Thought Provoking Short Essays

I realized a little while ago that 2016 was shaping up to be a banner year for essays. It occurred to me that I could put together a list of collections that I read and loved or that I will make sure I read soon. I thought I would include 10 or so. But that hypothetical list of 10 quickly expanded to 15, and then 20, and then to 25, and I could add even more. But this list of 25 is enough to keep you reading for a long time.

The list below includes collections by novelists, poets, comedians, actors, bloggers, and activists. The first 17 have already been published, and the final 8 are forthcoming later this year. The list should have something for everyone: some of these books are funny, some are deeply personal, some are experimental, some are journalistic, some are literary. But all, I hope, will be thought-provoking and fun to read.

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward: This anthology includes essays by writers such as Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, Isabel Wilkerson, and more. It’s a follow-up to James Baldwin 1963 book The Fire Next Time, looking at the African-American experience and the state of race relations in America today. It’s a powerful and necessary collection.

Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole: This book contains more than 50 essays on literature, photography, travel, and more. Cole’s voice is both intellectual and engaging; his insights into the world — its politics, art, and culture — illuminate modern-day life.

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, Brian Blanchfield: Blanchfield’s short essays bring together ideas and experiences you never thought could exist in one piece of writing. These essays are a mental work-out; they challenge and charm at once. They are poetic, confessional, brilliant.

Violation, Sallie Tisdale: This volume collects essays from the 1980s through today. Tisdale’s work is varied in content but always full of sharp observations and insights about family, culture, science, writing, and more. Tisdale’s mind is a fascinating place; you never quite know what to expect or where an essay might take you.

Bukowski in a Sundress, Kim Addonizio: These pieces are largely autobiographical; in fact, this book gets described as a memoir, but it’s really a collection of personal essays held together by Addonizio’s distinct voice and outlook on life. She’s had a rough life in some ways, and she writes about it — and her struggles with writing — in ways that are moving and hard to resist.

So Sad Today, Melissa Broder: Broder is a poet and the genius behind the Twitter account @sosadtoday, where this book gets its name. About anxiety and life in the modern world, these essays are revealing and darkly funny.

The Girls in My Town, Angela Morales: This book won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction prize. It contains autobiographical essays about Morales’s family in Los Angeles. It tells stories about growing up and coming to understand her intelligence, her role as a writer, and her place in the world.

Shame and Wonder, David Searcy: A debut collection of 21 essays, this book combines a personal voice with a sharp critical eye. Searcy’s subjects are varied, but his perspective on the world is consistently surprising, fresh, and insightful.

The Abundance, Annie Dillard: Dillard is renowned as a nature writer and is most famous for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This volume collects essays from throughout her illustrious career, including both famous pieces and lesser-known works.

We Gon’ Be Alright, Jeff Chang: This is another in a series of great recent essay collections about race. Chang takes a look at Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and other recent events and helps us understand ourselves and our country.

You’ll Grow Out of It, Jessi Klein: Klein is a writer and producer for the series Inside Amy Schumer, writing here about her experience of modern womanhood. These essays are funny and honest.

White Sands, Geoff Dyer: These essays combine travel writing, memoir, and Dyer’s signature genre-bending prose and dry British wit. Known for Out of Sheer Rage and Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Dyer is a prose-writer worth reading at length.

Calamities, Renee Gladman: Published by the fascinating small press Wave Books, this volume contains linked essays about writing and narrative. Gladman is a writer of experimental fiction and nonfiction, and these essays will both fascinate and challenge.

Lost Wax, Jericho Parms: Partly autobiographical, these essays cover the author’s life in the Bronx in the 80s and 90s as well as her travels around the world. They are also meditations on art, race, family, and identity.

Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner: Garner is an acclaimed Australian writer of both fiction and nonfiction. This collection brings together essays from the past 15 years on topics as varied as the insults of aging, the ballet, her relationship with her mother, and rereading Jane Austen.

Where Am I Now?, Mara Wilson: Wilson’s subtitle is “True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame.” The book contains essays about her experiences as a child star and on through her adolescence and into her adulthood. Wilson’s writing is humorous and fun, as well as full of insight into what it means to be young and female.

I’m Judging You, Luvvie Ajayi: Ajayi is a comedian, activist, and blogger, and this is her debut collection of essays. She offers self-help with plenty of humor and wit, and covers pop culture, race, and media.

My Private Property, Mary Ruefle (Wave Books, October 4th): Ruefle is a beloved poet as well as the author of the previous collection of essays Madness, Rack, and Honey. In My Private Property, we find short poetic essays and prose poems on a wide range of subjects.

You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson (Plume, October 4th): Like the Jessi Klein collection, this is another book of essays by a comedian, and Robinson is, among many other things, co-host with Jessica Williams of the 2 Dope Queenspodcast. This book is about her experiences as a black woman, including, among many other things, her feelings about her hair.

I’ll Tell You in Person, Chloe Caldwell (Coffee House Press, October 4th): This book will be published jointly by Coffee House Press and the ebook publisher Emily Books. Caldwell is the author of the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray, and in her new book writes personal pieces about, among other topics, her attempts to figure out what it means to become an adult.

Upstream, Mary Oliver (Penguin Press, October 11th): Oliver has been publishing poetry to great acclaim since 1963. Her essays here reflect on her relationship to the natural world, to writing, and to the poetic inheritance she works within.

Unbearable Splendor, Sun Yung Shin (Coffee House Press, October 11th): Sun Yung Shin is a poet, and in this book is writing poetic essays. Or maybe it’s essayistic poetry? Whatever we want to call it, this book explores the author’s various identities, including being American, Korean, an adoptee, a mother, a Catholic, and a Buddhist.

Not Just Jane, Shelley DeWees (Harper Perennial, October 25th): This collection explores the work and significance of seven women writing during Jane Austen’s time, including Charlotte Turner Smith, Sara Coleridge, and Mary Robinson. Together, the essays work to broaden our understanding of literary history.

Eat Live Love Die, Betty Fussell (Counterpoint, November 15th): Fussell has written on many subjects, but most notably on food. She has published histories of food, cookbooks, food memoirs, and journalism. This collection brings together a variety of her published work.

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, Siri Hustvedt (Simon and Schuster, December 6th): Hustvedt’s subtitle is “Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind.” She is known for novels such as What I Loved and The Blazing World, as well as for multiple essay collections and works of nonfiction.

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As should be expected, Colin McGinn's collection of essays displays many virtues. It is bold, original, intelligent, and the product of many years of deep acquaintance with a wide range of philosophical problems and their recent treatments. It is beautifully clear, and a good advertisement for the short, self-contained, jargon-free essay. It is also, as the title promises, provocative, both in the bland sense of provoking thought, which anyone writing as a philosopher would hope to do, and in the spicier sense of being unafraid of treading on many peoples' toes, or even, perhaps, hoping to do so. At any rate, its author emerges as a large-scale contrarian, impatiently opposed to many movements in contemporary philosophical thought, and quite happy to suppose that it does not take much to show that they are largely wrong-headed. Many of the essays are self-standing pieces of excellent, thought-provoking philosophy (those on modality and color being especially noteworthy). Others are more casual, more like jeux d'esprit.

The fifty-five essays are presented under seven headings: Mind (12 essays), Language (8), Knowledge (8), Metaphysics (11), Biology (5), Ethics (8), and Religion (3). The longest is 'Knowing and Necessity' at 20 pages, and the shortest is 'Physical Noncognitivism' at one and a half pages.

When he kicked a stone to refute Berkeley, Dr. Johnson saw himself as a robust common-sense realist rebutting a wholly fantastical idealism. McGinn is something of a Johnsonian: he too has strong views about things being real. His realities include the conscious mind, the unconscious mind, the private world, the noumenal world as well as the phenomenal world, real properties and causal relations, universals, and facts themselves, including moral facts. He knows, of course, that such doctrines involve mysteries, but he is hospitable to mysteries: he is perhaps best known for his 'mysterian' philosophy of mind, holding that there is indeed a 'hard problem' of consciousness but it is likely to be a problem that we are cognitively unequipped to resolve. He has little sympathy with the mid-twentieth century optimism of Wittgenstein, Strawson, Austin, Ryle, Sellars or Quine, dismissing the 'hard problem' as a mirage. He holds instead that any mind-brain identity theory, or any functionalism, or indeed any view according priority to what is public, succumbs to the well-known assaults of Nagel, Jackson, Kripke, Putnam, Chalmers, and Block. He is constitutionally a protector of hard problems, and it is their would-be solvers that he particularly hopes to provoke.

McGinn also holds that as well as the conscious mind there is a domain of unconscious mental states. Memories, for instance, persist through time as unconscious mental states, and not just as modifications of the brain that determine what, on occasion, we can bring to consciousness. Again, though, he agrees that we have 'no adequate concept of unconscious mental states'. Causal necessity, as well, is 'as real as anything in nature,' but here too we are inevitably totally baffled as to how it works: realistic mysterianism is once more the answer. This is the view that we know that there is something whose nature we shall never know, although McGinn remains relatively silent about the good that this piece of knowledge is supposed to do for us. Not for McGinn the thought that nothing will do as well as something about which nothing can be said, nor even Hume's view that if we deal in such things 't'will be of little consequence to the world'.

McGinn poses for himself the problem that his view of philosophy leaves him. He holds both that philosophy is exhausted by conceptual analysis, and that there are problems of philosophy that might be forever insoluble by us. I am much readier to agree that there are philosophical problems insoluble by conceptual analysis, as that is usually understood, than that there are problems insoluble by philosophy taken more generously. Moore's impasse when faced with ethics is enough of a warning, compared with the tradition of Hume and Smith, which worked via an understanding of our psychologies and their genealogy rather than narrow conceptual analysis.

McGinn's own solution, presented in the chapter 'Analysis and Mystery', is that the right concepts may be unavailable to us. Were a species to form the right concepts, it would not have our problems, but that species is not us, either as we are, or even as we might become. Both the families of concepts that might be innate to us, and the family arising from the way we think about empirical experience, fail to contain the keys that turn the locks. This is itself, of course, a possibility described de dicto rather than de re -- we can say that 'there might be concepts which would provide solutions' but we can never say of any concept that it provides a solution, since we can have no way of framing such a concept to ourselves. We cannot even know in which direction to look for coming nearer to such concepts; not only are there are no strategies for unlocking philosophical mysteries, in the way there are for unlocking scientific mysteries, there are not even strategies for getting any closer to doing so.

Bertrand Russell wrote that his grandmother despised his interest in metaphysics, telling him that the whole subject could be summed up in the saying: "What is mind? No matter; what is matter? Never mind." Russell added 'on the fifteenth or sixteenth repetition of this remark it ceased to amuse me' and one might sympathise, but McGinn follows Grannie. She was right about the central concepts of metaphysics: mind, body, causation, time, freedom, and in fact reality in general. Grannie however was ridiculing poor Bertie's interest in the subject, and I do not think McGinn intends to do that. He has, after all, pursued a long and distinguished career in it. Nevertheless, the worry persists that perhaps Grannie was right, and the best policy is not to think about these things at all.

Although this depressing view of the possibilities for philosophy forms a central theme in the book, it by no means exhausts its contents. Once McGinn leaves heavy-duty metaphysics, he becomes distinctly more sprightly, dancing elegantly around issues in the philosophy of biology, ethics, and religion.

In the section on biology, McGinn is at his best in an essay ('The Language of Evolution') pointing out the pitfalls in Darwin's analogy between the kind of selection that breeders of animals or plants go in for, and anything that happens in nature. He suggests that instead of natural selection Darwin should have contented himself with saying that while human beings purposely select, animals and plants reproductively compete, with some more successful at generating heirs than others. There is nothing but metaphor involved in reifying 'nature' as an intentional agent. I agree that this is a useful point to make. I am not so clear how it fits with another essay ('Selfish Genes and Moral Parasites'). In this essay McGinn takes very seriously Richard Dawkins's problem of how to reconcile apparent human altruism with our selfish genes, and expounds an answer drawing on the example of the cuckoo parasitizing prey species, such as the reed warbler. The reed warbler is not being altruistic as it raises a cuckoo chick. It has been hoodwinked. Similarly, McGinn thinks, we are manipulative and manipulated into such altruism as we manage. We parasitize each other without realizing it, or rather our genes do: 'the gene that manipulates the mind-brain of others the best is the one that makes the target enjoy what is in fact manipulation'. I am afraid I am myself no happier with the idea of genes manipulating people than I am with nature selecting survivors: the underlying literal truth seems to be, roughly, that we reinforce any altruistic tendencies we find in each other, which is no doubt true, but not very shocking. McGinn goes on to talk of the central role of language in manipulation, but he can scarcely credit those manipulative genes with linguistic powers. But then I do not take Dawkins's problem seriously either, and I don't think the kinds of symbiotic relationships that are found through biology are well conceptualized either in terms of selfishness or of manipulation.

'God and the Devil' is the penultimate, and second shortest, essay in the collection. It suggests the possibility that God and the Devil are in fact identical, rather like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To the obvious objection that the religious conception of God involves His being perfectly good, which would not be the case if He is identical with the Devil, McGinn breezily replies that 'this argument begs the question against the identity claim, since that is precisely what we should abandon if we accept identity'. Here, as elsewhere, one may be left spluttering that more needs to be said: if somebody suffers from the delusion that Paris is the same city as London, it scarcely begs the question to point out that Paris is in France and London is not, although 'that is precisely what we should abandon if we accept identity'. I do not think that McGinn would be much troubled by this riposte: perhaps he is satisfied to have provoked the splutter. This essay leads to the final flourish, in which the coat that McGinn is trailing gets even longer as he recommends and defends a religion not of love, but of hate. 'You must hate everyone (with the possible exception of yourself, but even then) . . . '. Wisely, he does not dwell on the results we might expect if his religion of hate were followed, engendering more hate in the world than we already have. I try not to splutter again when I suggest that we already have enough.

Obviously there are many other essays than the ones I have been able to mention, and many of them repay serious attention. I do not think the collection could be recommended to students without a fair amount of assistance, since quite often positions are simply indicated by the names of people who hold them (Quine, Wittgenstein, Putnam, and so on) without further elaboration. But they could certainly form a spicy addition to courses that are already up and running. They would serve as good fuel for people coming new to philosophy, and it is no bad thing to have someone else to get one's students to splutter.

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