Jillian's Reviews > The Best American Essays 2010

The Best American Essays 2010 by Robert Atwan
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's review
Dec 15, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2011
Read in December, 2011

I wandered through the library pulling books off the shelves with no design, no intent, just letting the universe guide my first round of winter break reading. We have a small, outdated public library; usually I have to request books in advance or go in with a battle plan to find what I want to read, so this was complete surrender to the contingent. I grabbed this compilation because I missed it last year, and when I got home I found out that Christopher Hitchens had just died.

I didn't know how I felt about Hitchens, so I read a few interviews with him online. I still don't know exactly how I feel about Hitchens the polemic*, but Hitchens the editor wrote a love letter to the essay in the introduction that charmed me:

"When I was very young I lived in a remote village on the edge of an English moorland. Every week, a mobile library would stop near my house, and I would step up through the back door of a large ban to find its carpeted interior lined with bookshelves... (If I live to see retirement, I would quite like to be the driver of such a vehicle, bringing books to eager young readers like a Librarian in the Rye.) One day I took a chance on a collection of science fiction stories. One of these concerned a weary teacher who picked up the scrawled "compositions" of his class after the children had piled them on his desk, and found at the bottom a letter from the future. Bound in luminous green plastic, it was headed in oddly shaped characters: "An Essy. By Jon Grom." I was struck by this simple contrivance and also found myself noticing, as if for the first time, that an essay is really a try, an attempt, even an adventure.
It also holds its meaning as a test, as in its cognate "assay"--wish is useful, since the assayer's job is to tell base metals from true gold--and as a trial, or a putting to the proof... the jaunty original French word essai still connotes a challenge, a good try, an effort, even a first draft.

We are not likely to reach a time when the need of such things as curiosity, irony, debunking, disputation, and elegy will become satisfied. For the present, we must resolve to essay, essay, and essay again."

The collection is clearly curated by Hitchens: natural wonder at art ("Gyromancy") and writing ("Lunching on Olympus") and science ("My Genome, My Self") and human history ("The Gettysburg Regress") is its unifying force.

I've definitely read better essays, but as a collection this held together. Favorites: "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy," "Irreconcilable Dissonance," "When Writers Speak," "Speaking in Tongues."

*I think I like him.
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