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The Best Essay Collections All 20-Somethings Should Read

At some point during my high school years, the idea that I had to be productive all the time had seeped into what I was reading. Bizarrely, I became convinced that reading fiction would not be an efficient use of my time. Now, I am pleased to announce I am no longer a slave to that peculiar work ethic, but I still find myself taking solace in the essay collection. What I love about essay collections is that there are no answers, no prescriptions, just a voice gently wrestling with what it means to be a modern person in the modern world. It leaves you feeling refreshed and well, slightly less alone. It reminds me to question things just a little more. Modernity can be exhausting sometimes and it’s nice to feel like there’s someone else who thinks so too. So, I introduce to you, my four favourite essay collections, that I believe all 20-somethings should read. 

1. ‘Trick Mirror- reflections on self-delusion by Jia Tolentino

In Trick Mirror,  the ‘New Yorker’ writer Jia Tolentino, offers us a moving, and personal essay collection which explores the cultural prisms which shape modern life. It ponders life in the 21st century and voices a woman trying to untangle who she really is among a sea of ‘isms’, and then asks if perhaps the idea of ‘I’ is just another facade of the internet decade, and should we really search at all? I too often wonder whether I am simply the product of my Instagram feed, a perfectly collated highlight reel of my best angles, or my interests a mosaic of my Pinterest wish-list – so Tolentino’s own existentialist angst rang true. She speaks of her own troubles wrestling with the idea of ‘self’, and the way social media has ‘made us feel like we’re perpetually onstage. We can never break character or take off the costume’.  Trick Mirror discusses everything from religious ecstasy to the wedding industry but highlights most definitely includes her discussion on feminist identity and the internet in the chapter ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman’. Trick Mirror is perfect for the Gen-Z girl who is just figuring it out

2. ‘how do we know we’re doing it right?’ by pandora sykes

Pandora Sykes, (who you might recognise from her podcast ‘The High Low’, co-hosted with the darling of British journalism, Dolly Alderton- author of Everything I Know About Love), delivers the essay collection mantra of ”‘stop worrying about the answers-and delight in asking the questions” in How Do We Know We’re Doing it Right?. This essay collection covers themes like the pitfalls of the work/life balance, the feeling of ‘burn-out’, binge-watching culture and our love-hate relationship with digital communication. I particularly enjoy her chapter on the modern wellness crazy and our obsession with self-improvement. I can certainly relate, much of my teens was plagued by the idea that if I perhaps stopped eating dairy, did yoga, bought that new face cream everyone loved – everything would magically transform and all my worries would disappear.  It’s thought-provoking and well researched, but is better suited for a slightly more millennial audience. Often Sykes allows her own lens as a successful, white, well-educated woman to dictate her writing, and therefore isn’t always relatable. Nonetheless, it offers interesting food for thought on modern life

3. ‘trivial pursuits’ by raven smith

This is by far one of the funniest books I have ever read, and I urge you – if you have not yet heard of Vogue columnist Raven Smith, please follow his Instagram @ravensmith and read his book – I promise you will not regret it. Trivial Pursuits is ridiculously eloquent, and simply just hilarious.  I genuinely found myself laughing out loud in my room at 2 am, hoping my roommates wouldn’t hear me. With great wit, Smith asks all the profoundly trivial questions of modern life such as: is being tall a social currency? Am I the contents of my fridge? This is paired beautifully with his own poignant experience of growing up mixed-race in a single-parent household, as well as coming out. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can assure you, everyone should read this book. 

4. ‘the givenness of things’ by marilynne robinson

This last book, I have to admit is a bit of a wildcard. It was introduced to me by a good friend of mine – a 70-year-old vicar who I befriended through my passion for theology. In The Givenness of Things, Robinson is subtly arguing for the legitimacy of the Christian faith, but in doing so she presents us with fascinating commentary on the intellectual trends that have shaped our modern history. Her exposition on the history of ideas leads her to thematically organise certain pervading themes such as grace, humanism, metaphysics and fear, and covers absolutely everything from neuroscience, American politics, Shakespeare and love. Indeed, the essential questions of the humanities, but framed in the unusual point of reference – faith. I see this book as an antidote for cultural pessimism, celebrating humanity in a subtle but beautiful way. It may not be for everyone but offers an alternative and fascinating lens on cultural commentary, perfect for anyone who loves the humanities and asking the bigger questions.

Lily Newman

McGill '23

Philosophy and Theology Major Studying at University of Edinburgh on an exchange at Mcgill University.
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