Best American Essays, cont.

I’ve been thinking about why I like to read the Best American Essays series, besides the fact that I like essays, of course. I like to read these books because I’m interested in the sensibility that chooses the essays. I like to see how the essay selections differ from year to year, which really means I’m seeing how the definition of “best” can vary. But I also like it that these books get me to read essays I wouldn’t otherwise read. In his introduction to this year’s book, David Foster Wallace starts off writing about how he doubts anybody reads the editor’s introduction first, and that people usually skip around in the book, reading first what appeals to them most and eventually getting around to the other ones, including the introduction, or maybe not even bothering.

But I like to read the introductions first, and I almost always read all the essays, generally in the order they are printed, or something quite close. I like letting another person’s choices guide me, at least for a little while. There’s something appealing about submitting to another person’s judgment, briefly, to see where it takes you. I think this is why so many readers find suggested reading lists appealing: it’s fun to have a little bit of structure, instead of feeling so overwhelmed by all the choices that are out there.

So I tend to be a completist with these books. Disliking or being uninspired by a title doesn’t mean I won’t like the essay, after all, and the chances are decent that if I give a piece a chance, I’ll like it, or at least I’ll find something intriguing or worthwhile in it, or I’ll enjoy not liking it. The truth is, I’m afraid of getting confined by my likes and dislikes — if I choose to read only those things that immediately appeal to me, how will I discover new tastes or ever be surprised?

With this particular volume, the essays are often very political. I’ve come across one on the lead-up to the Iraq war, one on torture, another on freedom of speech, and I know from the introduction that there are more political essays to come. For some reason these political essays don’t strike me as terribly essayistic. It’s not that they are badly written, but I just don’t associate writing on contemporary political events with the genre of the essay. I’m not sure they will stay interesting beyond this time period, except for historians, perhaps. But then I wonder how many of the other, non-political essays will still be interesting in another 100 years or so, except for historians.

But I’m glad I’m reading them because I might shy away from them otherwise, if I’d come across them in their original magazine or journal, and some of them, at least, are worth reading. The one on free speech didn’t impress me very much, but the Iraq war and the torture essays were smart and informative (and scary).

And last night I read an amazingly well-written, gripping, and horrifying essay by Marione Ingram called “Operation Gomorrah” about her experience as a young girl in Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. She tells the story of how she and her mother barely survived a night of bombing. They have to deal with the bombing itself, but also with the cruelty of fellow Germans, because Ingram and her mother are Jewish and others either don’t want to help them or are afraid of risking severe punishment if they do. Ingram describes that night in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact way, not giving much commentary, but sticking to the facts. And those facts! I’ve read descriptions of what it’s like to experience bombings before, but I’ve never read anything like this.

In spite of how horrifying the essay was, I’m glad I read it, and I’m grateful to the series for introducing me to it.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Reading

11 responses to “Best American Essays, cont.

  1. Sounds like an interesting collection this year. I like a good political essay, but for it to be really good it has to transcend time, if that makes sense. There has to be a connection, a context, to something bigger. And I think you hit the nail on the head with why readers like reading lists.

  2. hepzibah

    I am not a huge fan of essays, I don’t think I have ever been, but these series does sound really good. The last one you described sounds really great, I would love to read something like that! I need to add it to my list!

  3. It does sound an interesting collection and I admire you for being diligent and reading essays that may not initially grab you. I am very bad about things like that and tend to dip in and out of books, following the interests of the moment. I’m sure I miss a lot that way.

  4. Edd

    Dorothy, I am going to buy and read this collection although it remains out of my normal genre. It would be unethical for me to say that in all honesty, I am going in with some prejudicial feelings although I intend to try it.

  5. This sounds like an interesting collection. That’s the thing with essays–it’s sort of hard to figure out what they are and aren’t exactly. The political ones sound more journalistic than essays, but I suppose the lines are really blurred. The essay on the WWII bombing sounds like something I’ll have to get ahold of as I am interested in this historical period.

  6. verbivore

    Definitely does sound like an interesting collection of essays. I like politically-themed writing but the style is really important to me. I don’t think I can explain that comment quickly but I like political essays to be informative and impassioned but not overly persuasive or heavy-handed.

  7. LK

    I agree, this sounds interesting. I used to be a big essay reader, and this reminds me that it’s a genre I’d like to get back to. Maybe this book is a good place to start…

  8. Stefanie — I agree with your point about political essays — I like reading them too, but not so much when I’m expecting something different. I guess I’m not sure the examples really transcended time in any way, good as they were.

    Hepzibah — I think it’s a matter of finding the right essays — if you found them, you’d love them too! (maybe …) I really love the genre — but I needed a good teacher to introduce them to me and make me see how great they can be.

    Litlove — thank you! I do get worried about missing things I might like. The downside, though, is that sometimes I’m stuck reading things it turns out I’d rather not. It’s a risk, I suppose — often it works in my favor, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Edd — well, I’m glad you are going to try it! Do let me know what you think.

    Danielle — the WWII essay is taken from a book-length memoir, but I don’t think it’s published yet. The essay originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2007 edition of Granta, if you are interested in tracking it down.

    Verbivore — I think some of the political essays in this collection might fit your criteria. I think I know what you mean — I don’t want to get preached at, but I do like some passion and energy.

    LK — I’d guess this IS a good place to start — it’ll provide lots of authors to track down if you want more.

  9. I’ve really enjoyed your posts on the Essays book. I don’t read Essays and honestly would probably feel so lost knowing where to start so this book appeals to me because of that. Maybe I’ll put this on my Christmas wishlist!

  10. Thanks Dorothy, I will look for that issue!

  11. Thank you Iliana — I hope you like it if you do end up getting it!

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