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Fine selection of great pieces.
on February 10, 2000
Gross was faced with a tough task when asked to edit this volume: how to cram the history of a form that is so flexible, and so widely used, into a compact volume? Essays have been selected from the seventeenth century on, and Gross has included writers from the USA as well as Britain. Almost his only concession has been the exclusion of any writer born after WW2. Plagued by so much choice, he has done a great job. Of course, there are omissions. Several writers from 'The New Yorker' have their say, but there was no room for its two best essayists, A. J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. And the abscence of Kenneth Tynan is lamentable: his essay on the folly of the Lord Chamberlin, the Censor of Pays in Britain, is far better than that of Joseph Conrad, a brilliant novelist but an undistiunguished essayist, which is included here. But everyone will find a few favourites missing in any book of this kind. In fact, Gross has sometimes tried to be too representative, to include too many discrete essays, with the result that he seems to have plumped for very short pieces. Perhaps half a dozen writers seem to have been included simply because they are or were great writers, and not because they wrote great essays. Others are represented by inferior pieces, largely for reasons of space -- space often taken up by lesser writers. E.B. White, for instance, gets just over two pages for a pretty run-of-the-mill essay, where he would be better served by 'Death of a Pig' or 'Farewell, my lovely!', both of which are far better than, say, anything by Joseph Epstein. And John Updike's 'The Bankrupt Man' hardly gives an idea of what he's capable of. But these are minor quibbles. Anyone who enjoys reading essays will find countless hours of enjoyment in this book: essays by Samuel Johnson, Walter Bagehot, G. K. Chesterton, Max Beerbohm, John Jay Chapman, and many others, are classics that repay many re-readings.