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Richard Nordquist

Classic Essays for Readers and Writers

By April 10, 2007

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"Read, read, read," was novelist William Faulkner's advice to young writers. "Read everything--trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it."

Though some might question the merits of absorbing "trash," what's unarguable is Faulkner's recommendation to read voraciously--to learn the craft of writing by studying how professional writers "do it." The one bit of advice we might add is to read the old as well as the new. Old writers (and yes, even dead writers) can teach us some new tricks.

With this thought in mind, we've collected more than 150 classic essays from such well-known writers as Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, and H. L. Mencken. Each is a "classic" in the sense that the writer's words live on both for what they have to say and for the way they say it. Here are a few of the essays that you'll find in the collection:

  • "Advice to Youth," by Mark Twain
    When the author of Huckleberry Finn sets out to offer sage counsel, be careful not to overlook the wink in his eye. "Always obey your parents," he says, and then adds slyly, "when they are present."

  • "A Modest Proposal," by Jonathan Swift
    The essay may be almost 300 years old, but this artfully calculated satire still retains the power to shock--and to make us think. "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout."

  • "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," by Zora Neale Hurston
    "Sometimes, I feel discriminated against," Hurston writes, "but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me."

Read, read, read these classic essays--and then, as Faulkner also advises, "write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window."

Image: Zora Neale Hurston (Source: Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Library of Congress)


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