Sunday, August 20, 2006

24. Best American Essays 2005

edited by Susan Orlean

It was a long time before I recognized the essay as a legitimate form of writing. I think that holds true for most Americans who recall the essay as being the sort of piece you wrote in school, not giving much thought to how it was composed or the merits of the text therein. Sure, you made sure to get in your five paragraphs, but other than that you weren’t graded on much. You usually wrote about what you did over summer break or described your family life or recounted your affinity for some invention of modern culture. Those gave way to book reports in the upper grades of elementary school and became critical analyses or compare/contrast pieces in high school. I don’t recall ever being given creative license during these times (although, admittedly, I did not belong to a particularly progressive school system) because nonfiction was not fiction and was dry and to the point. I wish someone had told me that it could be otherwise.

My first introduction to the creative essay was probably when I started reading magazines. Esquire employs a good number of writers with a flare for taking the truth and spinning it into elegant prose. I’ve encountered many great pieces in Esquire that deserve more than simple categorization as “article” because they’re more than snippets of writing telling you which suit materials work best in summer (although there’s a fair bit of that in Esquire, too). One of my favorite Esquire writers is Tom Junod because he has the ability to take any subject and write a completely convincing and moving account of it. In February 2004 he wrote a piece for the “Esquire University Course Selection Guide” about “Air Combat Theory & Practice,” a subject about which I couldn’t care less, except that Junod’s writing was so strong that I did find myself caring and I’ve been devoted to the author and the magazine ever since. Thus, for me, the credibility of the essay came into light.

Similarly, in Best American Essays series editor Robert Atwan’s foreword, he recalls how at the start of the series, “‘essay’ remained an off-putting term, still too closely associated in most people’s minds with the dreaded classroom assignment,” but after years of publication the term has come back into vogue as “readers have discovered essays that behave personally and familiarly, others that take a journalistic stance combining reportage with a sharp individual perspective and style, and still others that in their ‘impure forms’ may appear indistinguishable from fiction, meditation, or lyric.” In other words, essays can be every bit as inventive, affecting, and creative as fiction.

I hadn’t read any of the pieces in the Best American Essays 2005 and I always wonder if that’s a good thing, because I’m exposing myself to the year’s best all at once, or a bad thing because it means I haven’t been reading the right stuff. In any case, several writers were definitely familiar and I enjoyed their pieces here as I have enjoyed their writing elsewhere. David Foster Wallace presents “Consider the Lobster,” the title piece in his recent book of the same name. In the essay, Wallace describes his trip to the annual Maine Lobster Festival, detailing the nutritious values of the animal, the various ways to kill it and to cook it, and the ethical debate surrounding lobster consumption. All of this, with Wallace’s trademark footnotes that are a story within themselves, and you’ll have an interest in seafood even if it’s something you’ll never actually eat. Jonathan Franzen contributes “The Comfort Zone,” a piece not only about the pulling apart of his family when his older brother left home, but also about the effect Charles Schulz’s work had on him. It’s this great combination of greater culture, i.e. the growth of comics, and personal experience that makes you think about how such things come to play in your own life. Regardless of the criticisms against Franzen, I think he’s always great to read so I was excited to recognize his name in the table of contents.

David Sedaris was also influential in my reconsideration of the essay. Few who have read his collections can deny that he has a talent for taking factual experiences and retelling them in a way that’s both fascinating and inspiring. Sedaris’s “Old Faithful,” included here, is no different as he contemplates growing old with his boyfriend. It’s not the most original of topics, but only Sedaris can take the popping of a boil and make it romantic and a little bit sad.

I did also come across new authors whose other works I’d be interested in reading. Kitty Burns Florey’s “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog” expounds the beauty of diagramming sentences. “I remember loving the look of the sentences, short or long, once they were tidied into diagrams,” she writes, “the curious maplike shapes they made, the way the words settled primly along their horizontals like houses on a road, the way some roads were culs-de-sac and some were long meandering interstates with many exit ramps and scenic lookouts.” E.J. Levy’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” recalls the author’s memories of her mother’s reliance on Julia Child’s recipes, examining food and marriage and the loss of childhood innocence. Ian Frazier’s “If Memory Doesn’t Serve” is a funny look at how the mind mixes up similar names and causes one to, say, mistake H.G. Wells for George Orwell or the author with Ian Fleming, James Bond’s creator. It’s amusing because who hasn’t experienced their mind being so full that they combine two things to fill one slot?

I would like to continue reading the Best American Essays series in the coming years because I know I won’t ever have the time to get my hands on the all the magazines and journals in which the included pieces were originally published. (Would that I, daily, had numerous blissful, uninterrupted hours in which to read…) But at least there’s someplace that captures all of these great pieces of nonfiction and gives them a home. The essay’s come a long way since I was young and I’d like to give it the attention it deserves.

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