Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Best American Essays 2004

Recently finished The Best American Essays 2004, edited by Louis Menand. It's a good one--this series is rather variable (well, it's a matter of taste--sometimes I really just don't see where the editor's coming from--I used the Hoagland one from 1999 several times in writing classes, but in Cynthia Ozick's one there was hardly anything I would have taught)--makes me miss the days where I was often teaching creative nonfiction/personal essay writing workshops, one of my very favorite things. My only complaint is that the volume's so heavy on New Yorker materials--not a problem in itself, but that's the one thing I read really regularly, so much of the material was familiar. A few thoughts:

Essays that I was completely bowled over by at the time & am glad to have in a collection I can keep to hand: Kathryn Chetkovich's "Envy" and Laura Hillenbrand's "A Sudden Illness," two truly remarkable essays that deserve to become classics. Put these into the next Norton Reader, please!

Some of the essays are more like what I'd call journalistic/argument-y pieces--I like Jared Diamond and I love Oliver Sacks, but in some ways I'd rather see the space saved in a volume like this for more "personal essay" type pieces.

My favorite piece in the collection: Wayne Koestenbaum's "My 80's." This essay is superb! I love Wayne's writing anyway, and will always remember TA'ing for his version of a Yale standard called "Daily Themes": it's always a good course, it's just very well-conceived and designed, but in Wayne's hands it became a work of genius. He is a remarkable stylist. A few of my favorite sections from this essay, which is constructed as a list of short paragraphs (I love listing, a technique I partly learned from Wayne):

"Too many of these sentences begin with the first-person singular pronoun. Later I may jazz up the syntax, falsify it."

"I am typing this essay on the IBM Correcting Selectric III typewriter I bought in 1981 for $1,000. I borrowed the money from my older brother, a cellist. It took me several years to pay him back."

"I read Derrida's Spurs (translated by Barbara Harlow). I wondered why he didn't use testicles--instead of vaginas or veils--as metaphors. Invaginate, indeed! In the 1980s I made snap judgments."

"I started dyeing my hair in 1984: reddish highlights. I stopped in 1988. I returned to nature."

"In 1989 I developed a sustaining, mood-brightening crush on the UPS man. Hundreds--thousands--of men and women in New Haven must have had a crush on that same UPS man. The first time he appeared at my doorstep with a package, I thought that a Candid Camera porn movie had just begun. If you want me to describe him, I will."

I also especially enjoyed essays by Anne Fadiman and Leonard Michaels and Kyoko Mori (whose essay "Yarn" was almost enough to make me go out and buy a pair of knitting needles) and Luc Sante.

One more thing. I pretty much restrict my comments here to thoughts on "light reading," things I read outside of work-related reading, and the occasional play. I don't write about music because I listen obsessively to a few things rather than interestingly to a lot of different things. I strictly exclude my personal life and my work life (the former because there's not much of it, or at least not much that's interesting, the latter because it seems to me that my students are owed complete privacy and much university-related business also concerns things that are confidental & better not discussed in a public forum--if you're on a search committee or an admissions committee or what have you, the least the applicants and your fellow committee members deserve from you is respect for their privacy). And I am certainly not planning on posting a response to the article by Jennifer Senior in the most recent issue of New York titled "Columbia's Own Middle East War." However, I do want to single out one quotation that I thought was excellent. It's Rashid Khalidi talking about the current controversy and he says this: "You know, it could be the case that there are students who have seriosu grievances and it's the case that threats to our academic freedom have developed over the last two years. This is a situation where you have to assume it's possible to walk and chew gum at the same time."