The Best Best American Essays & Our Affinity for Lists: A Sentimental View

DonnaSteinerDonna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine. She recently completed a nonfiction manuscript and is working on a collection of poems.  A chapbook of five essays, Elements, was released by Sweet Publications.


“Which Best American Essays volume is your favorite?”

Karen Babine, founder and editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, prompted a Facebook discussion a couple of weeks ago by asking this deceptively simple question.  I had no quick response, although I’m fond of Mary Oliver’s (’09) volume and Edward Hoagland’s (’99) volume.  Oliver’s aesthetic resonates with me, and her choices include Ryan Van Meter’s beautiful essay, “First,” which I reread twice a year, having added it to a syllabus I use in classes for beginning nonfiction writers.  Among the pieces I return to in Hoagland’s collection are “Torch Song” by Charles Bowden, “Visitor” by Michael Cox, and “The Lion and Me” by John Lahr.

I’ve heard objections to particular volumes in the series.  Too many men, too few writers of color, too much emphasis on death as a topic, too journalistic… It’s probably a failure on my part that I’m not more critical, but it’s difficult to be objective about a gift one loves, and I do love these volumes, and do see them as gifts.  They’re gifts I give myself, rewards for getting through a tough part of the semester or a kind of pre-gift for enduring a long winter in Central New York.  I don’t want to criticize them, in other words – I want to love them. 

And so I love any volume featuring work by Jo Ann Beard, (’97, ’07).  I’ll resort to a particularly adolescent way of responding to literature and confess that Beard is the essayist I’d most like to meet.  If I had to narrow Best American Essays down to an imaginary Top 5 Essays of the Series, Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” and “Werner” would claim two of those spots.  Fair warning to newbies: both essays are difficult to read. There is a moment, late in “The Fourth State of Matter,” that I dread reaching every time I begin the essay; it has never failed to make me cry.  But Beard writes so exquisitely that it is impossible not to continue once having begun.

I also love anything by Brian Doyle or Annie Dillard, so editors who have chosen essays by these writers immediately gain my trust and I scan their tables of contents with enthusiasm.

Dillard and Doyle were familiar to me before encountering them in BAM, (what a great abbreviation/acronym for the entirety of the series!), but I feel tremendous gratitude for writers discovered through the series, including but not limited to Bernard Cooper, Gerald Early, Barbara Hurd, Natalie Kusz, Lia Purpura, Judy Ruiz and Jerald Walker.  Best American Essays is a great jumping off point, a gift that begets other gifts.  If I may anthropomorphize the volumes, they are like community centers where one meets the most quirky, learned and intriguing individuals.

***

Lists have become a web staple.  Sites like BuzzFeed offer “35 Things Most New Yorkers Do” and “17 Reasons Teachers Are the Hardest Workers in the World.”  The New York Times likes the number 5: “5 Things to Know about Herpes;” “5 Things Teachers Wish Parents Knew;” “5 Things to Know about Quinoa.”  Just about every popular news site offers year-end “Best of ___________” lists: best music, best movies, best restaurants.  Some websites essentially list lists. Listverse, the listiest of the sites, offers “10 Real People Who Were Mistaken for Gods;” “10 Frogs With Freakish Superpowers;” and “Top 10 Influential People Who Never Lived.”  (Barbie, Santa Claus and Icarus, among others, if you’re curious.)

Facebook users periodically become obsessed with listing “10 Books that Made an Impression on You.”  Sharing one’s choices becomes an exercise in curation.  (And curating one’s choices becomes an exercise in sharing.) These lists can seem superficial, but I’ll suggest that listing, at its best, may be a way of revealing something authentic. Best American Essays – a list of works chosen by a single writer/editor – is a navigable, logical leap from “10 Books that Made an Impression on You,” (although curating a volume of BAM takes months rather than minutes). BAM is an ambitious model of our affinity to make lists that say something urgent and true. These lists might be seen as invitational: showing what we hold dear, a way of saying look at this! read this! understand this!  I don’t mean to reduce BAM to a trivial exercise in list-making; as a project, BAM is a purposeful act of literary citizenship. (It’s time for a belated acknowledgment to series editor Robert Atwan.) But collecting and sharing what we value is a generous, heart-felt endeavor, and I’ll restate my belief that these volumes feel like gifts – writer to writer, saying “these essays made an impression on me.”

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P.S.  One of the pleasures of the series, widely shared, is reading not only the Table of Contents and editor’s Introduction at the start, but also scanning the long list of Notable Essays at the back of each volume.  It is a testament to the strength of the genre that there are hundreds of Notables annually. I’m only guessing, but I bet many editors could have chosen another dozen, even two or three dozen, from the ranks of Notables.  There are a few proud notations on my C.V. that list my own appearances among the Notables, and I enjoy the spate of Facebook postings every fall when friends proclaim that their names have been listed at the back of the upcoming volume.

I could retire and easily read nothing but essays listed in BAM.  Were I to do so, I might be able to isolate trends or themes for any given year.  I’d measure the scope of the essay form and recognize its depth; I’d hear the voices of the editors reverberate against the voices of the collected authors. Were I to do more than merely love the series – if I were to study it – I’d be able to formulate a clear and complex definition of what makes a best American essay.

For now, I just look forward to the 2014 edition.

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