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100 Great Essays E-Books Free

Robert Atwan's favorite literary genre is the essay. As editor and founder of The Best American Essays series, Atwan has read thousands of examples of the remarkably flexible form.

"Essays can be lots of things, maybe too many things," writes Atwan in his foreward to the 2012 installment in the Best American series, "but at the core of the genre is an unmistakable receptivity to the ever-shifting processes of our minds and moods. If there is any essential characteristic we can attribute to the essay, it may be this: that the truest examples of the form enact that ever-shifting process, and in that enactment we can find the basis for the essay's qualification to be regarded seriously as imaginative literature and the essayist's claim to be taken seriously as a creative writer."

In 2001 Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates took on the daunting task of tracing that ever-shifting process through the previous 100 years for The Best American Essays of the Century. Recently Atwan returned with a more focused selection for Publishers Weekly: "The Top 10 Essays Since 1950." To pare it all down to such a small number, Atwan decided to reserve the "New Journalism" category, with its many memorable works by Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr and others, for some future list. He also made a point of selecting the best essays, as opposed to examples from the best essayists. "A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers."

We were interested to see that six of the ten best essays are available for free reading online. Here is Atwan's list, along with links to those essays that are on the Web:

  • James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son," 1955 (Read it here.)
  • Norman Mailer, "The White Negro," 1957 (Read it here.)
  • Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp,'" 1964 (Read it here.)
  • John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens," 1972 (Read it here with a subscription.)
  • Joan Didion, "The White Album," 1979
  • Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse," 1982
  • Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre," 1986 (Read it here.)
  • Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature," 1988
  • Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter," 1996 (Read it here.)
  • David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster," 2004 (Read it here in a version different from the one published in his 2005 book of the same name.)

"To my mind," writes Atwan in his article, "the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn't necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying."

To read more of Atwan's commentary, see his article in Publishers Weekly.

The photo above of Susan Sontag was taken by Peter Hujar in 1966.

Related Content:

30 Free Essays & Stories by David Foster Wallace on the Web


Between September 2013 and August 2015, The Guardian ran their 100 Best English Language Novels of All Time series. As a large number of those books are available in the public domain (52%), I’ve created this page which reproduces their list containing just those titles that are available as free ebooks from epubBooks.com.

Even if you don’t agree completely with The Guardian’s selection, these are still some of the greatest novels published in the English language over the last 350 years. So dig in and enjoy.

  1. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678) [Guardian Essay]
  2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719) [Essay]
  3. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) [Essay]
  4. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748) [Essay]
  5. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749) [Essay]
  6. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759) [Essay]
  7. Emma by Jane Austen (1816) [Essay]
  8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) [Essay]
  9. Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock (1818) [Essay]
  10. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838) [Essay]
  11. Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845) [Essay]
  12. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847) [Essay]
  13. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847) [Essay]
  14. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848) [Essay]
  15. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850) [Essay]
  16. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850) [Essay]
  17. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851) [Essay]
  18. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865) [Essay]
  19. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) [Essay]
  20. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9) [Essay]
  21. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2) [Essay]
  22. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875) [Essay]
  23. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884/5) [Essay]
  24. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) [Essay]
  25. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889) [Essay]
  26. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890) [Essay]
  27. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891) [Essay]
  28. New Grub Street by George Gissing (1891) [Essay]
  29. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895) [Essay]
  30. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895) [Essay]
  31. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) [Essay]
  32. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899) [Essay]
  33. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900) [Essay]
  34. Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901) [Essay]
  35. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903) [Essay]
  36. The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904)  [Essay]
  37. Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe (1904)
  38. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908) [Essay]
  39. The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (1910) [Essay]
  40. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (1911) [Essay]
  41. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) [Essay]
  42. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) [Essay]
  43. The Rainbow by DH Lawrence (1915) [Essay]
  44. Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham (1915) [Essay]
  45. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920) [Essay]
  46. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922) [Essay]
  47. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922) [Essay]
  48. A Passage to India* by EM Forster (1924)
  49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes* by Anita Loos (1925)
  50. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925) [Essay]
  51. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925) [Essay]
  1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) [Essay]
  1. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939) [Essay]
  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) [Essay]
  1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1966) [Essay]

NOTE: there are more “Top Books” lists available in the Collections sections of epubBooks.

The Guardian Top 100 books aren’t simply a “here they are, go read them” selection, nor are they going to include just any title. Each week, for 100 weeks (finishing in August 2015) they announced the entry for that week along with publishing a short essay with the reasoning behind its inclusion. Here’s the basic rule set they were following;

  • Only English language titles will be considered (UK, US, AU, CA, etc., though the emphasis will be on UK/US)
  • Include only titles from the late 17th century to the present day (up to around 2000…maybe!)
  • Listing will be in chronological order

Along with giving a link so you can download the ebook for free (EPUB/Kindle), I will also include a link to the Guardian essay so you can decide for yourself if you agree with their reasoning!

When I started this article, I added each new title as The Guardian posted theirs. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is the last to be added to this list. That will also likely be the last addition for the next few years at least. With 52 of those titles available as EPUB and Kindle ebooks on epubBooks.com, we have a great selection of classic novels to choose from. Plenty to keep you occupied for the coming months!

* No download available as this title is not currently in the Public Domain.

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