about (he wrote in the first half of the 20th century) is of limited interest today, and changes in the game can make his peacock terms incongruous ("he shot a sensational 76," for example). But Darwin is so civil, so adroit with a turn of phrase, so personable, that his writing still retains much of its freshness—if you like to read about golf. As with most essayists, to read him is to spend time in his company; and as with most gifted essayists, his company is good company.
Mike*Himself the subject of one of those improbable great books that I occasionally stumble upon in a motley of unlikely subjects—which could make a good list for another Sunday—Ronald Steel's Walter Lippmann and the American Century.