Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds. A classic study of American literature between the Civil War and World War II.
George Orwell, A Collection of Essays. Several of these essays–including “Why I Write,” and “Politics and the English Language”–are particularly apropos for critics. The rest, though their subjects are more various, are peerless models of nonfiction prose.
John Updike, Hugging the Shore. Updike has gathered his New Yorker essay-reviews into several brilliant collections, of which this is my favorite. The title refers to his excessively humble characterization of the reviewer’s role: the artist heads for the open sea while the critic hugs the shore. Updike is refreshingly attentive to international literature, partly in order to avoid the conflict of interest he might face if he reviewed other contemporary American novelists.
Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader. In my view, the greatest collection of literary essays ever written. I’m particularly fond of the ones on Montaigne and Conrad.