Alan Lightman has put together a collection chock full of questioning and struggling. As he writes in his introduction: "For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection. I want to see a piece of the essayist. I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand." The Best American Essays 2000 features the usual forays into memory (Fred D'Aguiar on his family), travelogue (Mary Gordon on Rome), and identity (Geeta Kothari on learning to eat like an American). But this guest editor has a marked fondness for essays that make the reader engage with ethical or philosophical problems. In an arresting piece, Peter Singer describes the Brazilian film Central Station, wherein a woman is promised a thousand dollars if she will deliver a homeless boy to a certain address. "She delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some of it on a television set, and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition." When she learns the boy will likely be killed and his organs sold for transplantation, she resolves to return the money and save him. Singer asks, "What is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one, knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?" He follows his logic to the end of the essay, where he concludes, "whatever money you're spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away."
Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, struggles with the appellation "hate crime." He contrasts the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard with the abduction of a girl by her boyfriend: "Which crime was more filled with hate? Once you ask the question, you realize how difficult it is to answer. Is it more hateful to kill a stranger or a lover? Is it more hateful to kill a child than an adult?" And physicist Steven Weinberg takes on the most infinite of domains, wondering "whether the universe shows signs of having been designed by a deity more or less like those of traditional monotheistic religions...." This kind of passionate questioning is the stuff of late-night bull sessions, something most of us don't have time for in our day-to-day lives. It's refreshing, for once, to be put on the spot. --Claire Dederer
The editors of the newest volume in this consistently excellent series have selected 21 vigorous essays, many of which address an issue crucial to our time: just how seduced and addled are we by technology? Some essays are intimate, such as Andre Aciman's haunting narrative on memories of place, and Guyanese poet Frank D'Aguira's musical and arresting account of his parents' mythic courtship and doomed marriage. Others are invigoratingly polemic, including Wendell Berry's discussion of the urgent need for renewed respect for such essential human activities as farming, and Ian Buruma's finely shaded inquiry into the cult of victimhood. And two are poetic: William Gass' meditation on books, reading, and libraries; and Mark Slouka's musing on the death of silence. But all share the vitality of thought and clarity of style the best of the form exemplifies, and many deepen the conversation about how science, technology, and rampant commercialism are changing our environment and our consciousness. Donna Seaman
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