It’s been a pretty good year for essay collections for me. I’ve read seven so far. I didn’t love all of them, but some will stand out as being really great. There were two collections about the essay as a genre, including Carl Klaus’s book Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, which included excerpts of pieces that try to define the genre or sum up its value and its history. It’s a great book if you want to get a better sense of what exactly an essay is. Not that anyone really agrees on the definition, but there are a lot of definitions on offer here. Then there was David Lazar’s edited collection Truth in Nonfiction: Essays, which takes up the question of what truth in nonfiction writing means — a vexed question that many people have been asking lately. Again, there are a variety of answers on offer here, or, more accurately, there are often no answers, just more complicated questions, which is as it should be. The essays are often from a personal perspective, which makes them entertaining reading, as well as being philosophically interesting. I’ll admit that I skipped a few essays toward the end of the book because they were more straightforward essays rather than meditations on truth in nonfiction, and I wasn’t in the mood for them. This is probably a collection that’s better to read around in rather than plow straight through.
But one can only do so much reading about a genre before it becomes high time to read the genre itself, and by far the best collection of essays I’ve read this year is Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, which was captivating the whole way through, no matter what Smith’s subject was. The next two collections, ranked in terms of how much I liked them, were John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours. If the mark of a truly great essayist is that she or he makes any subject interesting, no matter what it is, then these two writers aren’t quite up to the level of Smith, but are still pretty solid. They both have interesting, engaging essayistic voices, and both have good things to say about literature and culture. I found Sullivan more consistently enjoyable than Bissell, but both have some great moments. The pieces in Bissell were just a little more disjointed, a little less universally interesting. Still, an essayist to watch.
I also read the 2011 Best American Essays collection, which was mixed, as it always is, but with plenty of good essays. Favorites were by Victor LaValle (on obesity), Charlie DeDuff (on Detroit), and Bridget Potter (on getting an abortion in 1962). You never know what you’re going to find in these collections, and it’s fun to be surprised. The last collection I read this year was The Professor, by Terry Castle, which certainly had some essays I liked, but for the most part, I didn’t care much for her voice. There was something harsh about it that didn’t appeal to me.
That’s not a bad record for a year that’s not over. Anybody have any recommendations of collections I should turn to next?