The Best American Essays 2002


Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respected -- ...
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Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respected -- and most popular -- of its kind.

From The New Yorker to the Missouri Review, from Esquire to the American Scholar, the editors of The Best American Essays have scoured hundreds of the country's best periodicals in search of the most artful and powerful writing around. This thoughtful, provocative collection is the result of their search.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This collection represents a beautiful range of voices . . . ultimately forming a perfectly satisfying whole." Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly
Gould, who completed this volume shortly before his recent death, was tempted to build a collection solely of September 11 pieces, but he pulled back from the idea, saying, "We simply cannot allow evil madmen to define history in this way." Certainly, he found a place for several fine essays on the terrible events of that day, and all of the essays in this collection share a certain gravitas. Adam Mayblum narrates his long, treacherous descent from the 87th floor of 1 World Trade Center. "Word on the Street," by Richard Price and Anne Hudson-Price, provides slices of post-September 11 conversation in taxicabs, Madison Square Garden and other New York locales. Gould has included several confessional pieces as well, with an emphasis on medical writing. Barbara Ehrenreich questions the effect of "relentless brightsiding" among breast cancer survivors; and Danielle Ofri, a young physician at Bellevue Hospital, comes to terms with her devastating misdiagnosis of a patient. Among the more academic pieces, Mario Vargas Llosa eloquently argues that literature is "one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind," and Louis Menand looks at the history of American higher education since WWII. In the aftermath of September 11, the essay has reemerged as a vital and necessary part of our national conversation. This collection represents a beautiful range of voices, from the scholarly to the gut-wrenchingly personal, ultimately forming a perfectly satisfying whole. (Oct. 15) Forecast; With its September 11 pieces, this year's volume may be more relevant and in demand than usual. Houghton plans a $100,000 "Best American" marketing campaign, including floor display for this and other series titles. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Two factors make this year's volume of The Best American Essays different from its predecessors: the death in May of its editor, Harvard paleontologist Gould (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory), and 9/11, the subject of five of the 24 essays. In his foreword, series editor Robert Atwan, editor of numerous literary anthologies (e.g., The Writer's Presence: A Pool of Readings), suggests that while fiction and poetry strive in times of peace, the essay thrives in times of conflict. Gould notes in his introduction that he was tempted to select only articles about 9/11, but to do so would have "allow[ed] evil madmen to define history." Essays for each year's anthology are chosen from hundreds appearing in American publications; then, about 100 are given to the guest editor for the final selection. (Previous editors have included Kathleen Norris, Alan Lightman, and Cynthia Ozick.) This year's candidates, Gould observes, leaned heavily toward confessional writing and personal storytelling. Authors include Jacques Barzun, David Halberstam, Sebastian Junger, Gore Vidal, and Garry Wills. Noteworthy entries include Amy Kolen on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, John Sack on Holocaust deniers, and Mario Vargas Llosa on the importance of literature to the human condition. Recommended for all libraries. Denise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Eighteenth edition of the annual known for its high standards lives up to its predecessors.

Editor Gould, who died in May, was himself an accomplished essayist whose columns in Natural History have earned him a place just below Thomas Huxley's in the ranks of scientific prose masters. Oddly, he did not select many scientifically oriented pieces for this collection, though there are three particularly strong essays on medical topics. Atul Gawande's "Final Cut," which reports on the modern disregard of autopsies as well as describing in grim detail how autopsies are carried out, will provoke thought—and perhaps some reader's stomachs as well. Jonathan Franzen’s "My Father's Brain," a beautifully written memoir of Ed Franzen's lapse into Alzheimer's, presages the author's fictional The Corrections (2001). Finally, Barbara Ehrenreich smashes through the pieties of "survivorhood and sisterhood" that surround breast cancer in "Welcome to Cancerland" (also in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002, edited by Natalie Angier, above). Reporting on the oddly infantalizing and upbeat culture enforced on breast cancer sufferers, Ehrenreich views the pink ribbons and teddy bears handed out in cancer support groups as "amulets and talismans, comforting the survivor"; she prefers anger and investigation of the environmental causes of breast cancer, an area of research not encouraged by the corporate-funded American Cancer Society. Gould’s introduction remarks with some understated dismay on the confessional tone prevalent among essayists today, which may lead readers to wonder what prompted him to include Bernard Cooper’s whiny memoir, "Winner Take Nothing." The editor remarks more happilyon the high quality of the 9/11 essays, of which the best is "Turning Point," by Rudolph Chelminski. Taking an oblique angle to the attack, Chelminski profiles French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who walked across a cable between the Twin Towers in 1974.

Compares favorably, piece by piece, to its cousins in poetry and short story.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618049325
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/15/2002
  • Series: Best American Essays Series
  • Edition number: 2002
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Jay Jay Gould

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.


Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was arguably the leading science writer for the contemporary literate popular audience. His explications of evolutionary theory and the history of science are peppered with oddball cultural and historical references, from Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak to Catherine the Great's middle name. But Gould insisted that his work wasn't dumbed-down for nonscientists.

"I sort of operate at one end of what's called popular science," he told a Salon interviewer. "Not because I don't appreciate the other end, I just wouldn't do it well, somehow. But the end I operate on really doesn't sacrifice any complexity -- except complexity of language, of course, complexity of jargon. But I like to think that my stuff is as conceptually complex as I would know how to write it for professional audiences."

In 1972, Gould and fellow paleontologist Niles Eldredge shook up the field of evolutionary theory with their idea of "punctuated equilibrium," which suggests that the evolution of a species is not gradual and continual, but marked by long periods of stasis and brief bursts of change. Over the next several decades, Gould would continue to develop his critique of evolutionary theory, questioning assumptions about evolutionary progress and provoking debates with the likes of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel Dennett and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

From early on in his career, Gould was interested in reviving the scientific essay, in the tradition of Galileo and Darwin. Gould began writing a series of monthly essays for Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History. Published as "This View of Life," the well-received essays addressed a broad range of topics in the biological and geological sciences. In his essays, Gould not only explained scientific facts for the lay reader, he critiqued the shortcomings of certain scientific viewpoints and the cultural biases of particular scientists.

Armed with a historical view of evolutionary theory, he tackled the problem of human intelligence testing in The Mismeasure of Man (1981). The book won a National Book Critics' Circle Award, while a collection of essays, The Panda's Thumb (1980), won the American Book Award. Together the books established Gould's presence as one of the country's most prominent science writers.

Gould's popularity continued to widen with the publication of such unlikely bestsellers as Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989), which challenged the notion that humans are the necessary endpoint of evolutionary history. "Not only does [Gould] always find something worth saying, he finds some of the most original ways of saying it," The New York Times said in its review of Bully for Brontosaurus (1993), another collection of essays.

In 1998, Gould was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his description of that office could apply to his whole life's work. He pledged to "make people less scared of science so they won't see it as arcane, monolithic, and distant, but as something that is important to their lives." Stephen Jay Gould died in May of 2002 of cancer.

Good To Know

In a Mother Jones interview, Gould mentioned that he was teased as a child for his fascination with paleontology. The other kids called him "fossil face." Gould added, "The only time I ever got beat up was when I admitted to being a Yankee fan in Brooklyn. That was kind of dumb."

Gould was diagnosed in 1982 with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. In one of his most famous essays, "The Median Isn't the Message," he explained how statistics are often misinterpreted by nonscientists, and why the grim statistics on his own disease -- with a median mortality of eight months, at that time -- didn't deter him from believing he would live for many more years. "[D]eath is the ultimate enemy -- and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light," he wrote. He died in May 2002 -- 20 years after his diagnosis.

Gould made a guest appearance as himself on The Simpsons in 1997, participating in a town debate over the authenticity of an "angel skeleton" found in Springfield.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Stephen Jay Gould
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 10, 1941
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      May 20, 2002
    2. Place of Death:
      Boston, Massachusetts

Read an Excerpt



Copyright © 2002 Houghton Mifflin Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0618049320

Introduction: 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 history.

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 thirdmillennium 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 12, 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 9/12. 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 abate.

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 Ehrenreich's cancer tale for its wonderfully appropriate cynicism and honesty in the face of what nonprofessionals can and cannot do - for, contrary to hope and wishes turning into horses, we cannot will ourselves into betterment, and dreams of such mental control ultimately do not help. I also loved Atul Gawande's essay on the decline of autopsies (a truly scholarly piece within the more confessional genre) and the number of mistakes made by doctors that autopsies reveal.

In a second, political category, I did not know of Gore Vidal's odd relationship with the late Mr. McVeigh, and I found the tale fascinating. I struggled with John Sack's account of his contacts with Holocaust deniers and finally included it because, while I disagree with his decision to speak at their meetings, the deniers do remain (unlike the actual perpetrators) within the category of human beings, and I supposed that we therefore need to understand them as well as we can. Amy Kolen's essay on the Triangle fire, although entirely meritorious in se, did get a nod for personal reasons too. My grandmother was a shirtwaist worker, on the job at a different sweatshop on the day of the fire. My current office, in the very same building now owned by NYU, occupies a corner of one of the floors that burned on that fateful day. And - how can one possibly avoid so saying - the horrific image of young women jumping to their deaths resonated with every sentient person on 9/11, as history repeated itself when many trapped people decided (consciously or not, we can never know) to make their end with the same final gesture of freedom.

The 9/11 essays, of course, also fail into this political category. Rudolph Chelminski may win no literary prizes, but no New Yorker can forget the day that the Blondin of our times walked between the towers. Adam Mayblum may not be a professional writer, but his on-the-scene account touched me, as did Richard Price and Anne Hudson-Price's record of street voices in the aftermath of the tragedy. I loved the juxtaposition of David Halberstam's and Christopher Hitchens's essays, the first from a longtime New Yorker who used 9/11 to make some kind of peace that he had not found with his life, the second from an Englishman who used the same event to come to terms after decades of struggle.

In a third, more scholarly category, I struggled with Andrew Levy's "The Anti-Jefferson," for it runs longer, and more seriously, than the conventional essay. But in the end I decided that it had to win entry for a primary historical principle too rarely stated. It tells the story of the most extensive voluntary manumission of slaves ever achieved in Virginia, and few people have heard of the hero, nor do we really know why he acted as he did. We need to define and understand the unasked questions if we ever hope to grasp the pains and realities of our past. A reader would have to be tone deaf not to be fascinated by Nicholas Delbanco's detailed story of the renovation of one of the world's great Strad cellos. Among the more academic pieces, Louis Menand's reminder that liberal arts colleges never really enjoyed a Golden Age strikes home, for Golden Age myths exist for everything we like, and hardly anything can be more pernicious. I appreciated Mario Vargas Llosa on the continuity of books, and I sure hope he's right. Jacques Barzun has never been one of my heroes, but anyone still writing so well in his mid-nineties deserves a place here, and someone has to stick up for the three R's, hickory stick or no.

Stephen Jay Gould

Excerpted from The Best AMERICAN ESSAYS 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Foreword viii
Introduction: To Open a Millennium xiii
The Tenth Muse from Harper's Magazine 1
Turning Point from Smithsonian 13
Winner Take Nothing from GQ 22
The Countess of Stanlein Restored from Harper's Magazine 35
Welcome to Cancerland from Harper's Magazine 66
My Father's Brain from The New Yorker 88
Final Cut from The New Yorker 111
Who We Are from Vanity Fair 124
For Patriot Dreams from Vanity Fair 137
The Lion in Winter from National Geographic Adventure 144
Fire from The Massachusetts Review 165
The Anti-Jefferson from The American Scholar 188
The Price We Pay from DoubleTake 213
College: The End of the Golden Age from The New York Review of Books 219
Out of the Ordinary from The Atlantic Monthly 232
Merced from The Missouri Review 237
Busted in New York from The New Yorker 253
Word on the Street from The New York Times Magazine 267
Matriculation Fixation from The New York Times Education Life 276
Inside the Bunker from Esquire 280
Why Literature? from The New Republic 295
The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh from Vanity Fair 309
The Dramaturgy of Death from The New York Review of Books 331
Moonrise from The Atlantic Monthly 344
Biographical Notes 367
Notable Essays of 2001 372
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