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.