The Best American Essays 2003

Overview

From The New Yorker to the Georgia Review, from DoubleTake to Harper's Magazine, the editors of The Best American Essays have scoured the country's best magazines in search of the most artful and powerful writing around. This thoughtful, provocative collection is the result of their search.
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Overview

From The New Yorker to the Georgia Review, from DoubleTake to Harper's Magazine, the editors of The Best American Essays have scoured the country's best magazines in search of the most artful and powerful writing around. This thoughtful, provocative collection is the result of their search.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In her introduction, editor Fadiman (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) proclaims that a shared attribute of the writers anthologized here is "restraint," and at times these essays do seem a bit sleepy. This may be a reflection of the volume's largely traditional sources: Fadiman confesses she simply found the writing in the New Yorker and Harper's to be superior. Indeed, the New Yorker's Adam Gopnick and Ian Frazier supply the collection's comedic quotient, the former reflecting on Charlie Ravioli, his daughter's New York-style imaginary playmate, and the latter spoofing magazine research-speak to conclude that, in fact, "life is too hard." Though Fadiman has limited her inclusion of political essays, she asserts that 2002's writing about September 11 had the benefit of emotional distance and, as such, was the most incisive analysis yet. We have, on the one hand, Elaine Scarry soberly dissecting the failure of the U.S. military to stop a hijacked plane from hitting the Pentagon, and on the other, John Edgar Wideman's incendiary definition of terrorism as a response to imperialist, racist power. Still, the most consistently impassioned writing here is in the personal essays. Cheryl Strayed and Donald Antrim turn out finely crafted, jarring explorations of what it means to mourn their dead mothers, while Katha Pollitt gives a painfully candid account of trying to understand the loss of a philandering lover. While the anthology ignores the younger crop of essayists appearing in less established publications, many of the selections are engaging and thoughtful, restrained but occasionally transcendent. (Oct. 10) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This 18th installment in the "Best American Essays" series runs the gamut of themes, from the joy of fatherhood to discussions of 9/11 and animal rights. Fadiman, editor of the American Scholar since 1998 and author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and Ex Libris, aimed to select essays that captivated her in some way, whether with a memorable voice, vitality, fine craftsmanship, or deep exploration. Joseph Epstein's "In a Snob-Free Zone" laments that snobbery has become open to all for any reason-race, politics, victim status, or knowledge of wines-but admits that he doesn't live in the zone either. In "The Reporter's Kitchen," Jane Kramer interweaves her cooking and writing: "My stove is where my head clears, my impressions settle." Ben Metcalf suggests in "Wooden Dollar" that the coin commemorating Sacajawea ought to perhaps say "dead Indian" or "teenage mother" instead of "liberty." New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick has a daughter with an unusual imaginary friend, one who has a secretary to tell her he's too busy to play with her, described joyfully in "Bumping into Mr. Ravioli." Other essayists include Francis Spufford, Francine du Plessix-Gray, Andre Aciman, and Edward Hoagland. Brief biographies are included. Consistent in clarity as well as quality, this diverse collection of some of the year's best short nonfiction is recommended for academic and public libraries.-Nancy P. Shires, East Carolina Univ. Lib., Greenville Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The venerable series becomes, essentially, a bound edition of the New Yorker. In the past, the sober jacket of Best American Essays has more often than not been misleading, failing to attest to its diverse and sometimes simply strange contents. The 2003 edition, however, is somewhat of an exception. That's not to say there's anything necessarily wrong with the work collected here, just nothing to really knock your socks off. Emblematic of what's both good and bad about the anthology is "I Bought a Bed," Donald Antrim's essay from the New Yorker (as 8 of the 24 pieces here are). It's a nifty piece that delineates his increasingly obsessed search for the perfect bed and explains how that search tied into his relationship with his girlfriend, his mother's death, and so on. The writing is self-deprecating, witty, and informative, but in the end it's still just an article about looking for a bed. There are a few more sprightly items, such as Caitlan Flanagan's Atlantic Monthly review of Christopher Byron's biography of Martha Stewart. At a length critics are rarely permitted anymore, Flanagan shows Byron's book, by point after shrewdly argued point, to be a faux-populist, witch-hunting slab of bile. By nature the essay form (and by extension this series) tends toward the mundane and nitpicky, but there are exceptions here, the best being Ben Metcalf's "Wooden Dollar" from Harper's. It savagely deconstructs the myth of Sacajawea, as seen through the dollar coin that bears her monumentally incorrect visage, and bears rereading many times over. Maybe Dave Eggers is skimming off all the out-there material for Best American Nonrequired Reading (p. 1033); at any rate, this year's model could use alittle more variety and excitement.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618341610
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/1/2003
  • Series: Best American Essays Series
  • Pages: 370
  • Sales rank: 599,346
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet 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.

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Read an Excerpt

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 wasthe 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.
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 i 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 collect 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 hai 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 possible. I concluded that the
best work on 9/11 was probably written not in 2001 but in 2002. Time allowed
these writers to shake off the conventional responses that would have come
more easily and find something hard and brilliant and uncomfortable
underneath.
Though I read most of the essays for the first time in bed (a good
place to forge intuitive bonds) and reread them the next morning in my office,
the only occasion on which I read more than five or six at a stretch was on
board a plane. I was returning home from California, where I had attended the
funeral of a Hmong friend, the father of a large family. The mourners had
beaten a death drum, sacrificed a cow, and wept so copiously over the open
casket that my friend's blue silk jacket was damp from fallen tears. But the
funeral had gone on for three days and three nights, and no one can keep up
that sort of thing continuously, so the mourners had taken periodic breathers
in the lobby, sitting on folding chairs and playing cards. I didn't think th
disrespectful. I had recently lost my mother, and I knew that's what grief is
like: one minute you cry so hard you think you'll burst, and the next minute
you play cards. Among the twenty or thirty essays I read on the way home
were Cheryl Strayed's 'The Love of My Life' and Donald Antrim's 'I Bought a
Bed.' Both writers had lost their mothers. Afterward, Strayed slept with men
she hardly knew and Antrim went bed-shopping. I thought both of them got it
exactly, and excruciatingly, right: tears and cards.

'Let us here by the way insert a tale,' wrote Montaigne, announcing that he
was about to steer an essay on habit into a digression on nose-blowing. (A
gentleman of his acquaintance, criticized for sneezing into his hand, pointed
out that it was far less civilized to reserve a piece of delicate linen for this
purpose, fold it tidily, and carry it around all day long.) My tale is about
editing, and its purpose is to explain why this collection contains eight
essays from The New Yorker and four from Harper's Magazine even though,
as the editor of a 'little magazine,' I vowed at the outset that this would be
the volume in which the The Suburban Cincinnati Aviation and Dentistry
Review would finally be granted its place in the sun.
A few years ago, the author of an autobiographical essay I was
planning to publish in The American Scholar — a very fine writer — died
suddenly. The writer had no immediate relatives, so I asked his longtime
editor at The New Yorker if he would read the edited piece, hoping he might
be able to guess which of my minor changes the writer would have been
likely to acce and which he would have disliked. Certainly, said the editor.
Two days later, he sent the piece back to me with comments on my edits
and some additional editing of his own. 'My suggestions are all small
sentence tweaks,' he wrote. 'I could hear ——— 's voice in my head as I did
them and I'm pretty sure they would have met with his approval — most of
them, anyway.' Some examples: 'A man who looked unmusical' became 'a
man so seemingly unmusical.' 'They made a swift escape to their different
homes' became 'They scattered swiftly to their various homes.' 'I felt that
that solidity had been fostered by his profession' became 'That solidity, I felt,
had been fostered by his profession.' These were, indeed, only small tweaks,
but their precision filled me with awe. Of course you couldn't look unmusical.
Of course it was awkward to use 'escape' (singular) with 'homes' (plural). Of
course I should have caught 'that that.' I faxed the piece to my entire staff
because editors rarely get a chance to see the work of other editors; we see
only its results. This was like having a front-row seat at the Editing Olympics.
Five days later, the editor sent the piece back to us, covered with
a second round of marginalia. 'No doubt this is more than you bargained for,'
he wrote. 'It's just that when the more noticeable imperfections have been
taken care of, smaller ones come into view . . . I've even edited some of my
own edits — e.g., on page 25, where I've changed 'dour,' which I inserted in
the last go-round, to 'glowering.' This is because 'dour' is too much
like 'pinched,' which I'm also suggesting.'
If you're not a writer, this sort of compulsiveness may seem well
nigh pathological. You may even be thinking, 'What's the difference?' But if
you are a writer, you'll realize what a gift the editor gave his old friend. Had
not a word been changed, the essay would still have been excellent. Each of
these 'tweaks' — there were perhaps a hundred, none more earthshaking
than the ones I've quoted — made it a little better, and their aggregate effect
was to transform an excellent essay into a superb one.
Now, back to The Best American Essays. (The writer Emily Fox
Gordon once told me that narratives are like expressways — once you're on,
you have to keep going — but essays let you get on and off your main
subject whenever you want.) One of the rules of the series is that although
typos, factual errors, and grammatical mistakes may be corrected, nothing
may be rewritten. It upset me that so many intelligent and deeply felt essays
ended up not (quite) being admitted into these pages because they were
occasionally clumsy or wordy or repetitive — because, in other words, they
needed the kind of editing I've just described. Most of those essays had
appeared in small quarterlies that could never lavish the sort of care a large,
solvent, glossy magazine can afford. 'It's not fair!' I said to my husband, who
had read many of these essays alongside me. 'This series should be
renamed The Best-Edited American Essays!'
Was it unfair? Was it like running a beauty contest in which most
of the winners had had collagen injections?
No. Most of the candidates from The New Harper's
were — I hate to admit it — just plain better. I have no idea how extensively
they had been edited before I saw them. Some of their authors had doubtless
polished their own sentences to a high gloss, and others, no less talented,
had left that final step to editors graced with more anally retentive
personalities.
Wouldn't Montaigne, the champion of the itinerant, risk-taking,
tentative essaie, have voted for the scruffy underdogs?
Probably. But these were supposed to be the best American
essays. I had to judge them on merit. And, as an editor, I had to think of my
profession not as a guilty secret but as part of a proud collaboration: 95
percent writing, 5 percent editing. If you don't get that 5 percent, you're not
as good as you could be. Or as good as you deserve to be.
At first there were three piles: YES, NO, AND MAYBE. After a
while, I divided MAYBE into HIGH MAYBE, LOW MAYBE, and PROBABLY.
Then I subdivided PROBABLY into PROBABLY PLUS and PROBABLY
MINUS. My husband shook his head. I knew that nothing below probably
plus had a chance, but there were some essays to which I had grown so
attached that I needed to honor them in some way even if their authors would
never know.
I had worried I might not fall in love with enough essays, but of
course, the day before the deadline, there were thirty-six essays in my YES
and PROBABLY PLUS piles. Why couldn't the book be five hundred pages
long? The final cut was painful. I did it late at night, reducing my six piles to
two: NO (teetering) and YES (short and sturdy). There were twenty-four
essays in the YES pile. I arrang alphabetically, the way they would
appear in the book, and saw for the first time who would sit next to whom.
Some of the writers probably knew each other already — wouldn't André
Aciman and Donald Antrim be invited to the same parties? — but I was pretty
sure that others would be meeting for the first time. Edward Hoagland, this is
Myra Jehlen. Susan Sontag, this is Francis Spufford. I hope you enjoy each
other's company.
Then I read through all twenty-four essays, marking my favorite
parts. This is the moment at which editors always say, 'I've chosen these
passages at random.' Don't believe them. From the many passages I
underlined that night, I've chosen the following five because I enjoy rereading
them and because they show that when it comes to essays, there are many
ways to skin a cat.

It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is almost as
keen as the desire for ones that show bodies naked. For a long time, in
Christian art, depictions of Hell offered both of these elemental
satisfactions . . . No moral charge attaches to the representation of these
cruelties. Just the provocation: Can you look at this? There is the satisfaction
of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure
of flinching.
— Susan Sontag

Hear what I'm saying. We ain't going nowhere, as the boys in the hood be
saying. Nowhere. If you promote all the surviving Afghans to the status of
honorary Americans, Mr. President, where exactly on the bus does that leave
me. When do I get paid. When can I expect my invitation to the ranch. I hear
Mr. Putin's wearing jingle-jangle silver spurs around his dacha. Heard you
fixed him up with an eight-figure advance on his memoirs. Is it true he's iced
up to be the Marlboro man after he retires from Russia. Anything left under
the table for me. And mine.
— John Edgar Wideman

Not much was left on the sale rack, but the marvelously refined skirt with its
cavalry swagger and feline nap had been marked down to fifteen pounds —
one of its zippers was 'as seen.' I had a week's pay in my pocket: fifteen
pounds. Many of my romances would begin, like this one, as a chance
encounter sparked by an obscure hunger, a neat coincidence, and a fatal
attraction for the defective.
— Judith Thurman

By the time I reached The Hobbit's last page, though, writing had softened,
and lost the outlines of the printed alphabet, and become a transparent liquid,
first viscous and sluggish, like a jelly of meaning, then ever thinner and more
mobile, flowing faster and faster, until it reached me at the speed of thinking
and I could not entirely distinguish the suggestions it was making from my
own thoughts.
— Francis Spufford

I say yes to them, yes yes yes, and to exhaustion I say yes, and to the
puzzling wonder of my wife's love I say O yes, and to horror and fear and
jangled joys I say yes, to rich cheerful chaos that leads me sooner to the
grave and happier along that muddy grave road I say yes, to my absolute
surprise and with unbidden tears I say yes yes O yes.
— Brian Doyle

To the glories of essays I say yes.
For six months, where Montaigne once rested, a pile of essays
overflowed my bedside table. That table is now empty. I miss the mess.

—Anne Fadiman

Copyright © 2003 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright ©
2003 by Anne Fadiman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin
Company.
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Table of Contents

Foreword ix
Introduction xiv
Lavender (from Harvard Review) 1
I Bought a Bed (from The New Yorker) 17
Lost Cities (from The Threepenny Review) 38
Yes (from The Georgia Review) 48
In a Snob-Free Zone (from The Washington Monthly) 53
Memoria ex Machina (from DoubleTake) 61
Home Alone (from The Atlantic Monthly) 67
Researchers Say (from The New Yorker) 79
The Learning Curve (from The New Yorker) 83
Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli (from The New Yorker) 103
The Debacle (from The American Scholar) 112
Circus Music (from Harper's Magazine) 125
F. P. (from Raritan) 136
The Reporter's Kitchen (from The New Yorker) 146
Wooden Dollar (from Harper's Magazine) 160
A Delivery for Fred Astaire (from Harper's Magazine) 174
An Animal's Place (from The New York Times Magazine) 190
Learning to Drive (from The New Yorker) 212
Citizenship in Emergency (from Boston Review) 223
Looking at War (from The New Yorker) 243
The Habit (from Granta) 274
The Love of My Life (from The Sun) 291
Swann Song (from The New Yorker) 308
Whose War (from Harper's Magazine) 320
Biographical Notes 329
Notable Essays of 2002 334
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