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9780618213887: The Best American Essays 2002 (The Best American Series)
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Edited by the award-winning late author of The Mismeasure of Man a new collection of the finest nonfiction essays published over the past year incorporates the work of distinguished masters of the essay genre on topics ranging from pathology to the boxing arena to growing up.

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About the Author:
Since the inception of The Best American Essays in 1986 as a trade book title, Robert Atwan has been series editor. He has published reviews and essays in a range of periodicals and edited a number of other literature anthologies. Atwan most recently edited two collections of poetry with a Biblical theme, Chapters into Verse by Oxford University Press and Divine Inspiration by Oxford University Press.
Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

"Unfortunately, there"s some very bad news," Stephen Jay Gould announced
at the end of last March while leaving a message on my answering machine
to say that he had completed making all the final selections for this year"s
book. He added that he would be checking into the hospital the following
Monday for what he fully expected would be "a quite serious procedure." Less
than two months later, this truly amazing person would be gone. He
promised to finish the introduction before undergoing the surgery. And he did.
A native New Yorker, who at the time lived within a mile of Ground
Zero, Gould had been emotionally devastated by the terrorist assault of
September 11, 2001 — which as he notes in his introduction came one
hundred years to the day after his grandfather landed at Ellis Island. Gould
had planned to commemorate his family"s centennial on that day by visiting
his grandfather"s site of entry. Almost immediately after the attacks, he wrote
four short, reflective essays on 9/11 that he managed to include in his last
collection, I Have Landed, which appeared shortly before his death. Although
he saw the attacks as an instance of "spectacularly destructive evil," he
optimistically believed that the terrorist "vision of inspired fear" would never
prevail over the "overwhelming weight of human decency" we find everywhere
around us.
As he read through the one hundred or so essays I"d sent him,
Gould at one point observed how everything seemed "shaped by 9/11,"
regardless of whether an essay was written before or after. Later, I realized
how every few years, ever since I launched this annual essay series in 1985,
some pivotal event dominates the national attention and dramatically narrows
our literary scope. In 1995 it seemed that half the essays I read dealt either
directly or tangentially with the O. J. Simpson trial. The nation couldn"t stop
talking about it, and many distinguished writers weighed in with insightful and
sometimes brilliant commentary. Something similar occurred toward the end
of 2000, when the American political process was put on hold during the
most bizarre presidential election in our history. Yet coverage of these
events — as influential and absorbing as they still are — did not necessarily
find their way into the volumes that featured the best essays of those years.
But the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their
aftermath were altogether another story. The written response was
overwhelming, and not merely because of the massive news coverage that
instantly went into operation. The coverage, commentary, and reportage one
could expect; what was unexpected was their astonishingly high quality. I
had assumed that thoughtful essays would take months of reflection and
deliberation, that the "literature of 9/11" was several years away. I was
surprised to see it taking shape before my eyes. As Stephen Jay Gould
mentions in his introduction, we could have assembled an entire volume of
9/11 essays. Perhaps two or three volumes, I should add.
And yet, when I consider the responses to 9/11 more carefully, I
realize that I should have expected an abundance of fine essays. The essay
always seems to revitalize in times of war and conflict — and it"s usually with
the return of peace and prosperity that fiction and poetry renew their literary
stature. The First World War resulted in an eruption of essays and introduced
the work of some of our finest nonfiction writers, many of whom, like
Randolph Bourne, took up the pacifist cause. Then the postwar years saw
the flourishing of some of our most celebrated poets and novelists, those
members of the "lost generation." This was true too in the Second World War
(E. B. White published his greatest essay collection in 1942), and it was
especially true during Vietnam. It seems to me no coincidence that the
Vietnam years saw the emergence of the New Journalism, an exciting and
innovative brand of nonfiction pioneered by one of the writers included in this
volume, John Sack.
`I can"t prove this theory about essays in time of war. The idea occurred to
me while reading Czeslaw Milosz"s brilliant long poem A Treatise on Poetry,
which arrived in the mail just a day or so before the 9/11 carnage. Though he
promotes the value of poetry in difficult times, Milosz prefaces his "treatise"
with the recognition that in our time "serious combat, where life is at stake, /
is fought in prose." Even if that"s accurate — at least in a general sense —
I"m not sure why. Perhaps in times of conflict and crisis people want to be in
the presence of less mediated voices — we need more debate and directives,
we desire more public discourse. We instinctively turn to writing that displays
a greater sense of immediacy and urgency. "These are the times that try
men"s souls," Thomas Paine memorably wrote in 1776, in what would be the
first essay of The American Crisis. At that moment in history, radicalism and
nationalism could go hand in hand.
A few weeks after the attacks of 9/11, I hosted a reading of
essays from the newly published 2001 volume at Wordsworth bookstore in
Cambridge, just a block away, incidentally, from the hotel where, earlier in
September, my son and I (we had just moved a sofa into his freshman dorm)
stepped out of the garage elevator into the lobby and exchanged uneasy
glances with two unfashionably dressed Middle Eastern men who three days
later would fly their suicide mission into the twin towers of the World Trade
Center. I was apprehensive about the reading, thinking that anything written
before 9/11 might now appear irrelevant, nave, or just hopelessly dated to an
audience saturated with minute-by-minute coverage of wreckage and
Milosz"s words, however, had stayed with me, and I cited them,
suggesting that in these times the essay was perhaps the most suitable and
effective mode of response. Here is what I said: "Whatever other
consequences they entail, there can be little doubt that the attacks of
September 11 will have enormous cultural repercussions, and among these
will be a reemergence of the essay as a broadly relevant, even indispensable,
genre — a vital source of voices, ideas, and personal histories that the public
will turn to with perhaps greater attention than ever before."
A few months later, I found my observations about the essay
independently corroborated by Peter Beinart in The New Republic, who
pointed out that an increasing seriousness in the press after 9/11 has
resulted in the reemergence of the "non-reported, nonnarrative, political or
historical" analytical essay, a genre that in his opinion had gone "deeply out
of fashion in the 1990"s." The "new gravity" that Beinart now sees in the
magazine world is evidenced in this volume, not only by his own magazine"s
contribution (Mario Vargas Llosa"s "Why Literature?") but by the large number
of serious and informed essays on education, culture, history, music, and
vital contemporary issues. Even the personal essays, with their prevailing
medical topics, are grounded in matters of life and death, issues that we now
know represented something more to Gould at the time than age-old literary

The Best American Essays features a selection of the year"s outstanding
essays, essays of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and
forcefulness of thought. Hundreds of essays are gathered annually from a
wide variety of national and regional publications. These essays are then
screened, and approximately one hundred are turned over to a distinguished
guest editor, who may add a few personal discoveries and who makes the
final selections.
To qualify for selection, the essay must be a work of respectable
literary quality, intended as a fully developed, independent essay on a
subject of general interest (not specialized scholarship), originally written in
English (or translated by the author) for publication in an American periodical
during the calendar year. Magazine editors who want to be sure their
contributors will be considered each year should include the series on their
complimentary subscription list (Robert Atwan, Series Editor, The Best
American Essays, P.O. Box 220, Readville, MA 02137).As always, I"m grateful for the help and guidance I
receive from various people at Houghton Mifflin, especially Erin Edmison,
Larry Cooper, Liz Duvall, Eric Chinski, and Janet Silver. All of us were
saddened to hear of Stephen Jay Gould"s serious illness, and then so very
soon after we were all grieved to learn of his death. We join in dedicating this
seventeenth volume in the series to the memory of this brilliant scientist,
thrilling thinker, incomparable essayist, and steadfast humanist.

To Open a Millennium

According to calendrical conventions, the third millennium of our era began
on January 1, 2000, or on January 1, 2001, by equally defendable modes of
reckoning. Either way, we all acknowledge that our favored decimal mode of
numeration reflects nothing more than a convention, however sensible, based
on our evolutionary complement of digits. Thus, although we count time by
decades and centuries, the beginnings of such units cannot transcend the
arbitrary and often bear no interesting relationship to the press of actual
Many commentators have stated — quite correctly in my view —
that the twentieth century did not truly begin in 1900 or 1901, by any
standard of historical continuity, but rather at the end of World War I, the
great shatterer of illusions about progress and human betterment. We now
face a similar problem for the inception of this millennium, one that must be
addressed before proceeding with any collection of essays to honor a year for
its inception. Forget the old argument about January 1, 2000 or 2001 (and I
even devoted an entire book, albeit short, to this subject). To our great
misfortune (that is, provided we can assure that events of similar magnitude
do not dog the rest of our days), I suspect that future chroniclers will date the
inception of the third millennium from September 11, 2001. Any collector of
essays for this fateful year must therefore, up front and first of all, address
this issue.
I was tempted to make a collection solely of 9/11 pieces (so
many good ones already, and so many more yet to come), but neither
decency nor common morality permitted such a course. We simply cannot
allow evil madmen to define history in this way. Moreover, the event occurred
late enough in the year to preclude the kind of pervasiveness that might
summon such a temptation. But 9/11 stories must be here, and you will find
some of the first of the best.
As another point about the need to focus on 9/11, no other event
of my life so immediately became part of everyone"s experience. (I think we
may finally be able to retire that old question, Where were you the moment
JFK was shot?) So we all have personal stories as well, and we need to
share them, if only to keep the mantra of "never again" as active as we
possibly can. For myself, and in briefest epitome, I live less than a mile from
Ground Zero, and if the towers had fallen due north instead of downward, my
home would have been flattened. I spent my sixtieth birthday in Italy, on
September 10, the day before the attack. Flying back to New York on the
day itself, I ended up spending an unplanned five days in Halifax, where my
plane was diverted, among some of the kindest people I have ever
encountered. Finally, in the weirdest coincidence of my life (the kind of event
that makes the religious believe, although I remain a confirmed skeptic), I
remembered that the history of my family in America had begun with the
arrival of my grandfather. I own the grammar book that he purchased for a
nickel soon after his immigration at age thirteen, and I have affirmed the
correct date (for I have a copy of the ship"s manifest for his arrival at Ellis
Island) of the minimally elegant inscription that he wrote on the title page: "I
have landed. September 11, 1901."
One truly final point and then I promise to move on. History"s
verdict remains to be assigned, but we tend to designate our important days
by the events they commemorate, not simply by the date itself. Only one
exception to this pattern now exists, the one date that must stand by and for
itself: July 4. I can"t help wondering (as seems to be the case so far, but we
cannot yet tell) if this beginning of our millennium will enter American history
as the second example, known either as September 11 or 9/11. I don"t know
how to root about this matter, for or against. As a devoted baseball fan, I do
believe in the necessity of rooting. Several years ago, I promised Bob Atwan
that I would take on one of the yearly "best" volumes as soon as I finished my
magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (published in March
2002 by Harvard University Press, 1,433 pages, at the unbeatable hardback
price of $39.95). I cringed when he sent me about one hundred essays for my
selection, and exploded in premonitory fear for an odd reason that I rarely
confess: I am a committed intellectual, and I like to read, but in a funny
sense the last book that truly inspired me was probably The Little Engine
That Could, first encountered more than half a century ago. Still, a promise is
a promise, and so I proceeded. And, thank goodness for affirmations of prior
hope, I actually enjoyed the task.
My overall impressions are scarcely worth the length of the
following sentence, and I will surely not detail the reasons for most of my
individual choices herein. But — and I guess because I primarily write, rather
than read, essays — I was astonished by the single most salient character
of the choices considered together. I knew that "confessional writing" now
enjoys quite a vogue, but I had no idea how pervasive the practice of personal
storytelling has become among our finest writers. I can"t help asking myself
(although all lives are, by definition, interesting, for what else do we have?):
why in heaven"s name should I care about the travails of X or Y unless some
clear generality about human life and nature emerges thereby? I"m glad that
trout fishing defined someone"s boyhood, and I"m sad that parental dementia
now dominates someone"s midlife, but what can we do in life but play the
hand we have been dealt? (And if I may be confessional for a moment, the
line that most moved me in all these essays came from the pen of an author
who stated, so truly, for I live this life every day, that nothing can be harder
than the undesired responsibility for raising a child with severe handicaps).
Still, I hope that the current popularity of confessional writing soon begins to
I have made no attempt to gather my choices into subgroupings,
but I offer a few comments in three categories to close this introduction.
First, among the confessional writings, the number of medical pieces rather
stunned me — as if we have come to the point where everyone with a serious
illness (meaning all of us, at some point in our lives) feels some compunction
to share the load. I particularly appreciated Barbara E...

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

  • PublisherHoughton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date2002
  • ISBN 10 0618213880
  • ISBN 13 9780618213887
  • BindingHardcover
  • Number of pages320
  • Rating
    3.99 avg rating
    ( 103 ratings by Goodreads )

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