on November 21, 2010
Of all the anthologies appearing annually under the "Best American" rubric, the one whose quality appears most highly dependent on the particular choice of guest editor is the "Best American Essays" collection. Just compare the 2007 and 2008 collections, edited respectively by David Foster Wallace and Adam Gopnik, to see just how much difference a guest editor can make (DFW leaves Gopnik in the dust, unsurprisingly). So I was somewhat reassured to see Christopher Hitchens as this year's invited editor. After all, Hitchens can be regarded as a kind of literary Simon Cowell -- someone who projects the image of being way too self-satisfied with his own gleefully obnoxious persona, but who's nonetheless possessed of reasonably good judgment, with a refreshing unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. Although one might be repelled by his personality, the chances of his serving up a plateful of dud essays seemed remote. At the very least, he seemed likely to have high editorial standards and a broad range of interests. So I had high hopes for this year's anthology.
Which were, unfortunately, not quite met. The 2010 collection of "best" essays is not a complete failure. Many of the contributions are excellent, though there are few that I would classify as outstanding (Steven Pinker's "My Genome, Myself" is an honorable exception, though I had already read it twice - in the NY Times when it first appeared, and in the 2010 anthology of Best American Science Writing; James Woods's New Yorker piece on George Orwell, "A Fine Rage", also shines, as does Jane Churchon's exquisite "The Dead Book"). But there were many pieces that simply failed to take off, in that the reader could only observe the writer's passion for his subject, but was never moved to share it ("Brooklyn the Unknowable", "Rediscovering Central Asia", "Gettysburg Regress" all proved too soporific for me to finish). And I remain puzzled as to the reason for including the longest essay in the collection, a 24-page profile of former Washington DC mayor, Marion Barry, whose relevance in 2010 would appear to be non-existent. Retired ophthalmologist John Gamel's beautifully written piece "The Elegant Eyeball" was spoiled for me by being about a decade behind the times as far as available treatments were concerned. I thought Zadie Smith's recent essay collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays was astonishing, but "Speaking in Tongues" is not the essay I would have singled out for inclusion here. Fans of David Sedaris will be more delighted than I was by inclusion of his piece "Guy Walks into a Bar Car", but my Sedaris-fatigue is long-established, so your mileage may vary.
A breakdown of essay by general topic/type is revealing:
# of pieces concerned with writers/writing - 8 of 21
# of pieces that are autobiographical - 10 of 21
Even allowing for some double counting between those two categories, that's still an awful lot of navel-gazing for a 250-page volume. And this is ultimately what prevents this collection from being anything more than pretty deceent. Perhaps if writers understood that the world of writers and writing is nowhere near as infinitely fascinating to the general reader as it apparently is to them, there would be a greater chance of producing an anthology of pieces that are genuinely interesting.
I thought Christopher Hitchens might have the breadth of vision to produce a genuinely dazzling collection this year. I was wrong. The 2010 anthology is not an embarrassment. But neither is it particularly exciting.
Christopher Hitchens, Guest Editor for the 2010 edition, has selected a beefy bunch of essays, substantial pieces of writing that take the title "essay" seriously. All of the essays are from print publications - none of this online frippery. Selections in this volume first appeared in such publications as The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Harper's, among others. Several of the essays are on literary lives including John Updike, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, and appropriately enough, Michel de Montaigne. Even the potentially light essays, one each by David Sedaris and Elif Batuman, are introspective enough to be taken quite seriously.
My favorites from the collection this year are -
*The Murder of Tolstoy, in which Elif Batuman presents a daringly original thesis before a gathering of Tolstoy scholars.
*When Writers Speak, in which Arthur Krystal contemplates the difference between how elegantly writers express themselves in writing and how different they sound when they speak.
*The Elegant Eyeball, in which ophthalmologist John Gamel relates his experiences with eyeballs, some attached to living humans and some not.
*My Genome, My Self, in which psychologist Steven Pinker has his genome mapped.
*Speaking in Tongues, in which Zadie Smith observes that the voice she speaks with today is vastly different from the one she grew up with, and how, like Eliza Doolittle, she can't go back to her old voice.
On the plus side, by reading this book I get a pretty good idea how my taste in writing lines up with Christopher Hitchens. On the minus side, it seems that there is not a whole lot of overlap. There are quite a few essays here where people talk about their professional expertise in an arty kind of way, slightly above what you'd get from sitting next to them in an airplane. But I don't like airplane seat neighbor conversation very much, so those essays (by an eye doctor, by writers talking about language in a personal way) were rather dull for me.
There is the obligatory essay by David Sedaris. He's not my cup of tea; I find him way too glib. There are some fawning pieces about Updike and Buckley from Ian McEwan and Garry Wills, respectively. I like both Updike and Buckley quite a bit, but the essays about them seem a bit forced.
Overall, I was kind of bored by this collection. The quality of the writing is often just OK. The topics tend to the arcane. For me, this volume is saved by a remarkable piece by Matt Labash on Marion Barry. I don't really care about Marion Barry in the least. But I kept reading that essay with interest throughout. That piece is right up there with the best of Gay Talese You can find the it online here ([...]). It's really a wonderful work of journalism.
on January 2, 2011
Christopher Hitchens performed admirably as guest editor of The Best American Essays 2010 by selecting twenty-one uniformly strong essays on their merits as pieces of writing, rather than on their subject matter or political viewpoints, as happens in some years of this series. If there is a bias at all in Hitchens' selections, it may be towards essays about authors and literature: Leo Tolstoy, John Updike and William F. Buckley are the subject of essays (although Buckley was much more than an author), and there are essays about the challenges writers face when they speak and an essay writer's experiences having lunch with four famous older authors. But there are also essays about Albert Einstein, former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry, Brooklyn, Gettysburg, Central Asia, and several personal experience essays about a nurse pronouncing patients dead, living with chronic severe vertigo, riding Amtrak and hanging out in the bar car, and having one's genes analyzed. All in all it is a diverse collection, without a clunker in the group, that will educate the reader about a variety of topics while showcasing writing that is well worth emulating.
The three essays that impressed me the most were:
-- Steven L. Isenberg's "Lunching on Olympus": Isenberg describes his brief encounters over lunch with four English authors that he admired. Although the events of the lunches themselves are trivial, the power of the essay is in what Isenberg conveys about hero worship, which affects everyone, from a kid idolizing a sports star to an intellectual looking up to his predecessors,
-- Matt Labash's "A Rake's Progress": Labash's bio says that Esquire has called him "one of the absolute greatest magazine writers in America", and after reading this profile of Marion Barry, I believe it. It's extremely well written, interesting and insightful - it's too bad all magazine articles aren't this good.
-- Ian McEwan's "On John Updike": John Updike is one of the biggest figures in American literature in the past fifty years, and McEwan manages to convey why in a very small number of words - this essay is a model for communicating a strong message in a concentrated form.
The quality level of the essays was pretty uniformly high. The three I enjoyed less than others were Toni Bentley's "The Bad Lion", which didn't strike me with any emotional power, the way that the author intended; and S. Frederick Starr's "Rediscovering Central Asia" and James Wood's "A Fine Rage", both of which presented so much detail about their subject matter that I felt a bit lost reading them and couldn't judge whether the arguments they were making were correct or not.
I often refer to this series as "brain food", since reading well-written essays will educate and stimulate your brain. I can wholeheartedly recommend The Best American Essays 2010 as a sizable portion of tasty brain food.
For many years I was strictly a fiction reader, but in the past few years or so I've realized that I've broadened my horizons. Currently, one of my favorite things to read are essays. I subscribe to a few publications that regularly publish essays, and I hit upon them online as well, but the Best American Essays (2010) exposed me to some interesting works from 2009 that I wouldn't have found on my own (Note: While titled 2010, this collection is made up of essays published in 2009--I'm supposing that is how it is each year). I have a feeling that I will be returning to these collections year after year.
These annual collections (with changing guest editors) look at many (many) essays before whittling it down to a manageble size. Because of the large pool they begin with, the resulting volume includes essays that were originally published in a variety of publications--many more than I could subscribe to or locate on my own. Some of those publications (and indeed, the very essays chosen) were already familiar to me (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, and The New York Review of Books), but some of them were not. Not only did I get to discover some thought-provoking writing, but I discovered some new publications as well.
Overall this collection holds up well. I've been dipping in and out of it for the past couple months, reading pretty much in chronological order (with a few exceptions). Christopher Hitchens' introduction is a jewel in itself, exploring the word "essay" to expose the variety of forms this genre can take. Reading the first few essays in the collection, it seemed that some care was taken in the ordering of them, as reading one before the other opened up the meaning of another. And there are many excellent essays in the bunch. Some of my favorites are "The Dead Book," "The Elegant Eyeball," "Me, Myself, and I," "My Genome, My Self," "Gyromancy," and "Speaking in Tongues." Although all were excellently written, I was underwhelmed by some of the other selections, including Sedaris' piece. This was particularly dissappointing as I am a great Sedaris fan, but no matter...there were plenty of other selections to make up for it. Like piece by Zadie Smith I was thrilled to see was included; I have recently come to admire her reviews and essays (her own published collection,Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, is quite good as well if you enjoy her writing).
All in all, I'd highly recommend this collection to anyone who is interested in a variety of topics written by some fine writers and thinkers of today.
Months have passed since I finished reading this great collection of essays, which were compiled by an author I had heard of only passingly, but hadn't made the connection that this was THAT Hitchens. I shall not digress in this review to talk about him. But judging just by the quality of the essays in this book, much credit goes to him for choosing them.
There are twenty-one essays in all, and each and every one of them is really well written with the kind of dynamism that has the tendency to reach out and grab the reader's attention, and never let go.
Starting with Elif Batuman's "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy", the title didn't come as a surprise after having watched The Last Station (2009, Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer). But the written wit is phenomenal (ahem, must interject here to mention that Batuman is Turkish-American; must keep solidarity with similarity.) For some reason, I still remember the "crunchy" sound the bus tires made as they pulled in to Chekov's driveway. And Batuman's Tolstoy-esque hippie-like look after her luggage was lost at the Moscow airport.
Toni Bentley's "The Bad Lion" resonates some human-like attributes in among the big kitties: acting in ways that "does not serve them genetically."
Jane Churchon's "The Dead Book" talks about the dull and dreary and methodical purging of a dead-body at the morgue with divine prose.
Brian Doyle's "Irreconcilable Dissonance" points out the fact that "every marriage is pregnant with divorce." He ridicules some of the reasons: "...wanted to fart in peace". Although his essay is fun to read, it is a very serious subject and Doyle doesn't really go into the serious causes of divorce. For instance, he doesn't mention about the blatant disconnect between the marital laws and the financial laws in the United States: A spouse can get a credit card without the other spouse's signature, but the debt accrued is `marital'.
John Gamel's "The Elegant Eyeball" goes into the fascinating details of the human eyeball and makes deeply philosophical, as well as scientific, observations: "Certain ocular tissues stand on the pinnacle of evolution." Gamel quite possibly knows more about the human eyeball than anyone else on Earth, and his affinity towards the object of his focus is exalting.
Walter Isaacson...I'm still upset with him, when he ignored our votes to make Mustafa Kemal Atatürk Time Magazine's the Man of the Millennium. He proclaimed, without really knowing what he was talking about, that the Turkish government was forcing people to vote. No government has forced me to vote for him. But I digress. As much as I didn't want to like this essay because of my bias, it is an interesting essay about the enterprising Jewish communities that couldn't share the grand prize of prestige: Einstein. Oh, *he* was the Man of the Millennium. Was that by fair voting, Mr. Isaacson? By the way, there is now some evidence that it might be possible to exceed the speed of life. Huh! Imagine that.
"Lunching on Olympus" by Steven L. Isenberg is about interesting table conversations between literary giants like W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Philip Larkin, etc. It reminded me of the time when I listened to my own dad talking with his friends; my own intellectual giants.
Jane Kramer skillfully covers the first-person genius of Michel de Montaigne in "Me, Myself, and I". Montaigne was the first person to write in first-person :)
Arthur Krystal's "When Writers Speak", he's talking about Vladimir Nabokov. It's always fun to talk about Nabokov. The name alone is interesting. The essay talks about the differences intellectual quality between talking and writing.
In Matt Labash's "A Rake's Progress", OMG, who knew Marion Barry was a geek?! Read all about it in this amazingly written essay.
Phillip Lopate's "Brooklyn the Unknowable" delves into the mysterious lair of amazing Jewish geniuses who were born and raised there.
Ian McEwan talks about John Updike, the master of metaphors, who recently passed away.
I had reservations about Steven Pinker's "My Genome, My Self" due to past experiences of reading his work. This essay is particularly well written much to my surprise. He stills peppers the essay with his snobbish "DRD2", "COMT", "C version of the rs2180439 SNP", and all that jazz.
"Gyromancy" by Ron Rindo reveals interesting secrets behind apocryphal stories revolving around Vincent van Gogh. The brilliant artist may have had insufferable inner-ear problem. Explaining, at once, his genius and madness.
"Guy Walks into a Bar Car" by David Sedaris starts off funny from the title, all the way to the end. His descriptions of momentary infatuations are hilarious! He adores the "smooth pink mitts" of his burnt lover.
Zadie Smith deals with multiracial tendencies in "Speaking in Tongues". Speaking to different races, get it? Of course with political inclinations, namely Barack Obama.
"Rediscovering Central Asia" by S. Frederick Starr taught me more about my ancestral heritage than anything else in the past decade.
"Gettysburg Regress" by John H. Summers talks about how it was in Gettysburg, and challenges those who want to change it for effect.
John Edgar Wideman takes the reader half a century back to one year after the Supreme Court's decision to end school segregation, and the tragic end of a fourteen-year-old named Emmett Till and his father, Louis Till.
Garry Wills talks about the late king of debaters, William F. Buckley, Jr. in "Daredevil". It gives a side of Buckley the rest of us, mere mortals, may not have known about him.
A remarkable, remarkable, perspective on George Orwell's life is in the essay "A Fine Rage" by James Wood.
This volume, edited by intellectual heavyweight Christopher Hitchens, contains essays on a wide range of subjects, including biology, history and literature. Besides a couple of noteworthy standouts, I found most of the essays only mildly interesting and not particularly memorable.
Among the noteworthy ones is "My Genome, My Self," in which Harvard psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker has his personal genome analyzed. Pinker tackles the gamut of ethical and scientific implications of genetics and personalized medicine. He brings the reader along on a very interesting exploration, with the caveat that personal genomics is full of limitations and only offers very broad insights. It can tell us what is likely to happen, not what will.
Another standout is Johns Hopkins scholar Frederick Starr's "Rediscovering Central Asia." Starr invites the reader to take a closer look at a region all too often dismissed as a bleak backwater. He extols Central Asia's great contributions in mathematics, chemistry and astronomy, describing a flourishing intellectual hub in its Silk Road glory.
David Sedaris's "Guy Walks into a Bar Car" juxtaposes two chance encounters: one on a weary Amtrak voyage from New York to Chicago and another on a train ride in Italy. The essay isn't Sedaris at his hilarious and touching best, but it is an enjoyable short piece.
Some of the essays are boring and self-congratulatory, like "Lunching on Olympus," in which Steven Isenberg (executive director of the PEN American Center, itself an admirable human rights organization) boasts about the famous authors he's met. While its premise is provocative, Elif Batuman's "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy" similarly seemed less focused on Tolstoy than on how much the author knows about him.
Besides these, there are a number of interesting but not extraordinary essays on subjects like the anatomy of the eye, the elusive identity of Brooklyn, and Einstein's role in the clash between ardent Zionist Chaim Weizmann and the more cautious Louis Brandeis.
The collection touches on a variety of topics, but with its overall lack of compelling writing, THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS: 2010 fails to live up to its title. I would instead recommend seeking out writers like Pinker, Starr and Sedaris, and delving into their work elsewhere.
Unlike the other "Best American" anthologies which are geared toward a specific audience (literary, sports, science), the Best American Essays covers such a wide range of subject matter that it cannot possibly appeal to everyone. For example, as someone interested in literature, I loved Elif Batuman's "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy" about a young academic's thoughts about Tolstoy and Chekhov in the context of their houses and Steven L. Eisenberg's "Lunching on Olympus" about his four separate lunches, years apart, with the notable literary figures, W.H. Auden, E.M. Forster, Philip Larkin, and William Empson. I enjoyed Zadie Smith's "Speaking in Tongues" because I had met her and could hear her Cambridge accent as she wrote about it. And my passion for science was met by the incredibly beautiful "The Elegant Eyeball" by John Gamel and the deeply articulate "My Genome, My Self," by Steven Pinker. But essays such as "How Einstein Divided America's Jews" (Walter Isaacson) left me cold, primarily because the writing, while competent, didn't move me and the subject matter didn't interest me. Other readers, however, might find it fascinating -- and therein lies the problem with such a broad anthology: some readers will gravitate toward the very essays that others find uninteresting.
The real test of an excellent essay is its ability to hook a reader despite the reader's neutrality toward the topic. When that happens, you know you are in the hands of a master essayist. Such is the case of Matt Labash's "A Rake's Progress." Labash follows former DC mayor Marion Barry for several days, and writes about it with wit, irony, cynicism, and affection, all coming together in a complex portrait of a man I never thought I'd find fascinating. (I suspect "The Elegant Eyeball" will have the same effect on those who previously didn't care about science.) John H. Summers made me question the value of authenticity in "Gettysburg Regress," something I had never before given much thought.
Although this collection is uneven and although different people will be attracted to different essays, The Best American Essays is worthwhile for its gems -- the essays that rise above their subject matter to give readers a glimpse into strange corners of the world and the mind.
-- Debbie Lee Wesselmann
The 2010 edition of the Best American Essays provides an interesting, but mixed bag of work. The typically eclectic subject matter runs the gamut from a rogue killer lion in Africa to a portrait of former Washington DC mayor Marion Barry to a Tolstoy conference held in Russia. The essays provide small parcels of knowledge that you may, or may not encounter on your own in day to day reading. Some subjects are instantly enjoyable based on previous interests, while others are new subjects that can be hit or miss depending on the skill of the writer to "sell" his or her point.
The successes in my eye are Steven Pinker's essay about genomic information and the budding business of selling personal DNA information to the pubic, Matt Labash's warts and all piece on Marion Barry and Ron Rindo's essay that discusses vertigo and the art of Vincent Van Gogh. The ones that seemed less successful were Elif Batuman's tales from a Tolstoy conference and John H. Summer's complaint about the removal of trees from the Gettysburg battlefield to achieve a more realistic battlefield experience. Even the items that did not win me over are well written, thoughtful pieces that I did not feel were a waste of time, at least I learned a little something in the transaction.
Of course all of this is subjective. My highlight might be the one that you struggle through, or skip altogether, but that's the beauty of a grab bag like this. It has a wide enough variety that you'll usually come out ahead in terms of quality, interesting pieces of writing. If you don't like one, just move on to the next.
Exposés of the science behind ophthalmology, thatatosis, linguistics, and Ménière's disease. Memorials for John Updike and Bill Buckley. Reminiscences on George Orwell, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, Michel de Montaigne, and Emmett Till. Intros to Marion Barry, genomics, the city of Brooklyn, the golden age of the Asian Steppes, and the efforts to restore Gettysburg. For an anthology of personal essays, this seems remarkably impersonal.
Don't mistake me: I enjoy most of these essays, individually. Ron Rindo's "Gyromancy," Steven L. Isenberg's "Lunching on Olympus," and John H. Summers' "Gettysburg Regress" really grab my imagination. But when they adjoin each other, I don't feel like I've accomplished a journey through the human spirit; I feel I've been lectured. If I wanted that, I'd go to a Chautauqua festival, where I could eat funnel cakes.
I can't help recalling the 2009 edition of this series, which had its flaws (numerous essays about writing, for one), but felt very warm and friendly. That one focused on essays which were intimate, personal, and introspective; this one is dispassionate, impersonal, and extroverted. You could curl up with the 2009 edition, but I feel I ought to dress for the office before cracking this cover for brief, businesslike visits.
Closing the cover on the final essay, I didn't feel I'd gone anywhere. Hitchens presents several essays on science, history, literature, and scholarship, but the Best American series has books for that. (David Sedaris' "Guy Walks into a Bar Car" appears in here and The Best American Travel Writing 2010, demonstrating inadequate imagination.) These essays were good, but I don't feel like a better person for reading the anthology.