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The Best American Essays 2012

(Best American Essays)

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  855 ratings  ·  98 reviews
The Best American Series®
First, Best, and Best-Selling

The Best American series is the premier annual showcase for the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction. Each volume’s series editor selects notable works from hundreds of magazines, journals, and websites. A special guest editor, a leading writer in the field, then chooses the best twenty or so pieces to publish.
Paperback, 336 pages
Published October 2nd 2012 by Mariner Books (first published January 1st 2012)
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3.88  · 
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 ·  855 ratings  ·  98 reviews

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Maureen Stanton
Oct 18, 2012 rated it liked it
Annoyed that David Brooks was the guest editor (he is not an essayist, not a great writer, just a pundit, a columnist). So I was not surprised to find that many of these pieces are not essays at all, but magazine features. They are good and informative as magazine journalism, but not essays. There are a few strong essays however, namely David Lawless' "My Father/My Husband"--heartbreaking, affecting, and interesting choices for narrative structure (will teach this essay), and the final two piece ...more
Dec 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is the first time I revisited Best American Essays since the 2009 edition and I think I am going to have to check this series out perennially. The essays cover a variety of topics often flying just below the radar. In this edition as in the last one I read a lot of the essays slant towards a few themes likely to the the interests of the guest editor. I'll take it essay by essay:

1. The Foul Reign of "Self-Reliance" (Benjamin Anastas)
This is an alternate look at Ralph Waldo-Emerson's definiti
Andrew Bertaina
Dec 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
Per usual, let's do this by the individual essays as opposed to the collective. It's probably a step below 2011 and perhaps a step above the 2010. Anyhow, the best american essays are always worth a look.
This particular iteration is notable for its introduction, a slight shot at the creative writing model and a call to good old time essaying, and its lack of duds. Not everything is exceptional, but they are often quite good.

In particular Order:

1. Duh-Boring-An essay on boredom. It sadden
Dec 21, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: summer-book
I really loved last year's Best American Essays, and used it as my classroom reader for two semesters. Students connected to those essays, saw what writing could be, and were almost never disappointed on the whole. I could never use BAE 2012 in my classroom. Many of the essays were overly cerebral--many downright boring--and, I have to say it, a little snotty. The introduction itself was a little snobbish, with David Brooks talking about all the essays he was forced to "wade through" in order to ...more
Feb 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I bought the Kindle edition from for $1.99 and read it on my iPad, which was great. Though conservative pundit David Brooks was a guest editor, there was nothing conservative about the choices or content of these essays. All the essays were worth reading but 10 or so were truly outstanding. For example, one essay explored how Emerson’s discussions of self-reliance have influenced the anti-social attitudes of people today was interesting but the next one, a book review that examined ho ...more
Feb 22, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: kindle
Benjamin Anastas -- The Foul Reign of "Self-Reliance" -- 1*
Marcia Angell -- The Crazy State of Psychiatry -- 5*
Miah Arnold -- You Owe Me -- 5*
Geoffrey Bent -- Edward Hopper and the Geometry of Despair -- 1*
Robert Boyers -- A Beauty -- 2*
Dudley Clendinen -- The Good Short Life -- 4*
Paul Collins -- Vanishing Act -- 3*
Mark Doty -- Insatiable -- 2*
Mark Edmundson -- Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here? -- 4*
Joseph Epstein -- Duh, Bor-ing -- 3*
Jonathan Franzen -- Farther Away -- 5*
Malcom Gladwell
Feb 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Simply put...required reading. Only two essays failed to snag me completely. "The Crazy State of Psychiatry" was a little too technical for my taste. My eyes tend to glaze when faced with too many statistics. Also, as an avid fan of my own antidepressant, perhaps it hit a little too close to home. Likewise, I found "Humanism" a bit of a chore to get through, so I "read" it kind of like I "read" Tess of the D'Ubervilles" in high school. Meaning I looked at the words, turned the pages, and though ...more
Oct 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
In his introduction, editor David Brooks writes, "I tried to pick the [essays] that will be useful to you." In this, he was successful. Every essay in this anthology--and in terms of subject matter, this is a diverse lot--offered something worthwhile to ponder. Every selected essayist is clearly an active thinker with something to say, and each says it well (an aside: Joseph Epstein's "Duh, Bor-ing" was coincidentally the one essay I've read of his that didn't bore me).

As a creative writer, I mu
Jul 12, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: the-essayists
The Best American Essays relies heavily on the curator of the collection's preferences. Atwan tended towards the literary review with the personal twist or the scientific spotlight. Of the 24 essays collected, only five were by women and eight were from publications that had the proper noun "New York" in the title. I was surprised how many I had read already in their original iterations (five). I was surprised to find I had already read five of these essays in their original iteration. This had ...more
Jul 25, 2019 rated it liked it
The writing was okay. Some of the arguments I disagreed with. Overall I enjoy the essay as a form of writing.
Mar 19, 2017 rated it it was ok
For the most part, an aggressively mediocre, uninteresting collection. I enjoyed some essays, but they were the exception, not the rule. I blame David Brooks, a conservative pundit, rather than a writer of much worth.
Jan 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
February 2015, update: RadioLab this week aired "How Doctors Die," which first appeared as an eye-opening essay a few years ago. Ken Murray, a physician, wrote the piece. He and others discuss why many doctors will accept pain management but not much elsewhen their time comes: … Murray's essay appeared in this Best American anthology after it published here:

January 2013, original comments: My favorite annual book s
Aug 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Every year, I read two collections: The Best American Short Stories and the Best American Essays. I love short stories and essays, but over the years have evolved into too much of an intellectual magpie to track them down myself. It's like the difference between walking down a street and visiting a museum, I suppose: If I run across something in a magazine, I scan it; if it's something in bound covers in front of me, I read every word. The curation process loans gravitas somehow.

This year's Best
Dec 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essay
This was a really great anthology. I read it for content but also for models for essay writing. My overarching takeaway from this collection is that the essay form can break the general creative writing rule of “show don’t tell” and the single, almost short-story like template some beginners fall into. Not all essays follow that structure. The essay was “traditionally written on topics,” and what made them (and continues to make them) distinct? Reflection (Intro: pg IX)
My Favorite Essays I Recom
Timons Esaias
Jul 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I love these Best American Essay collections, which are reliably full of good writing, and generally quite diverse in topic and style.

The previous year's collection, as I noted in my Livejournal review, was edited by a woman of color, and had a 54% female authorship, and a 37%-ish writer-of-color authorship. Here we're back to the more typical 25% female and 12% color; with a white male making the choices. Hmmm.

While Mr. Brooks complains a bit about the dominance of Death (especially Death of Pa
-The collection is definitely worth reading for the following essays, (or at least these were MY personal faves, as I found them to be quite moving):
Marcia Agnell's "The Crazy State of Psychiatry" (which, btw, I read immediately after having finished the memoir "Marbles" ... Scary. Very scary.)
Miah Arnold- "You Owe Me"
Mark Edmundson "Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?"
Jonathan Franzen, Father Away
Peter Hessler, Dr. Don
Garret Keizer, Getting Schooled
David J. Lawless, My Father/My Husband

Nov 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
These 24 essays cover the waterfront, downtown, uptown and outer space with topics ranging from the effect of Emerson's philosophy on the American psyche, the art of Edward Hopper, teaching high school in a rural community, dark matter and theory of a multiverse, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, obstacles to innovation at American companies, and a visit to a remote Pacific island by a writer and enthusiastic birder.

Reading this book was a mind stretching experience. If I had to pick a
Apr 11, 2013 rated it liked it
Some years I like the collection more than others. These are the essays I liked the most: The State of Psychiatry, about how treatment went from learning how to copy to take a pill was spot on; You Owe Me, written by a teacher who teaches terminal children at a hospital was uplifting but also sad; The Good Short Life, about coming to terms with a terminal illness was good; My Father/My Husband, about the conversations between a man and his wife who has Alzheimer's, was poignant; How Doctors Die, ...more
Bill Glose
Jan 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
All of the works in this collection are erudite and full of speculation on the human condition, which makes this book a thought-provoking read (and a helpful tool for non-fiction writers) that will expand your mind and you reflect on what you've just read. My only qualm is that I don't consider some of the material to be "essays," which wouldn't be a problem if not for the misleading title. One example, a wonderful article titled "Dr. Don," is a profile story of a rural doctor's life and his imp ...more
Jun 10, 2013 added it
Another great collection. Although all of the individual essay were top-notch, some hit me more than others. I especially liked "The Crazy State of Psychiatry", about how people are over-medicated and the problems it creates. It leads to a later essay called "Killing My Body to Save My Mind," which is a personal account of one patient who comes to live with some of the side effects of this phenomena. "The Good Short Life," about a man who is told he has ALS is very touching. "Who are you..." and ...more
Vince Darcangelo
Jan 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
David Brooks, as expected, compiled a thoughtful and engaging selection of essays.


Miah Arnold: "You Owe Me"

Dudley Clendinen: "The Good Short Life"
("But we don't talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren't one of life's greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull.")

Mark Edmundson: "Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?"
("In reading, I continue to look for one thing -- to be influenced, to learn something new, to be thrown off my cours
Dec 23, 2012 rated it liked it
Americans are always good at writing essays and this is no exception. But, what exactly called my attention here was the main themes presented at those essays. Among a broad variety, you can see the repetition of themes like suffering from diseases, bodily and mentally and some criticism over new technologies and how they make us more lonely, how they are limited and etc. I think this is a good book to have like a thermometer of what is been judged important to discuss at some moment or somethin ...more
Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
I'm not sure why this volume doesn't seem to be as favored by Goodreads reviewers as last year's---I found this set of essays infinitely more interesting. Yes, there is a journalistic bent to some of them in that they discuss policy topics and facts; however, I fail to see how talking about policy topics relevant to current readers makes something not an essay. There's a heavy focus on education and healthcare, which I enjoyed quite a bit (although I certainly didn't agree with all of the viewpo ...more
I gave this book five stars even though I didn't finish a couple of the essays. Even if I didn't like them, they were worthy selections.

My favorite in this year's collection was Mark Doty's "Insatiable," in which he writes of the new-to-me connection between Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker, and includes insights from his own life.

Miah Arnold's "You Owe Me" is a heartbreaking account of teaching English and poetry to kids undergoing cancer treatment.

Ken Murray's "How Doctors Die" should be required
Kevin Tudish
Oct 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I love reading essays. I enjoy seeing someone investigate a subject without taking the oblique approach of fiction. Not to disparage being oblique--I do a lot of that in my own work--but I like to see how other people approach directly, more by way of reason than intuition. Watch someone else do something I can't, like hit a high C, or run the 100 in under 10 seconds. When I see someone excel at something with which I'm familiar, there's an appreciation of the achievement, a sympathetic thrill; ...more
May 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I was afraid David Brooks would skew things to the right, but no. A wide sampling of some of our best minds. I especially loved Jonathan Franzen's essay, "Further Away," about ... so many things -- the death of David Foster Wallace and the origins of the novel and birding and traveling to one of the most remote places on earth. Also amazing are Paul Collins' essay on the tragic story of a successful child author in the 1920s, and Miah Arnold's piece on teaching writing to children with cancer. A ...more
Nov 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013, nonfiction
Via David Foster Wallace, I am newly enamored with essays as something to read for pleasure. There's some cracking ones in here. I was disappointed to thumb through this and realise I'd read them all. I've never read one of these collections before, but there's something really enriching--and fun!--about reading a bunch of essays about a bunch of different stuff you hadn't necessarily thought about or known about before. My favourites are the one about people ("Dr Don"; "A Beauty"), but I like t ...more
Jul 22, 2012 rated it liked it
I thought this book was really great. I perused it at the library while my kids were messing around on the computer and ended up bringing it home to read more of the essays. I caught up on so much reading in different areas I don't have time to do anymore. It was nice to have them collected in all one volume and not have to track down all of the periodicals and websites they came from. Great series. I liked it so much that when I returned it to the library, I picked up an earlier volume and am n ...more
Jen Hirt
Nov 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
Favorites in this edition: Marcia Angell's "Crazy State of Psychiatry," one of a handful of notable essays of late which have sought to explain the problems with our for-profit health care system; Mark Doty's "Insatiable," which tempers confession with literary investigation; Garrett Keizer's "Getting Schooled," parts of which I read out loud to professors in my life; and Josa Antonio Vargas "Outlaw," which I hope to use in upcoming classes due to what it reveals about immigration, memoir, and w ...more
Whitney Archibald
Jul 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
I love reading these collections. I always adore a few, skip a few, and learn something from most. Great writing on interesting topics.

I especially liked:
You Owe Me -- A woman teaches writing to pediatric cancer patients
The Bitch Is Back -- Funny/frightening glimpse into menopause
Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here -- How and why to take charge of your own education
Getting Schooled -- A teacher comes out of retirement to teach again
How Doctors Die and The Good Short LIfe -- Both about end-o
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Robert Atwan has been the series editor of The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986. He has edited numerous literary anthologies and written essays and reviews for periodicals nationwide.

Other books in the series

Best American Essays (1 - 10 of 34 books)
  • The Best American Essays 1986
  • The Best American Essays 1987
  • The Best American Essays 1988
  • The Best American Essays 1989
  • The Best American Essays 1990
  • The Best American Essays 1991
  • The Best American Essays 1992
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  • The Best American Essays 1995
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