I just finished John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead Essays (2011), a collection of essays, which came recommended by a couple of friends in the space of a month. Not only was it good reading, but it caused me to ask myself, "Why haven't heard of this guy before?"
That's the way it goes as a reader, there are always new writers that you have never heard of, but end up liking a book of theirs. But what is worse, is knowing that there are certain contemporary writers who you should have read already, but for some reason haven't got around to it. For me, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace, come to mind as two writers I must sheepishly admit I haven't read. Probably I should add Toni Morrison to the list as well. More shame on me. (Feel free to use the comments to let me know which book I should read and why, or you can use the comments to make your own confession.)
I connected to the Pulphead Essays in several ways. As one who spent a lot of years in Knoxville, I am familiar with some of the geography that Sullivan writes about especially in the essay "Unnamed Caves" about the amazing number of caves (a virtual civilization) that make up the Cumberland Plateau. For those familiar with Atlanta's Dust-to-Digital Records, there is an essay "Unknown Bards" that included a conversation Sullivan had with guitarist and composer John Fahey, who was instrumental in preserving pre-war country blues. Last year, Dust-to-Digital issued Fahey's Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You (Fontone Recordings 1958 -1965).
What impressed me about Sullivan as an essayist is that in essays such as "Upon This Rock" and "Peyton's Place" he leads you to thinking that you are reading a feature article (about a large outdoor Christian rock concert or about how his house was used for the filming of the One Tree Hill ) and then he shifts inward and writes a personal essay within the feature article.
So check out Sullivan if you haven't already. You can no longer feign ignorance.