This second annual collection of essays lives up to its title: each of these 20 pieces is excellent; several are outstanding. Plucked from magazines ranging from high-circ sleek (Esquire, Vanity Fair) to small and literary (Antaeus, Grand Street) to simply surprising (Popular Mechanics--a piece by Tom Wolfe), the essays, many by big names such as John Gregory Dunne, Barry Lopez, Robert Stone, Calvin Trillin, speak eloquently of today's renaissance of the essay form. Of particular note are Richard Ben Cramer's ""What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?"" (""he has girded his penchants for privacy and ease with a bristle of dos and don'ts that defeat casual intrusion""), Donald Hall on ""Winter,"" and Daniel Mark Epstein on ""The Case of Harry Houdini."" A not-to-be-missed compilation.