The Shell Game


University of Nebraska Press, 2018

Daring, innovative, and mind-bending. —Kathy Fish

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms is an anthology of intriguing essays that take their forms from ordinary, everyday sources: a recipe, a crossword puzzle, a Craig’s List ad... Edited and with an introduction by Kim Adrian, this selection of beautifully written, thought-provoking essays tackles a broad range of subjects, including the secrets of the human genome, the intractable pain of growing up Black in America, and the gorgeous glow residing at the edges of the autism spectrum. Playful and surprising, the essays in this anthology are destined to become classics of this new and increasingly popular form.

as featured in The Millions Top Ten List


"This book is the science fiction of creative nonfiction, or better yet, the Ulysses of the modern essay. It’s a shell for itself, in that, without claiming these essays as “essays,” one wouldn’t know what to call them, what to do with them. The Shell Game is far from the five paragraphs that grammar schools teach, and it makes readers feel as if they are learning what an essay is (or could be) all over again." —New Pages

"The essays in this collection bring with them a sense of hope about literature and its capacity for evolution and change . . . a volume that is as much an inspiration for other writers as it is a definitive collection of a constantly evolving genre." —The Millions

"If good creative writing sparks the instinct to write, The Shell Game provides ample embers to inspire a wide range of writers. . . Anyone from the expert essayist, lay reader, or a teacher looking for an evocative anthology will find something of value in these pages." —Columbia Journal

"Kim Adrian has curated a selection of thirty essays that adopt different forms in order to present new ideas, compose startling images, and provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between form and content...The Shell Game may serve to expand what readers think of when they think of the essay." —Punctuate Magazine

"If you were to recommend this book to others, you’d likely tell them to savor it, make it last: tell them that they should not 'binge-read' it, but rather treat themselves with a new form each day until they’ve read the last one." —Hippocampus Magazine


“Virginia Woolf asked of the essay ‘simply that it should give pleasure.’ The Shell Game fulfills this request, even exceeds it, bringing startling diversity of subject, voice, and form."
—Patrick Madden, author of Sublime Physick and Quotidiana

"Daring, innovative, and mind-bending, this anthology showcases the best of what is arguably the most exciting new thing on the literary landscape today: the borrowed form essay."
—Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life

From the Introduction, "A Natural History of the North American Hermit Crab Essay" ©Kim Adrian

Without its shell, the contents of a Hermit Crab Essay are often absurdly diffuse and in this sense can be considered large, even enormous, since their authors frequently attempt to cram complex love affairs, whole childhoods, decades-long mourning processes, devastating war stories, endlessly involute parent-child relationships, entire lifetimes, and stubbornly thorny existential and/or political and/or anatomical and/or cultural and/or spiritual investigations into a single shell. And yet the form permits such hijinks, even encourages them. The shell gives shape—sturdy structure—where otherwise there would be nothing but the boundless overflowings of human thought, memory, and emotion. Its remarkable ability to contain emotional, spiritual, and intellectual sprawl is due in large part to intra-shell divisions, which neatly sidestep the need for conventional “transitions.” Wild digressions, within such a structure, appear perfectly natural, so that even terribly rambling trains of thought are able to achieve not only coherence, but, on occasion, astonishing elegance, as well (see, for example, Karen Hays, “The Clockwise Detorsion of Snails: A Love Story in Sectors”).

On the other hand, it should also be noted that the occasional Hermit Crab Essay is so incredibly tiny without its shell that it is hardly worth mentioning. In these cases, the donning of an extra-literary structure manages not only to illuminate, but to greatly amplify what might otherwise be lost to the oblivion that is personal, unspeakable pain. (Randon Billings Noble’s “The Heart as a Torn Muscle,” which details a love affair that never happened, is an excellent example of this miniature variety.)

The essays in this collection bring with them
a sense of hope about literature.
The Millions