Here’s a highly curated list for you. Robert Atwan, the editor of the “Best American Essays” series, has selected for the Publishers Weekly website his top 10 essays since 1950. Atwan is careful to point out that he chose the best essays, not the best essayists, and that to make the winnowing easier, he eliminated from consideration examples of New Journalism, including work by Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. So, what’s left?
Well, the list, which is in chronological order, begins with James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” which originally appeared in Harper’s in 1955. About this piece, in which Baldwin examines his difficult relationship with his father and his racial identity, Atwan writes:
“Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency.”
The list concludes with David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” from Gourmet, in 2004, which recounts his visit to the annual Maine Lobster Festival. Wallace’s work, Atwan argues, is often mistaken for traditional magazine journalism:
“Those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius.”
Situated between these bookends are Joan Didion and John McPhee and Annie Dillard, among others. And left behind, of course, are all kinds of questions — nothing since 2004? — and, for essay enthusiasts, inevitable quibbles about what didn’t make the honor roll — not Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?”
You can read the entire list, with links to most of the essays, here.