22 November 2009

The Best American Essays 2008

The 2008 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Adam Gopnik, has a very different composition from the 2009 edition, edited by Mary Oliver.  The Oliver-selected essays were on the whole quite short, a few jotted thoughts encompassing a complete idea whereas the Gopnik-selected essays are much longer, extended meditations.  I had to read a different way (if that makes any sense).

Gopnik opens the volume by defining three types of essays - review essays, memoir essays, and odd-object essays - and notes that the essay must always hybridize with other forms and genres to stay alive.  Huh.  I do think that's true and the essays Gopnik chose for this volume run to many forms including "Solipsism" by Ander Monson that falls under something more akin to an art form with words (like a letter-press broadside) combined with Word Mark-ups (very interesting).

Jonathan Lethem contributed what was probably my favorite essay "The Ecstacy of Influence: A Plagiarism" about (primarily) how art is created by riffing off extant works and current copyright law/lawsuits about intellectual propterty rights endanger that.  To make his case, Lethem includes a "Key: I is Another" at the end of the main body of the essay:
This key to the preceding essay names the source of every line I stole, warped, and cobbled together as I "wrote" (except, alas, those sources I forgot along the way).  First uses of a given author or speaker are highlighted in bold.  Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly - for necessities of space, in order to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it. (p 125)
Lethem follows that up with a "Key to the Key."  It's a very enjoyable essay, meta and tongue-in-cheek at times, but right to the point as regards the limiting nature of "possessing" but not sharing a work of art.

Gopnik included a number of odd-object essays on beading ("On Necklaces" by Emily R.Grosholz), Leica cameras ("Candid Camera" by Anthony Lane), buzzards ("Buzzards" by Lee Zacharias - but also morphs into a memoir essay), and an old boarding house with its occupants ("This Old House" by David Sedaris that is both funny and sad at the same time).  As I noted with the Zacharias piece, most of the odd-object essays are crossed with memoir because each author has a connection with the object at hand; it's like Heiddegger's observation that the act of observation changes the subject (and the author in this case).  The most interesting odd-object essay came from Rich Cohen who contributed "Becoming Adolf" in which he meditated on moustache types and his experiment with wearing a toothbrush (aka Hitler) moustache.

Atul Gawande made an appearance (surprisingly, I would have thought this would be for the Science and Nature Writing volume) with an essay titled "The Way We Age Now" about the aging US population and diminishing quality of geriatric (aka Older Adult Health) medical care.  Gawande profiles Dr. Felix Silverstone, a leading researcher in geriatrics for fifty years who recently retired at the age of 82 and understands all to well what is happening to his body, health, and mind.  This was the most affecting essay in the collection, for me, because Dr. Silverstone reminded me of my 83 year old grandfather who is still fiercely independent, goes to work everyday at his lumberyard (even though my uncle "owns" and "operates" it now), drives his Caddy all over hill and dale, and is sharp as a tack.  When I get old, I want to be like my grandfather.  It is concerning that the population in the US is graying and aging rapidly but the ability of the healthcare system to continue to offer quality medical care specialized to the elderly is failing.  Very, very scary.

I'm off to my next volume in my Best American Series project.  I'm about to be aided by a massive used book buy from Alibris (free shipping from Alibris's warehouse + 15% off coupon = 32 trade paperback for less than $55; genius)

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 15/19

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