Eight Modern Essayists
by William Smart (editor)
I would suggest reading this book for George Orwell and James Baldwin alone, if nothing else. Check out the rest of the authors just to satisfy your curiosity and to possibly encounter a fresh take on a stale phenomenon. I read the 4th edition that has Lewis Thomas and Edward Hoagland instead of the Cynthia and McConkey people of the most recent one. I wish I had gotten the 3rd edition, with D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster, but they were deemed too stodgy by Mr. Smart, I suppose.
In any case, the book is a very effective survey of the short works of some very well-known writers. Unfortunately, about half of the authors as represented here are pretty forgettable (Virginia Woolf, E.B. White, Hoagland and Joan Didion), and their essays in this volume serve to assure me that I need not read anything else by them (having already read and somewhat enjoyed To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway). Fans of these authors will of course take my opinion with a grain of salt.
Lewis Thomas, who I had never heard of, is somewhat refreshing while Alice Walker and especially James Baldwin are revelations. Baldwin, with his searing prose, reframes the race question in completely unique and vibrant terminology. The resulting essays are deeply thought-provoking.
George Orwell, predictably, further cements himself as one of my favorite writers of all time. I think I could happily read his description of just about anything. Let me take this opportunity to recommend to any readers of this review his staggering and rather wonderful Homage to Catalonia (see my review).