1. Education
Richard Nordquist

Readings for Writers: Classic Essays on Enduring Themes

By April 14, 2010

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All good writers started out as good readers.

"The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading in order to write," Samuel Johnson said. "A man will turn over half a library to make a book."

"The real importance of reading," says Stephen King in his memoir On Writing, "is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one's papers and identification pretty much in order."

"Read, read, read," was William Faulkner's straightforward advice. "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."

The one suggestion we might add is to read the old as well as the new. Old writers (yes, even dead writers) can teach us some new tricks.

With this thought in mind, we've collected well over 100 classic essays composed over the past four centuries. Here, thematically arranged for your reading pleasure, are 15 brief passages from that collection.

Essays on Idleness

  • An Apology for Idlers, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1877)
    "Look at one of your industrious fellows for a moment, I beseech you. He sows hurry and reaps indigestion; he puts a vast deal of activity out to interest, and receives a large measure of nervous derangement in return. Either he absents himself entirely from all fellowship, and lives a recluse in a garret, with carpet slippers and a leaden inkpot; or he comes among people swiftly and bitterly, in a contraction of his whole nervous system, to discharge some temper before he returns to work. I do not care how much or how well he works, this fellow is an evil feature in other people's lives."

  • On Laziness, by Christopher Morley (1920)
    "We are going to make a determined effort to be more languid and demure. It is the bustling man who always gets put on committees, who is asked to solve the problems of other people and neglect his own. The man who is really, thoroughly, and philosophically slothful is the only thoroughly happy man. It is the happy man who benefits the world. The conclusion is inescapable."

  • In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell (1932)
    "In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, . . . there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid."

Essays on Nature

  • Rural Hours, by Susan Fenimore Cooper (1850)
    "Here you observe a little hillock rounding over a decayed stump, there a petty hollow where some large tree has been uprooted by the storm; fern and brake also are seen in patches, instead of the thistle and the mullein. Such open hill-sides, even when rich and grassy, and entirely free from wood or bushes, bear a kind of heaving, billowy character, which, in certain lights, becomes very distinct; these ridges are formed by the roots of old trees, and remain long after the wood has entirely decayed."

  • In Mammoth Cave, by John Burroughs (1894)
    "I never grew tired of sitting or standing here by this entrance and gazing into it. It had for me something of the same fascination that the display of the huge elemental forces of nature have, as seen in thunder-storms, or in a roaring ocean surf. Two phoebe-birds had their nests in little niches of the rocks, and delicate ferns and wild flowers fringed the edges."

  • The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin (1903)
    "This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snowline. Between the hills lie high level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze. The hill surface is streaked with ash drift and black, unweathered lava flows."

Essays on Patriotism

  • On National Prejudices, by Oliver Goldsmith (1763)
    "Is it not very possible that I may love my own country, without hating the natives of other countries? that I may exert the most heroic bravery, the most undaunted resolution, in defending its laws and liberty, without despising all the rest of the world as cowards and poltroons?"

  • Patriotism, by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)
    "Like all instinctive passions, this kind of patriotism incites great transient exertions, but no continuity of effort. It may save the state in critical circumstances, but often allows it to decline in times of peace."

  • What Is Patriotism and What Shall We Do With It? by Max Eastman (1916)
    "Roosevelt loves to charge up San Juan hill, and then he loves to prosecute for libel anybody that says he didn't charge up San Juan hill. War people fight for war and peace people fight for peace. When Roosevelt calls the peace people mollycoddles and college sissies, I only want to walk up and smash him."

Essays on Conversation

  • Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation, by Jonathan Swift (1713)
    "This degeneracy of conversation, with the pernicious consequences thereof upon our humours and dispositions, hath been owing, among other causes, to the custom arisen, for sometime past, of excluding women from any share in our society, further than in parties at play, or dancing, or in the pursuit of an amour."

  • Conversation, by Samuel Johnson (1752)
    "No style of conversation is more extensively acceptable than the narrative. He who has stored his memory with slight anecdotes, private incidents, and personal peculiarities, seldom fails to find his audience favourable. Almost every man listens with eagerness to contemporary history; for almost every man has some real or imaginary connection with a celebrated character; some desire to advance or oppose a rising name. Vanity often co-operates with curiosity. He that is a hearer in one place, qualifies himself to become a speaker in another."

  • On Conversation, by William Cowper (1756)
    "Though a man succeeds, he should not (as is frequently the case) engross the whole talk to himself; for that destroys the very essence of conversation, which is talking together. We should try to keep up conversation like a ball bandied to and fro from one to the other, rather than seize it all to ourselves, and drive it before us like a football."

Essays on Sleeping and Waking

  • On Dreams, by Sir Thomas Browne (1650)
    "There is an art to make dreams, as well as their interpretations; and physicians will tell us that some food makes turbulent, some gives quiet dreams. Cato, who doated upon cabbage, might find the crude effects thereof in his sleep; wherein the Egyptians might find some advantage by their superstitious abstinence from onions."

  • Getting Up on Cold Mornings, by Leigh Hunt (1820)
    "Some people say it is a very easy thing to get up of a cold morning. You have only, they tell you, to take the resolution; and the thing is done. This may be very true; just as a boy at school has only to take a flogging, and the thing is over. But we have not at all made up our minds upon it; and we find it a very pleasant exercise to discuss the matter, candidly, before we get up. This, at least, is not idling, though it may be lying."

  • The Haunted Mind, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)
    "You speculate on the luxury of wearing out a whole existence in bed, like an oyster in its shell, content with the sluggish ecstasy of inaction, and drowsily conscious of nothing but delicious warmth, such as you now feel again. Ah! that idea has brought a hideous one in its train. You think how the dead are lying in their cold shrouds and narrow coffins, through the drear winter of the grave, and cannot persuade your fancy that they neither shrink nor shiver, when the snow is drifting over their little hillocks, and the bitter blast howls against the door of the tomb."

For the complete collection, visit Classic British and American Essays and Speeches.

Images: William Cowper (1731-1800), Christopher Morley (1890-1957), Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934), and Max Eastman (1883-1969)


April 15, 2010 at 3:53 am
(1) Irfan says:

Hello Richard,

As a person who regularly follows your posts, a fact you must have become aware of now, I believe that you should have made this whole post available in parts, just like your ‘there is a name for it’ series. With other things to attend to and with your regular posts which would continue to appear after this one, going through all of this material in one go for a person who does not happen to be an English majors student but just follows because of personal interest can become a big task in itself. Had it been introduced over a period of couple or few weeks, let’s say under the similar title ‘Classic Essays on Enduring Themes Part X,’ it would have proven to be just the usual dose of English related readings which a person then would have been able to follow with usual gusto and interest. I am hoping that there would not only be people sharing this sentiment but also that you would give this very genuine feeling a consideration.



April 15, 2010 at 2:59 pm
(2) Ruby says:

What a great collection of essays! Ill be assigning many of them to my students next year. I hope you continue to post reading quizzes and study questions, as you have for the essays by Orwell, Twain, Hurston, and others. Many thanks from an overworked composition instructor.

April 16, 2010 at 4:17 am
(3) Michael says:

Organizing the essays thematically is very helpful. Have you considered adding a thematic table of contents for the entire collection of classic essays & speeches?

April 17, 2010 at 4:08 pm
(4) Celeste says:

I’ve think I’ve fallen in love with Christopher Morley. Please post more of his essays. (Unfortunately they’re all out of print.)

April 19, 2010 at 11:43 am
(5) CM says:

Yeah! This is great. Thanks so much for putting it together.

April 20, 2010 at 11:32 pm
(6) Darkenwulf says:

One of another of the great essayist is H.G. Wells. He combines an understated humor, events from his own life, and a very good characterization of those people around him. It seems like Wells is going nowhere, but just read the words, the tempo of his presenting, and understated language. There is less of “I” and a wonderful use of the English language.

April 22, 2010 at 1:46 am
(7) AllaSobirova says:

wow! that’s great!i run a site for reading and an on-line book club and have a question to you:can I send my students via this link to get information or write the link on my site?thanks for your work!

April 26, 2010 at 3:18 am
(8) grammar says:

Darkenwulf: Wells is indeed a wonderful essayist. See my post for April 26, 2010: Whack Open an Essay . . . and Snap It Shut.

AllaSobirova: Please feel free to add the Grammar & Composition link to your site.



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