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The Next American Essay

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  793 ratings  ·  56 reviews
In this singular collection, John D'Agata takes a literary tour of lyric essays written by the masters of the craft. Beginning with 1975 and John McPhee's ingenious piece, "The Search for Marvin Gardens," D'Agata selects an example of creative nonfiction for each subsequent year. These essays are unrestrained, elusive, explosive, mysterious—a personal lingual playground. T ...more
Paperback, 488 pages
Published February 1st 2003 by Graywolf Press (first published February 28th 2002)
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4.14  · 
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 ·  793 ratings  ·  56 reviews

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Aug 31, 2008 rated it liked it
what a weird little collection of essays. moving from essay to essay, i sometimes got the feeling that d'agata was confused about what he's trying to collect here: essays about essays, quintessential representative examples of the changing nature of postmodernism versus the changing nature of u.s. society, or just a bunch of pieces he liked? my favorites were the essays that were just good reads, without the self-conscious meta aspect or the weight of representing the mindset of all of u.s. soci ...more
Kristen Suagee-beauduy
I would use this book in an Experimental Creative Nonfiction course for advanced writers. Highlights below.

From "The Raven" by Barry Lopez:

"The instrument will be black but no longer shiny, the back of it sheathed in armor plate and the underside padded like a wolf's foot....You will see that the talons are not as sharp as you might have suspected. They are made to grasp and hold fast, not to puncture. They are more like the jaws of a trap than a fistful of ice picks....He can weather a storm on
James F
Jan 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Another book for a friend's class (maybe someday I'll get to take one myself), this is a collection of "essays", mostly American, one for each year from 1975 to 2003. I put "essays" in quotation marks because the editor says that they blur the distinction between nonfiction and art -- and many of them seem more like poetry or fiction than essays. The selection is very subjective, and emphasizes "literary" writing. Like any anthology this one is very uneven; one or two selections I found boring, ...more
Joshua Buhs
May 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, essays
Second read: the impression is basically the same; I tried his Halls of Fame in between--though a while ago--and found it far too lyrical for my taste, though it helped me understand better what he was trying to do with this collection.

A very nice collection, and D'Agata's connecting overviews are interesting. They sometimes become too lyrical--to use his phrase--or self-involved--to use mine--and tend toward the obscurity of his own collection, Halls of Fame.
All of which would suggest that I am
Feb 04, 2008 rated it liked it
John D'Agata's collection, The Next American essay should be a good companion piece to Phillip Lopate's anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay .Where Lopate's collection focuses on a clear, almost historical, overview of the best essays in literature, D'Agata instead selects more experimental or often over-looked writing. You'll have the masters of the essay, Didion or McPhee, but you'll also have Maso, and Wallace in the mix. Great book, but I was quite surprised that D'Agata left out many d ...more
Sep 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays, library
A wonderfully inspiring and challenging anthology. I loved how D'Agata made his introductions to each piece create an essay themselves. A great exploration of what's possible with the essay form.

Favorite favorites:
- "Ticket to the Fair" by David Foster Wallace

Other favorites:
- "GIrl" by Jamaica Kincaid, which I'd read before but still love
- "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farc
Jan 12, 2008 rated it really liked it
Still in the process of reading all the essays. Unlike most collections, as I dip into this book, there's not been a bum note. There are many writers I know, some I've been introduced to, others I've seen new sides to. And D'Agata's intutive, smart, poetic intros to each essay (he's chosen an essay / year since 1978(?)) add momentum and connections with a skill which is rare in an editor, and shows really that he's a writer who loves words, truly: the sound and shape and meanings, as much as he ...more
Betsy Wheeler
Oct 14, 2007 rated it it was amazing
there's some incredible beauty and genius in these pages. "Total Eclipse" by Annie Dillard was so moving (and a tiny bit scary, if I remember correctly)... it made me want to write essays (and showed me how it was possible to use a lyric structure to do so). "The Search for Marvin Gardens" by John McPhee blew my mind expertly -- a social commentary by way of lyric impulse. It's definitely a great text to teach from (Graywolf sells that on the website) but only b/c it's a great book to learn from ...more
May 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I am so happy this is a book. Oh my god. This anthology is like literature pornography! And, as in sex, sometimes you have to stop because it becomes too much. The downside of it is that re-starting 40 or so essays is really a slog and the book is very heavy to bring on the train.

But otherwise: a fiesta of form and technique! Multiple essays that were literally unbelievable, as in I just read them with my eyes wide whimpering "How?" to myself.
Sep 10, 2009 added it
Shelves: non-fiction
I wish John D'Agata was the editor for the yearly Best American Essays.
Lenora Good
Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a marvelous collection of essays, all kinds of them. D'Agata has arranged them chronologically, after his introduction to the book, beginning in 1975 with John McPhee's The Search for Marvin Gardens. You remember Marvin Gardens, don't you, from Monopoly? I learned a great deal about the game from his essay.

Every year until and including 2003 contains one essay representative of that year. And the book finishes with an Epilogue.

Do I have a favorite? Oh, yes, I'm sure I do. However, they
Nov 06, 2018 rated it liked it

DFW: ticket to the fair, Mary Ruefle: Monument, Sherman Alexie: Captivity, Harry Mathews, Jamaica Kincaid: Girl
Feb 16, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: own, school
I appreciated D’Agata’s framing of these essays with a timeline and a short, indirect entry into the piece, but the collection as a whole didn’t really do it for me.
M Casteel
Jun 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book made me want to be a writer.
Dec 01, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: essay, read-in-2012
There are some wonderful essays in this collection. Joan Didion, Jamaica Kincaid, and David Foster Wallace were all selections I looked forward to, and I wasn't the least surprised at their lyrical mastery, depth of emotion, and flawless delivery.

A surprising number of the selections were (because I can think of no good way to describe this in English) pessimo [said with great disgust and Italian accent]. As a genre, the essay in particular seems to lend itself to pretension, and The Next Americ
Jun 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
This lively collection got me to touch base again with some of my heroes (Joan Didion) some acquaintances I've never really understood and still don't (Susan Sontag) and some new—though deceased—buddies I should have met long ago since we have so many friends in common (David Foster Wallace, George W.S. Trow).

I like short stories, novels, plays, poems and—as most of you know—song lyrics. But no form is quite as comfortable or satisfying to me as the essay. After a really good one, I feel transf
Jenny (Reading Envy)
This is one of the texts for the Creative Non-Fiction class I took in fall 2014. From time to time, the editor intentionally pulls in pieces that aren't considered essays by the authors, and while that led to interesting discussions, it makes the volume a bit different from what it claims to be.

Still, there are a lot of good standard essays and lesser known essays in here. And now I will put in my favorite little bits.

Girl by Jamaica Kincaid

The White Album by Joan Didion
"We tell ourselves stori
Joey Gamble
Jul 10, 2013 rated it liked it
Certainly an intriguing volume, the essays in this collection often fall at the extremes of my taste (i.e. I find them either extraordinary (like DFW's "Ticket to the Fair") or insufferable (like, loathe as I am to blaspheme Sontag (whom I often find effervescent and scintillating), Sontag's "Unguided Tour"). D'Agata's headnotes are often brilliant, and are worth the price of the book in themselves.

Ultimately, this collection passes my "Would I teach this volume?" test, but just barely. It could
If this is a book that encompasses the heart of nonfiction, then I must say I am not a fan. Perhaps it is only the essay I did not like, but this book of experiments was far too experimental for my taste.

There were some I understood, few I enjoyed, and a couple I loved, including the following:

David Antin's "The Theory and Practice of Postmodernism: A Manifesto"
Eliot Weinberger's "The Dream of India"
Paul Metcalf's "...and nobody objected"
Alexander Theroux's "Black"
David Shields's "Life Story"
Oct 30, 2007 rated it liked it
I used this book to teach a non-fiction class at Temple University. My lord there are some good things here, but also there are some really bulbous things that ain't so fast. It gets trying to look at exasperated student faces as they ask why they had to read some of these essays, and after a while, midway through the semester, I abandoned the syllabus and the book in favor of shorter, more engaging, less artfully wonky bits I found online. DFW, Didion, Sontag went over OK, not great. But try te ...more
Jul 31, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: essay-and-memoir
maybe one day ill find a "whole-genre" essay collection that really jives with me but it is such a hard thing to do well and im unsure if i've ever seen it done excellently
this is definitely better than the lopate collection--more engaging and varied--and id recommend it over the lopate. the mini essays between essays help try to solve the problem of genre, and even if they don't, they are beautifully written
Jan 12, 2011 rated it it was ok
This book was quite interesting not only for its content but for the styles of essay which it included. It is clearly pedagogical in its intent to show the diversity of what can be called an essay. In that pursuit it really expands the reader’s understanding of what an essay is and all the ways in which it violates the rules of the assignments that are routinely given under that title throughout formal schooling.
Jul 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: monopolists, eclipse chasers, mattress buyers
Recommended to Kate by: Harper's
Shelves: essays
“Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.” --A.D.

“One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.” --A.D.

“A quick look under the edge of the fake-grass mat reveals the real grass underneath, flattened and already yellowing.” –D.F.W.
Patrick Ross
Aug 10, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: essays
Okay, I'll admit it. I have come to love personal essays, and I like a writer who can move from scene to reflection across time. But I don't need an essay that is just a collection of incomprehensible footnotes. If you like experimentation over storytelling and language play over comprehension, this is the book for you. It wasn't for me, but there are some masterful essays in here. I recognize that.
Jun 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, essay
The inclusion of D'Agata's own introductions to these pieces as "transitions" creates a beautiful sense of unity, transforming this book into one giant essay that spans time, place, gender, class, and form. This is what essays do.

Besides, if you don't want to read a book featuring John McPhee, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Annie Dillard, and my old teacher Susan Griffin then I really don't know what to say to you....
Dec 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
A lot of times you have to ask, "Is that really an essay?", but that's precisely D'Agata's point -- that one of the next steps the essay can take is to abandon genre altogether (genre as in novel/poem/essay). D'Agata's commentary was hit-or-miss, working in some places, feeling unnecessary or underutilized in others -- ultimately I wished there'd been more of it. Highlight: "The Dream of India." Also, "Black."
Mar 21, 2010 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: experimental essay-writers and readers
Recommended to J by: Catherine Imbriglio
Shelves: school
I like the idea of this collection, & I don't fall in the D'Agata hate-camp that thinks his idea of nonfiction is far too broad. Still, I found too many of these essays to be experimental in self-indulgent or stupid ways; it's one thing to make a point about what an essay can be, but I'd prefer more quality examples of it.

What's worth reading: the Foster Wallace, Didion, McPhee, and Goldbarth. Frankly, though, I would have read the first three anyway.
Christopher Bundy
Feb 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
D'Agata selects some of the freshest essays around, essays that truly explore questions (as D'Agata points out, "essaying" in the most fundamental way) and subjects in unique ways. These essays surprise and reinvent what the essay can be and will be. I use this text to introduce students to what nonfiction can be and it always surprises and promotes wonderful discussions about the nature of the essay.
Matt Buchholz
Jan 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: If I taught a college level writing class, this would be the text book.
Recommended to Matt by: The Believer, so you know its street cred is legit.
A collection of creative non-fiction essays, or 'lyric essays' as the editor dubs them, with works ranging from dazzling/inventive to pretentious/indecipherable. But the whole thing doubles as one giant personal essay collage about the editor's relationship with the form throughout his life, so take the bad with the good because it's kind of a big deal.
Sarah Heady
Jun 30, 2008 rated it really liked it
This is a wonderful collection of creative nonfiction from 1975 to 2003. There are a lot of incredible pieces by the likes of John McPhee, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, etc. but there are also several clunkers--mostly, in my opinion, the newer stuff. Overall though, this is a great introduction to the genre.
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John D’Agata is the author of Halls of Fame: Essays, About a Mountain, and The Lifespan of a Fact, as well as the editor of the 3-volume series A New History of the Essay,, which includes the anthologies The Next American Essay, The Making of the American Essay, and The Lost Origins of the Essay. His work has been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an NEA Litera ...more
“What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or — worse yet — leaving the blanks blank?” 9 likes
“Maybe every essay automatically is in some way experimental — less an outline traveling toward a foregone conclusion than an unmapped quest that has sprung from the word 'question'.” 5 likes
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