Culture Gabfest

The A+ Personal Essay Collection

Julia Turner, Dana Stevens, and Stephen Metcalf share their favorite first-person essays.

On the Sept. 16 episode of Slate’s Culture Gabfest, Julia Turner, Dana Stevens, and Stephen Metcalf discussed the power of the first-person narrative essay. “It’s potent,” said Turner, “and you can use it cheaply, or you can use it adroitly.” Here’s a guide to their top picks:

Dana Stevens recommends …

  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia” by Ariel Levy, New Yorker
    The thing that I love about this essay is that in addition to being extremely honest and raw about this terrible moment in her life, it’s in some ways an essay about feminism, about parenting, about mothering, about the way we think about women’s role in the workplace—in the journalistic world. She brings a lot into this story that’s political, that’s global, that’s universal. And at the same time, it’s completely funneled through this one painful memory in her own experience. It was a very brave thing to write.”

  • The Aquarium” by Aleksandar Hemon, New Yorker

  • On Kindness” by Cord Jefferson, Matter

Julia Turner recommends …

  • Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion
    “It’s just crisp, lucid and beautiful. …She’s put her finger on something fascinating.”

Stephen Metcalf recommends …

  • Such, Such Were the Joys” by George Orwell
    “[This essay] is quite the opposite of what Laura Bennett is pointing out, which is [Orwell’s] distance from the experience, not only in time but emotionally. He’s actually capable of thinking about it critically and being self-conscious about how mining one’s past for painful details is a kind of merchandising of the self that he’s very skeptical of.”

  • Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” by Virginia Woolf