The Best American Essays 2010

Article excerpt

The essays in this year's anthology - edited by Christopher Hitchens - are both varied and bold.

In 1571, Frenchman Michel de Montaigne retired from public life,

retreated to his library, and began a series of writings in which he

mused in the first person on everything from dinner to death, fashion

to philosophy, literature to the human thumb. That's how the

personal essay was born, as Jane Kramer reminds readers in her own

essay on Montaigne published in The New Yorker.

It's one of 21 essays reprinted in The Best American Essays 2010,

an annual anthology of the finest essays written for American

periodicals. Each selection, in its own way, aspires to the standard

that Kramer credits Montaigne with setting centuries ago, offering

readers "the autobiography of a mind."

Veteran fans of "The Best American Essays" series, which has

been going a quarter of a century, already know the format. This

year's guest editor is Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, like many

readers, mentions that he first encountered the essay in its most

boring of forms - as one of those dreary compositions assigned in

grade school. But Hitchens quickly adds that the very word

"essay" has the power to thrill, suggesting as it does a trial or

experiment.

The essays in this year's anthology answer that call to

intellectual daring, and they also capitalize on the essay's chief

virtue: variety.

Elif Batuman retraces the ground where a great Russian writer spent

his last days in "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy." Brian Doyle offers

a wry look at the reasons people divorce in "Irreconcilable

Dissonance." Phillip Lopate, both a great essayist and a scholar of

the form, reflects on his neighborhood in "Brooklyn the

Unknowable." Steven Pinker follows Montaigne's tradition of

inspired navel-gazing by considering his own genetics in "My

Genome, My Self."

"The Best American Essays" also includes a long list of

runners-up who didn't make the final cut, a helpful guide to

further reading.

Any anthology, however large, naturally inspires the reader to

notice what's left out. This year's selections sprouted mostly

from urban landscapes, it seems, and curiously absent are pieces from

America's great nature writers, such as Edward Hoagland, Scott

Russell Sanders, and Kathleen Dean Moore. …