What are the world's best essays?
December 17, 2009 9:00 AM   Subscribe

Inspired by Ask MeFi's most popular thread ever, what are the best essays you can recommend?

I'm looking for a list of seminal essays, like George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," or Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" that are essential reading for their respective fields. I don't really care about the field, as I'm trying to diversify my reading habits, and finding the most exciting ideas from a wide number of fields, or some of the biggest ideas that have spread their influence across disciplines seems like a good way to reinvigorate my learning. Imagine if the TED Talks produced an anthology of classic essays. Essays like Quine's "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," that are popular within the discipline but are less well-known outside the field are also welcome.

I'm looking for shorter pieces, though there are some short books / long essays like Machiavelli's "The Prince" or Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" that split the difference between the popular MeFi thread and this question. Longer suggestions are also welcome, but I'd like this to be a list of places where people can get excited about new fields.
posted by Lifeson to Education (39 answers total) 137 users marked this as a favorite
Ruminations on eating other animals disguised as a report on the Maine Lobster Festival:
Consider the Lobster - David Foster Wallace
posted by edbles at 9:07 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema is a good starting point for feminism as it relates to film.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:08 AM on December 17, 2009

Frederick Jackson Turner's much-debated "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (later printed as a book chapter).
posted by chinston at 9:08 AM on December 17, 2009

A rough trade, Martin Amis on the pornography biz.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:09 AM on December 17, 2009

Best American Non-Required Reading tends to be a good source generally for interesting material.

Like this one which summarizes Daniel Gilbert's take on happiness:
posted by edbles at 9:10 AM on December 17, 2009

This one on the joys of creative loafing: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/display.php?id=34682
posted by verapamil at 9:13 AM on December 17, 2009

"Economy", Thoreau's perspective on human society that he used for the first part of WALDEN, is probably my favorite of all essays.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:13 AM on December 17, 2009

Came by to recommend David Foster Wallace as well. Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again are both incredible.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:16 AM on December 17, 2009

Gore Vidal's essays on politics and art have long interested me.

For a taste: Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace

And the full feast: United States: Essays 1952 - 1992
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:21 AM on December 17, 2009

I have a long-standing girl crush on Joan Didion.

She writes about politics, culture, arts, nature - it's impossible to pick just one essay, but this is my personal favorite

On a more academic note, Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox is a canonical essay in the field of historical analysis and postmodern political philosophy. (I'm sure someone who knows more about this than I can expound upon the details.)
posted by bookgirl18 at 9:31 AM on December 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think Leo Steinberg's essay "Other Criteria" (available in the book of the same name; a tiny bit of it here) is the best general piece ever written on modern art.
posted by neroli at 9:35 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Howard Becker's Becoming a Marihuana User is a very short but classic sociology paper. Nowadays, it probably won't set your mind alight with ideas, but it's a great example of good clear social understanding.
posted by Sova at 9:36 AM on December 17, 2009

Clifford Geertz's Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" (or here in HTML) is very widely-read, even outside anthropology, and he's a brilliantly insightful and witty writer.

Marcel Mauss's The Gift might be a bit long for your purposes--although it is referred to as an "essay"--but it's a foundational text in economic anthropology and sociology. Would be interesting to read against Hayek.

CP Snow's The Two Cultures is an influential (if oft-disputed) take on the difference between science and the humanities. Not foundational for my discipline, but certainly started a lot of conversations, and is a common touchstone.

If you're in for a total mindbender after Snow's sedate take on the sciences, try Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto for feminist science studies. Or maybe Derrida's Structure, Sign, Play (far more influential than the Haraway, although less fun).
posted by col_pogo at 9:40 AM on December 17, 2009 [4 favorites]

All of Tom Wolfe's stuff before he became a Balzacian novelist is very fine culutral reporting and analysis. My favorite is the first one he put out, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. In that, he reveals the 1960s to us in a way that makes the standard acid-flashback montage set to Doors music seem like the joke that it is.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:40 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not exactly the same question, but some good suggestions here.
posted by Xalf at 9:45 AM on December 17, 2009

In the Beginning Was the Command Line - Neal Stephenson's essay/novella about the different operating systems' evolution and how they're interrelated.
posted by jessamyn at 9:48 AM on December 17, 2009 [5 favorites]

Body Rituals of the Nacirema (pdf) is sort of the anti-Geertz.
posted by liketitanic at 10:04 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation
posted by felix betachat at 10:24 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

No News from Auschwitz
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:30 AM on December 17, 2009

Philosophy essays:

Aesthetics: Hume's Of the Standard of Taste. (My favorite part is the wine parable, paragraphs 15-16.)

Ethics: Mill's Utilitarianism is maybe on the borderline of short book/long essay. (In fact, it's often difficult in philosophy to distinguish between essays and books -- I think of Descartes's Meditations more as a long essay than a book.)

Applied ethics: Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion" is a classic.

Thomas Nagel's book Mortal Questions is full of answers to your question, including the famous "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Several of them are about topics you might expect to see in continental philosophy but with a more rigorous/analytic approach than usual; the first two in the book, "Death" and "The Absurd," are standouts. There are also excellent essays on just war theory, affirmative action (critical of it from a progressive point of view), interdisciplinary studies, and sex. I cannot recommend this little book highly enough.

John Searle's 1980 essay "Minds, Brains, and Programs" introduced his famous (often denounced without being refuted) "Chinese room argument." His book A Mystery of Consciousness is a collection of essays, at least one of which recaps the argument (if you're interested, go to that Amazon link and search for "Chinese" within the book).
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:44 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I could be remembering this incorrectly, but isn't Stephen Jay Gould's "The misnamed, mistreated, and misunderstood Irish elk" considered to be one of the first essays of scientific inquiry masked as popular literature?

It's been ages since I've read it, and I can't find a copy online or here at the office, but I feel like I remember it being an important work not only for its content, but as a representative of the type.
posted by elmer benson at 10:50 AM on December 17, 2009

Anything by Wendell Berry is worth reading if you're interested in sustainable agriculture, rural communities, etc. The Art of the Commonplace is a great collection that comes closest to the breadth of his thinking, especially "The Unsettling of America", "Think Little", and "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community".

Although Berry would probably prefer that you buy his book from your local indie bookseller than from Amazon.
posted by GodricVT at 10:53 AM on December 17, 2009

On the subject of Saudi Arabia: The Kingdom of Silence

There aren't a lot of essays that discuss the lives of Saudi youth on a personal level, and of the ones I've read this one is the best.
posted by shii at 11:08 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Susan Sontag's "Notes on 'Camp'" and "Illness as Metaphor."
posted by ottereroticist at 11:18 AM on December 17, 2009

Seconding "Art of the Personal Essay."

One of my favorites from that collection is Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys".
posted by gauche at 12:10 PM on December 17, 2009

The Cathedral and the Bazaar was quite influential within the open source movement.

Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions should be read by everyone before they use the phrase `paradigm shift'.

I don't know whether you are interested in primary scienctific literature, but all of the 60 papers included in the Royal Society's Trailblazing project would be considered seminal.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 12:28 PM on December 17, 2009

I'll add all four by Oscar Wilde collected in a volume called Intentions. That is, The decay of lying, Pen, pencil, and poison, The critic as artist and The truth of masks.

posted by varoa at 12:36 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Unhappy Meals by Michael Pollan on foods and nutrition.
posted by Carius at 7:29 PM on December 17, 2009

Beautiful Code is a good place if you want to broaden your technical outlook.
posted by mdoar at 10:28 AM on December 18, 2009

The Fixation of Belief by Charles Sanders Peirce.
posted by lunit at 10:41 AM on December 18, 2009

FA Hayek's The Use of Knowledge in Society.
posted by SamuelBowman at 2:52 PM on December 18, 2009

Feynman's There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom and Cargo Cult Science.
posted by benzenedream at 4:35 PM on December 18, 2009

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance".

As a sample, one of the many amazing things he says in that essay: "There is a time in every man`s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till."
posted by Houstonian at 6:32 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology (PDF).

More of an article, but George Miller's The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.
posted by parudox at 10:21 PM on December 18, 2009

Kennan's "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." It's not often a single essay sets the course of U.S. foreign policy, and therefore of world history, for much of a century.
posted by Diablevert at 8:31 PM on December 19, 2009

Bertolt Brecht's A Short Organum for the Theater

Not technically an essay, but pretty darn close in length is Aristotle's Poetics, where among other concepts "Deus Ex Machina" and "Catharsis" originated.
posted by Ndwright at 4:45 PM on December 20, 2009

another DFW piece I really enjoyed: Tense Present.
posted by Chris4d at 7:53 AM on February 24, 2010

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