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 a little more variety and excitement.