Well-told pieces on a narrow range of subjects define the latest iteration of the Best American Essays franchise.
This year’s batch of selections tends toward informative—sometimes wonkish—works of reportage and memoir. That should come as no surprise given that proudly egghead-ish New York Times columnist Brooks is doing the selecting. (As ever, series editor Robert Atwan performs the initial cull.) Brooks makes his intentions clear in his introduction, writing that “I want to be improved by the things I read”—much of which includes writing on medicine and health care: Eight of the 25 selections deal with the topic in some matter—nine if you include Jonathan Franzen’s “Farther Away,” featuring some musings on his friend David Foster Wallace’s depression and suicide. Some writers attack the subject in dry expository prose, as in Marcia Angell’s “The Crazy State of Psychiatry,” which condemns the overdiagnosis of mood disorders. More often, though, the topic gets a personal touch, as in Miah Arnold’s “You Owe Me,” an essay on teaching writing to children in a cancer ward, or David J. Lawless’ brutal recollection of his wife’s descent into Alzheimer’s, “My Father/My Husband,” masterfully told almost entirely in dialogue. America’s education system is another pressure point for Brooks, who picks a clutch of pieces on the subject, the best being Garret Keizer’s straight-talking memoir of his time teaching poor elementary school kids, “Getting Schooled.” The downside of Brooks’ improvement agenda means humor is in short supply, notwithstanding Sandra Tsing Loh’s raucous meditation on menopause, “The Bitch Is Back.” Provocation and invention are rare too, though Mark Doty’s beautifully turned “Insatiable” savvily merges the friendship between Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker with the author’s own obsessions and fetishes. Other notable contributors include Francine Prose, Joseph Epstein, Malcolm Gladwell and Alan Lightman.
A trove of fine writing on big issues, albeit at the expense of more playful exemplars of the contemporary essay.