Lauren Oyler’s favorite collection of essays that will leave you deep in thought

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Lauren Oyler is the author of the novel “Fake Accounts” and a critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and the London Review of Books. Her first essay collection, “No Judgment,” will be published March 19.

‘The Professor and Other Writings’ by Terry Castle (2010)

This collection of memoiristic critical essays is by far my most successful book recommendation. It includes a hilarious portrait of Susan Sontag — “Ours was on-again, off-again, semi-friendship, constricted by role-playing and shot through in the end with mutual irritation,” Castle writes — that is widely beloved. But the title essay, about a “near-ruinous” affair Castle had as a graduate student, is where her comedic timing, digressive brilliance, and skill at crafting absurd scenes truly come together. Buy it here

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‘The Earth Dies Streaming’ by A.S. Hamrah (2018)

Reading Hamrah’s film reviews has taught me a lot about how to outsmart mass market demands. Early in his career, he found his words quoted on the back of a video release; this was so disturbing that he decided to not include anything in his work that could be used for publicity. As a result, everything he writes is surprising, and confounding to any search engine that tries to reduce his opinions to a simple “take.” Buy it here

‘The Possessed’ by Elif Batuman (2010)

All experiences are “real,” yet the experience of reading is often seen as once removed. Inspired by her dissatisfaction with both graduate school and the possibilities of a typical “literary” career, Batuman wrote a collection of unclassifiable travel essays on Russian literature, offering a vision of literary criticism that is as transporting as the novels it takes as its subject. Buy it here

‘The Essential Ellen Willis’ by Ellen Willis (2014)

The feminist critic Ellen Willis hasn’t enjoyed quite the same revival that several of her peers writing in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s have, so although I regret this volume doesn’t include her famous 1973 review-essay on “Deep Throat,” it will have to do. She untangles the knotty perversities of sex, desire, feminism, and culture with a light touch, and she’s pretty much always right. Buy it here

‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by William Empson (1930)

Given that “in a sufficiently extended sense any prose statement could be called ambiguous,” it’s amazing he got it down to seven. While not for the faint of heart or weary of English poetry, this book introduced New Criticism to the U.S., and reveals the extent of the work any close-reading literary critic takes on. Buy it here

‘Against Everything’ by Mark Greif (2016)

He’s not really against everything. Buy it here

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