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The Best American Essays 2010 Paperback – September 28, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This collection is satisfying in its unexpected diversity and tasty juxtapositions--from Garry Wills' s conservative apostasy to Matt Labash' s surprising portrait of Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry, Walter Isaacson' s look at how Einstein divided American Zionism to Steven L. Isenberg' s recollections of his encounters with four British superstar writers when he was a fledgling New York editor. Elif Batuman gives an offbeat report on speculation about how Tolstoy died, and Zadie Smith looks at Obama, Shakespeare, and the expression of inner conflict between cultures. And what essay collection would be complete without one on the godfather of the form, Michel de Montaigne, in a piece by Jane Kramer? The sources are as diverse as the subjects: the Alaska Quarterly, American Scholar, Harvard Review, Oregon Humanities, and the Weekly Standard. Every reader will come away delighted and enlightened.
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"This collection is satisfying in its unexpected diversity and tasty juxtapositions . . . Every reader will come away delighted and enlightened." -- Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A wide variety of quality writing, both reflective and reported." -- Kirkus Reviews
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Top Customer Reviews
The other essays I didn't find interesting to read overall. There might have been an interesting fact or idea here and there, but nothing really moving or interesting that i think i'll remember. I wish more people told me how historical and boring most of these essays are. However, if you like detailed historical, political, and scientific essays, you'll really find this collection great. I really prefer the personal, philosophical, and moving essays that make you think for hours to these.
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.
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.