Plenty of good reading in this 25th annual anthology, though it extends the definition of “essay” past the point of category.
In the foreword, series editor Robert Atwan addresses the technological changes that have, or haven’t, affected the essay: “What are blogs but today’s version of essays in disguise?” This volume’s editor, Vanity Fair contributor Hitchens (Hitch-22, 2010, etc.), offers an economic consideration that the year “was not a healthy one for the sorts of magazines that take the risk of publishing the essay form.” (The magazines represented in this installment include mostly the usual suspects, like the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic and the New York Review of Books, with only one real surprise: the Alaska Quarterly Review.) But what is that essay form? One of the pieces, “A Rake’s Progress” by Matt Labash, is a fairly standard—and very good—feature profile of former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry. Another, “Speaking in Tongues” by Zadie Smith, is a reprint of a lecture she delivered at the New York Public Library. James Wood’s concluding “A Fine Range” is an extended book review of a couple of recent collections of George Orwell’s essays. Among the pieces that would be more conventionally classified as essays are illuminating appreciations of John Updike (by Ian McEwan) and William F. Buckley (by Garry Wills). Jane Kramer’s “Me, Myself, and I,” about reading Montaigne, cuts to the heart of the essay and the essence of coming to terms with life and death through writing, while Brian Doyle’s short, sharp “Irreconcilable Dissonance” uses divorce to make provocative comments on marriage. Other notable contributors include David Sedaris, Steven Pinker, Walter Isaacson and Phillip Lopate.
A wide variety of quality writing, both reflective and reported.