The Best American Essays 2003 (The Best American Series)

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9780618341610: The Best American Essays 2003 (The Best American Series)
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Since 1986, The Best American Essays has gathered the most interesting and provocative writing of the year, establishing a firm place as the leading annual of its kind. The volume is edited each year by an esteemed writer who brings a fresh eye to the selections. Previous editors have included Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Geoffrey C. Ward, Cynthia Ozick, and Stephen Jay Gould. This year’s volume is terrifically diverse, with subjects ranging from driving lessons to animal rights to citizenship in times of emergency.

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About the Author:

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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

You can tell a lot about people from the books they sleep with. Alexander the
Great is said to have slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow.
Charlemagne slept with Saint Augustine"s The City of God. When Edwin
Herbert Land, the founder of Polaroid, was a boy, he snuggled up to Robert
Wood"s Physical Optics.
I used to sleep with a copy of the essays of Montaigne. It was a
thick volume — 1,035 pages long, a 1933 Modern Library edition with a
threadbare gray cover and a missing spine — that would have made a sizable
lump under my pillow. (Those other guys must have had cast-iron cheeks. Or
maybe they owned abridged versions.) Montaigne reposed on my bedside
table. What our relationship lacked in propinquity it made up in constancy,
since I was confined to bed twenty-four hours a day for the first eight months
of a fragile pregnancy. I"d spent the previous two decades as a wandering
journalist, but now I required a literary trade that could be plied from a
horizontal position: hence, my hasty metamorphosis from reporter to
essayist. Who better to guide me than the ur-essayist, the inventor of the
genre, the man who had retreated from public life at age thirty-eight to a
round, bay-windowed, book-lined library on the third floor of a tower at his
ancestral château: a solitary room, intentionally difficult of access, its silence
broken only by the tolling of the Ave Maria on a great bronze bell?
Montaigne"s famously meandering essays — "Of Idlenesse," "Of
Lyers," "Of Vanitie," "Of Smels and Odors," "Of Vaine Subtilties, or Subtill
Devices" (my edition was the creatively spelled 1603 translation by John
Florio) — were just the ticket for a supine pregnant woman who was drifting
in and out of sleep and incapable of remembering what she"d been thinking
five minutes earlier. They were, after all, essaies — a word their author chose
in order to emphasize that he was attempting something, not perfecting it —
and therefore didn"t aspire to military regimentation. Montaigne would start
talking about the fallibility of human experience, quoting Aristotle and
Manilius and Epicurus and sounding splendidly high-minded, and then he"d
drift off into an aside on how he hated to be interrupted when he sat on his
chamberpot. Or he"d be in the middle of a sober discussion of inherited traits,
and all of a sudden he"d scoot into a three-page detour on his kidney stones
("Oh why have not I the gift of that dreamer, mentioned by Cicero, who
dreaming that hee was closely embracing a yong wench; found himself ridde
of the stone in his sheetes!"). This was exactly the way my own mind was
working at the time — it could travel from motherhood to hemorrhoids at the
speed of light — and, far from being intimidated by Montaigne, I began to
think: Hey, maybe this is something I could do. And so, at the age of forty,
lying on my left side, wrapped in a sweaty tangle of sheets, propping a laptop
computer on the pillow under which Montaigne might have rested had I been
less princess-and-the-pea-like, I wrote the first essay I ever submitted to a
magazine.

Phillip Lopate has called the personal essay the voice of middle age. After
compiling this volume, during the course of which I read essays of every
conceivable stripe, I"d extend that statement by saying that any essay —
personal, critical, expository — is more likely to be written by someone with
a few gray hairs than by a twenty-five-year-old. (He"s too busy finishing his
first novel.) Activity and reflection tend to be sequential rather than
simultaneous. And it takes at least a dozen years before the taint of the
schoolroom — the "essay question," the college application "essay,"
the "essay on the principal exports of Bulgaria, due Thursday at 10:00," all of
which have as much in common with an essay by Montaigne as a vitamin pill
does with a chocolate truffle — wears off completely.
By the time Robert Atwan asked if I"d collaborate with him on this
anthology, I had left the world of the dreaded blue-book essay far behind. The
associations of the word were entirely hedonic. For several years I had
worked as the editor of a small literary quarterly, a job I took because I could
not imagine a more pleasurable way to make a living than reading essays all
day long. The downside, of course, is that most of those essays are
unsolicited manuscripts about the application of postcolonialist theory to the
works of Beatrix Potter. You can therefore imagine how pleased I was to be
invited to spend a few months reading essays that had not only been
published but vetted. Bob Atwan would swim through the oceans of the
year"s periodicals like a great baleen whale, letting most of their contents
flow through unencumbered, and filtering out only the most delicious bits of
plankton for my delectation.
I owned a whole shelf of Best American Essays — my favorite
color was indigo blue with red and green lettering (1994), my favorite
introductions were by Elizabeth Hardwick (1986) and Geoffrey Wolff (1989) —
and I"d always wondered how the volumes had been compiled. What criteria
were used? What exactly was that list of "Notable Essays" in the back (in
which I myself had been sequestered for years before finally making it into
the sacred precincts of the collection itself)? How many essays did
the "series editor" read, and how many did the "guest editor" read? Perhaps
other readers have been similarly curious about the process, so I"ll tell you
how it went this year.
Though I"ve met Bob Atwan only once, a year before we embarked
on this project together, we"ve spent the last six months in a frenzy of
communication by phone, letter, and e-mail. (He recently confided that I was
the first guest editor of this series who used e-mail. By that point, we"d
exchanged at least a hundred e-mails, both about this volume and about
essays in general. Our correspondence resembled that of two rabid
collectors of Hummel figurines, brief and businesslike at the outset but
incrementally loosened up by their shared passion.) Bob had started the
series in 1986, successfully resisting the advice of one publisher who, leery
of the word essay, told him, "It"s a lovely idea, but shouldn"t we call it
something else?" Every year he screens about two hundred small and large
periodicals and reads about five hundred essays, of which he forwards a
hundred or so to the guest editor. (He sent me a hundred and forty-two.
Either it was a particularly fertile year or my e-mails gave him the impression
that I was insatiable.) Bob"s Notable Essays list consists of those hundred or
so essays, minus the ones selected as the best American essays, plus a
few dozen that he considers unsuitable for the collection (too long, too short,
too far to one end or the other of the journalistic-academic spectrum) but that
nonetheless deserve recognition. The guest editor is also free to select
essays from outside the Atwan pool; I picked three.
Twelve batches arrived by FedEx on my doorstop between the end
of October and the middle of March. (The process oozed into the spring
because so many understaffed quarterlies publish their winter issues long
after the snow melts.) The first few were from what Bob called "especially rich
sources" — mostly The New Yorker and Harper"s Magazine — and, indeed, I
ended up choosing six from the original batch of fifteen. But I didn"t start
reading right away. I waited until about forty essays had accumulated on my
bedside table. The first essay I picked up started like this:

Life begins somewhere with the scent of lavender. My father is standing in
front of a mirror. He has just showered and shaved and is about to put on a
suit. I watch him tighten the knot of his necktie, flip down his shirt collar, and
button it up. Suddenly, there it is, as always: lavender.

Whoa! I thought. There was a little neck-prickle. The prose was simple,
almost hushed, but I got the feeling that the author was just revving up, that
complexity and voluptuousness and clangor would follow in due time, and
that I was going to be taken somewhere unexpected. I was already certain
that I wanted this essay — "Lavender," by André Aciman — and although of
course it could have taken a turn for the worse, I knew it wasn"t going to, and
it didn"t. When I got to the end — an intricate, heartbreaking sentence three
times as long as that taciturn first paragraph — I said to my husband, "I"ve
got the first one."
They weren"t all that good. At first I wondered if I could find two
dozen that I didn"t just like, I loved. What captivated me? A memorable voice,
like Brian Doyle"s wild Irish tenor in "Yes." (In an article, content trumps
style; in an essay, style trumps content.) Shapeliness, like the graceful arc
of Atul Gawande"s "The Learning Curve," which starts and ends with the
insertion of a central line into a surgical patient"s vena cava. (The best writers
had wonderful beginnings and endings; the less skilled ones were
comfortable in the midzone, but they got self-conscious in the places they
thought were Important and started sounding orotund or abstract or corny.)
Restraint, as in Myra Jehlen"s "F. P.," an essay about death that had
innumerable opportunities for melodrama and turned its back on every one.
(Why is it assumed that personal essays must be self-indulgent?) Attention
to detail, as in Frederic Morton"s "A Delivery for Fred Astaire," which
describes the narrator"s hunger to sound American as precisely as it
describes the apricot tarts he attempts to deliver to Mr. Astaire. (Vagueness
is the essayist"s mortal enemy.) The determination to explore one thing
deeply, as in "Wooden Dollar," Ben Metcalf"s revisionist portrait of
Sacajawea, rather than cover the waterfront. (Given the essay"s space
constraints, monumentality can be catastrophic.) Vitality, as in Edward
Hoagland"s "Circus Music," which contains enough life to fill ten tents. (Some
essays were craftsmanlike but desiccated; I wanted to hear the pulsing of
blood through their veins.) Density, as in Marshall Jon Fisher"s "Memoria ex
Machina," whose paragraphs are assembled as tightly as the machines they
describe. (By density, I don"t mean obscurity; I liked essays that were as
clear as newly Windexed windowpanes, and if I couldn"t understand
something, out it went. I mean the sort of density my daughter had in mind
when, in the course of her seventh-grade science fair project, she discovered
that a pint of cheap ice cream is pumped full of air and is therefore as light as
a feather, whereas a pint of Häagen-Dazs weighs a ton. It"s crammed. The
essays in this book, even the long ones, have no extra air. They"re all
Häagen-Dazs.)
Some of my favorite essays demanded a loose-constructionist
interpretation of the anthology"s rules. Conventional reviews are barred from
this volume"s precincts. Caitlin Flanagan"s "Home Alone" was a review of two
books about Martha Stewart, but it was also about Martha Stewart; Judith
Thurman"s "Swann Song" was a review of Yves Saint Laurent"s final haute
couture show, but it was also about Saint Laurent, and fashion, and Judith
Thurman. I had admired both essays from the get-go, partly because they
were so beautifully written and partly because they were about subjects that
rarely make it into this collection. Like doormen at an after-hours club who
size up potential patrons to see if they"re wearing the right clothes, Bob and I
decreed that these were both bona fide essays and let them in. Book
excerpts are supposed to be admitted only if they"re freestanding sections or
chapters; Francis Spufford"s "The Habit" was drawn from several parts of a
memoir. But the assembly, done jointly by the author and his editor at
Granta, was so elegant that the result was no mere patchwork: the only word
that could possibly describe it was essay. We were delighted to open the
door.
As Bob explains in his Foreword, I did not participate in selecting
essays from The American Scholar, the journal I edit. He did it solo, with no
sub rosa whispers from my direction, though when he told me he had chosen
Francine du Plessix Gray"s "The Debacle," I was overjoyed. Gray"s account
of fleeing Paris in 1940, set against the larger backdrop of France"s role in
the Second World War, had knocked me out the first time it tumbled out of
my fax machine and continued to knock me out every time I read it.

As the batches poured in, I started seeing common themes. Dozens of
essayists wrote — some very well — about illness, their own or others":
depression, dementia, breast cancer, intestinal blockage, autoimmune
dysautonomia, posterior cortical atrophy, cystinosis, cerebral palsy, diabetic
peripheral circulatory disease. (Bob Atwan wrote me that he had also read
essays about acid indigestion and ingrown toenails, but had spared me.)
Happy essayists were rare; those who weren"t sick had lost a friend or a
partner or a dog or their hair, or they"d fallen in love with the wrong person, or
they"d gotten into car accidents. (I read four essays on driving — Katha
Pollitt"s "Learning to Drive" had the keenest edge and the best sense of
humor — not one of which was about the joys of tooling down a country road
in a convertible. Their authors were all bad drivers.) Amid this misery, good
cheer stood out like a beacon. When I read "The Reporter"s Kitchen," the
story of Jane Kramer"s intertwined lives as writer and cook, I felt like sending
her a thank-you note for so thoroughly enjoying her Bumble Bee tuna curry
and her Botswanese mealie-mealie. As for Adam Gopnik"s "Bumping Into Mr.
Ravioli" (along with the Aciman essay, one of a handful for which I felt instant
anthology-lust), you know that the author isn"t really worried about his
daughter"s imaginary friend. He loves his daughter, he loves New York, he
even loves Mr. Ravioli.
Although three quarters of the candidates Bob sent me were
personal essays, some of my favorites, though hardly impersonal, had little
or nothing to do with their authors" lives. Rachel Cohen"s "Lost Cities" did just
what a critical essay ought to do: made me itch to read the writers she wrote
about (one of whom, Fernando Pessoa, was completely unfamiliar to me).
Susan Sontag"s "Looking at War" and Michael Pollan"s "An Animal"s Place"
both used the essay form to frame magnificent arguments, strengthening
their positions by presenting the other side of every question as carefully as
they presented their own. Ian Frazier"s "Researchers Say" took aim at the
pallid language of the sociological survey and nailed it. Of course, there are
times when only the first person will do. Joseph Epstein recused himself from
the first two thirds of "In a Snob-Free Zone," but he could not have completed
his tour of that utopian kingdom without admitting — candidly, ruefully,
wittily — that he didn"t live there himself.
There were many essays about September 11, 2001. I chose
Elaine Scarry"s "Citizenship in Emergency" and John Edgar
Wideman"s "Whose War," two polemics that couldn"t be more different from
each other, because each made me look in a new way at something about
which I had thought originality was no longer possibl...

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