The Best American Essays edited by David Brooks
Have you guys heard of Longreads? If you haven’t, it’s a website that aggregates the “best” (I use quotation marks to denote the subjectivity of this claim, not to be sarcastic) long-form stories on the Internet. While they do highlight fiction, I’m much more interested in the nonfiction essays. Between Longreads and Autostraddle’s fantastic feature “Things I Read That I Love”, I’ve come to love and adore the essay over the past year, so it was really a no-brainer to pick up The Best American Essays 2012 when I saw it on the new shelf at my home library. I usually don’t pick up collections like this, but I thought it would be a nice thing to peruse over the holidays.
The Best American Essays 2012 is the latest edition of the venerable collection. Robert Atwan, the series’ editor since its first publication in 1986, collects one hundred articles he deems the best from newspapers, literary magazines, and, more recently, the growing blogosphere. Then the year’s guest editor—David Brooks, in this case—cuts that shortlist down to twenty-five entries, collected in alphabetical order rather than an order that would rank them. This year’s list includes essays by Jonathan Franzen, Francine Prose, and Malcolm Gladwell, among many others.
The Best American Essays 2012 opens with a delightful foreword from Atwan; in it, Atwan discusses the essay as a consideration, rather than a conclusion. The “So what?” question that wormed its way into my subconscious in high school is one he bats away calmly, asking writers to trust their voices and expand their focus beyond themselves, even if they aren’t experts on their subject. As someone who has spent the last four years learning to trust her own voice, this was just fantastic. Brooks, in his own introduction, says, bluntly, that “I tried, in short, to pick ones that will be useful to you. … I want to be improved by the things I read” (xxiv). In a few pages, I knew I was in good hands.
While the collection is organized alphabetically, instead of thematically, it does open and close with two very different considerations of iconoclasm—Benjamin Anastas’ “The Foul Reign of “Self-Reliance”, which grits its teeth and rolls its eyes at self-conscious iconoclasts who measure their worth by how much they can stick it to the man by examining Emerson, and Welsey Yang’s “Paper Tigers”, which examines assimilation and Asian-American identity, but also discusses Yang’s need to angrily stand apart. I side much more with Anastas than Yang on this, but presenting two conflicting views is a perfect example of why this collection is so good. The essays are presented without comment or specific introduction, and they stand on their own. It’s like a box of chocolates—except instead of the weird cherry cordial and the almond thing, you get ideas and experiences that challenge you.
All of the essays now have entries in my commonplace book; each essay is well-worth your time, which they won’t take too much of. Mark Doty’s “Insatiable” examines the relationship between Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker, vitality and parasitism, sex addiction and a hunger for the world. Others explore boredom (Joseph Epstein’s “Duh, Bor-ing”) and our attachment to our objections (Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s “Objects of Affection”). Others focus on experiences—Miah Arnold explores her heart-rending experiences working with dying children in “You Owe Me”, for instance. And others examine other people—Peter Hessler’s “Dr. Don” focuses on one of the last rural pharmacists, while Paul Collins’ “Vanishing Acts” looks at a particular child prodigy. But while they’re all equally worthy of your time and attention, I do have particular favorites. Mark Edmundson’s searing “Who Are You and What are You Doing Here?” is an address given to college freshmen that challenges them to be active, engaged learners, to rebel against mediocrity, complacency, and fear. Garret Keizer’s “Getting Schooled” follows the author spending a year teaching public high school, where he starts to think that modern kids dislike reading because it’s not a social activity, and despairs over his students’ lack of curiosity following the killing of Osama bin Laden. And to end on a much lighter note, Sandra Tsing Loh’s “The Bitch is Back”, about menopause, extols women to find out what works for them and seize it unabashedly; this is an essay that calls out to all the werewolves, vampires, and pirates in its final line. Fantastic.
Franzen’s entry is very much worth a go—it’s a very touching exploration of his unresolved grief over the suicide of his friend (and guest Best American Essays editor) David Foster Wallace—but I will point out he kind of lost me when he claimed that Pamela was a touching, vibrant love story. Nope. Not even going to try to deal with that.
Bottom line: The Best American Essays 2012 aims to provide readers with essays to challenge and educate, and it succeeds admirably, offering various different ideas like a Whitman’s intellectual sampler. Well worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.