A smorgasbord of 21 essays in which ""personal voice, vision, and style are the prime movers and shapers,"" in editor Kaplan's words. Inevitably enough for such a something-for-everyone collection, the quality of the pieces is uneven and the editorial selections idiosyncratic. Why, for instance, is there not a single essay on any aspect of the end of the Cold War, while there are no fewer than four pieces directly concerned with illness or disease by Anatole Broyard, Randy Shilts, Natalie Kusz, and Paul West? (A fifth, Stanley Elkin's ostensibly satirical take on the Academy Awards, reads like one long wail about the author's infirmities.) Ann Hodgman's account of her dogfood, eating experience is too stomach-turning to be as funny as it intends. Nevertheless, Kaplan has also harvested some excellent examples of the essay genre. The best piece, despite Kaplan's half-apology for its inclusion, is Tom Wolfe's puckish, controversial survey of how young writers have increasingly abandoned the vital tradition of realistic fiction for more avant-garde forms. In addition, Sue Hubbell drolly dissects an Elvis Presley sighting in Vicksburg, Mich.; Jay Mclnerney and Annie Dillard offer warm tributes to, respectively, Raymond Carver and a stunt pilot; Stephen Jay Gould considers how baseball's Cooperstown myth parallels the creation myth of evolution; and Joseph Epstein comments on envy. Predictably, the more provocative essays vary widely, from pretentious, overbearing forays such as Stuart Klawans' piece on Andy Warhol to the skillfully argued (Alan Dershowitz on free speech, Ursula Le Guin on women writers, and Joy Williams on the ecologic al crisis). With the essay genre enjoying its heyday, this annual series lives up to its mission of capturing the form in all its current robust variety.