Still under the general editorship of Robert Atwan and this year edited by Strayed (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, 2012, etc.), the annual reprise of the venerable series takes a decidedly introspective turn.
More than two dozen talented authors, selected by Strayed, write about themselves, more or less. Whether it’s this year’s editor or the times, it seems more, not less, and first-person singular is the prevailing mode. Don’t look here for classical essays about the state of civilization or self-effacing reportage or unencumbered humor—no shades of E.B. White, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Jay Gould, Joseph Epstein or John McPhee. Rather, among many notable pieces, Zadie Smith muses at length about her coming to appreciate the artistry of Joni Mitchell, Steven Harvey provides a powerful recollection of his mother and her suicide, Jon Kerstetter writes of the pain of combat triage, and Vanessa Veselka presents a harrowing story of runaway girls who ride with truckers. Yielding pleasures beyond the frisson of tales of other people’s woes, the selections are seriously considered and often artfully constructed. With many rhetorical flourishes, they concern fraught travels, serious illnesses, mothers, fathers, youthful friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, birth, life, a lot of death and, perforce, self. Many of these personal essays seek to take on larger meanings, and if some heartfelt pieces, to make a universal point, confuse the essay form with a confessional, the practice works. Other notable contributors include John Jeremiah Sullivan, Alice Munro, Walter Kirn, Charles Baxter, Dagoberto Gilb, and the sources are diverse, from the New Yorker, GQ and the New York Times Magazine to River Teeth, Prairie Schooner and ZYZZYVA.
Though the rubric of “essay” seems to be synonymous with “intimate memoir,” these frequently personal encounters remain oddly seductive.