In her introduction to this year's edition of this popular anthology series, Cynthia Ozick stakes out her definition of the essay versus the article. The article may be "timely and topical" but it is "likely to be stale within a month." By contrast, the essay is timeless; it abandons "rage and revenge" and instead bears a "certain quietude...a kind of detachment...the essay is by and large a serene and melancholic form."
It's possible to read this definition as a deliberate rebuke to the current craze for memoir, the prevailing trend in nonfiction toward the explicit and confessional. First-person accounts of incest, infidelity, self-mutilation, Tourette's syndrome, heroin habits, and spanking fetishes seem to be everywhere these days, but they're absent in this volume. Instead, Ozick has defiantly chosen to present recent writing that lacks anger or sordid detail. The 25 essays she's gathered are uniformly gentle and reflective, well-crafted and calm.
The essayists in this volume eschew rage for what contributor André Aciman refers to as "the beauty of remembering." Childhood is not a battlefield but a source of constant discovery and joy. Brian Doyle lovingly recounts his experiences as a "great altar boy"; Oliver Sacks writes of the "delicious transformation" found in summer holiday swims; John Updike recalls his passionate adolescent fixation with comic-book art; Helen Barolini praises the lessons learned from a benevolent, inspirational Italian tutor. Several authors offer wry observations on culture. Saul Bellow critiques "modern imagemaking" describing photographers as "demonic, sadistic camera technicians." Sven Birkerts ponders the fate of reading in an age of channel surfing the "climate of distractedness that envelops us." Jeremy Bernstein describes a run-in with a rather defeated Stephen Spender, while James Wood lambastes a "tedious" Broadway production of "A Doll's House." Two essayists take on the unfashionable subject matter of aging. In "Will You Still Feed Me?" Joseph Epstein proudly details his take on reaching the "stately age of sixty," while William Maxwell reflects on his waning years in "Nearing Ninety."
A standout essay in this collection is "A Visit to Camelot." In this posthumous piece, critic Diane Trilling recounts a dinner party at the White House in 1962. Surrounded by literary luminaries such as James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, and Robert Frost, Trilling and her husband drink champagne and engage in flirtatious banter with John and Jackie Kennedy. The piece reads like a combination of Noël Coward and Edith Wharton, full of cutting observations and evocative descriptions of manners and costumes. Trilling offers a fascinating portrait of the famed Camelot: She hints at the strain in the marriage between the Kennedys, the boredom and reckless energy that existed within their world of protocol. Yet she never resorts to gossip or cruel asides as she speaks of the President and his wife, and her style is so discreet and charming, a welcome antidote to all the current tawdry and vitriolic prose about the White House today. In much the same way, these collected essays offer a genteel and calm respite from the brash and vulgar.
Margot Towne, barnesandnoble.com