“Essays root ideas in personal experience”, the philosopher Alain de Botton tells us in his interview in which he discussed five books of “illuminating essays”. He chooses The Crowded Dance of Modern Life by Virginia Woolf, as well as a selection of DW Winnicott, The Wisdom of Life by Arthur Schopenhauer, The Secret Power of Beauty by John Armstrong and Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer, which “is in praise of slacker-dom and not doing very much. It’s not about Yoga at all.”
David Russell, Associate Professor at Oxford University, recommends the best Victorian essays, including selections by Charles Lamb, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Walter Pater and (one twentieth-century writer) Marion Milner and discusses the connection between the essay and the development of urban culture in the 19th century.
Dame Hermione Lee, the writer's biographer, chooses her best books on Virginia Woolf. She discusses how and why her stature has grown so much since the 1960s and selects a range of her books including diaries and novels, as well as essays, including To the Lighthouse, which she considers Woolf’s greatest novel, her Diaries and her essay "Walter Sickert: A Conversation", which can be seen as a meditation on the disparities between painting and writing as art forms.
Every year, the judges of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay search out the best book of essays written in the past year and draw attention to the author’s entire body of work. Here, Adam Gopnik, writer, journalist and PEN essay prize judge, emphasizes the role of the essay in bearing witness and explains why the five collections that reached the 2021 shortlist are, in their different ways, so important.
by Charles Lamb
Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings
by Matthew Arnold
Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings
by George Eliot
Studies in the History of the Renaissance
by Walter Pater
The Hands of the Living God: An Account of a Psychoanalytic Treatment
by Marion Milner
With the advent of the Victorian age, polite maxims of eighteenth-century essays in the Spectator were replaced by a new generation of writers who thought deeply—and playfully—about social relationships, moral responsibility, education and culture. Here, Oxford literary critic David Russell explores the distinct qualities that define the Victorian essay and recommends five of its greatest practitioners.
Virginia Woolf was long dismissed as a ‘minor modernist’ but now stands as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Her biographer, Hermione Lee, talks us through the best Virginia Woolf books, novels and essays, and diaries, of Virginia Woolf.