The 15th edition of this always-strong annual collection features essays that range in subject and tone from philosophical to poetic, guest-edited by Lightman (The Diagnosis, p. 1063, etc.).
Lightman’s assemblage very nearly defies generalization. It includes 21 essays from publications as elite as Harper’s and as obscure as The Natural Farmer on subjects from the metaphysical to the intensely personal, written by naturalists, poets, and scientists. They span the continuum from formal argument to informal reflection. Ultimately, however, these pieces are linked by their sincerity as well as the quality of their composition. As Lightman explains in his introduction, “In reading an essay, I want to feel that I’m communing with a real person, and a person who cares what he or she’s writing about.” Thus, as you proceed through the alphabetically arranged collection—from William Gass’s flawless “In Defense of the Book” to Mary Gordon’s open-ended narrative of her imagined and real encounters with Rome to Edward Hoagland’s quiet reflections on the intersection of nature, mystery, and religion—you’ll encounter distinct voices that are like-minded in their thoughtfulness. From this self-seriousness the collection understandably gains a certain weight: the essays are intended to be thought-provoking, and not on petty issues. Ian Buruma dissects identity politics, Richard McCann dwells on the life granted and taken through his liver transplant, and Steven Weinberg searches for God within quantum physics. Although some rely more heavily on the pronoun “I” than others, each represents (as Lightman desired) a personal struggle to express a thought, explore a belief, or understand a phenomenon.
A fine addition to a well-established series.