Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I mostly decline to give book recommendations. (I explained why here.)

But just in case you are looking for something to read, something new and perhaps unlike what you've read before, something that isn't just another novel or memoir, something that doesn't require a big commitment, something contemporary yet tested—

Just in case you actually would like a book recommendation, here's mine:


And here's why:

1. Each of these books is chock full of contemporary literature, but neither forces you to run the normal risk associated with new writing. You know what I'm talking about: you're browsing at the bookstore and you find yourself enchanted by the very very clever graphic art covering the latest by Ian McEwan or Jonathan Safran Foer or whatever, but besides the congratulatory blurbs on the back of the book you have no independent confirmation that this book isn't going to be a huge let down. You stroke the cover a bit and look around and find yourself drawn in deeper, towards the depths of the store, to the [Proven] Literature section, where old classics like Jane Eyre and Moby Dick are sporting similarly clever graphic updates on their old covers along with a century or so of success to justify their purchase. You're torn. You want to be hip, to be aware of the newest books on the block, but you don't want to wind up buying garbage.

With the Best American Series you need not worry. Every entry in this yearly anthology is triple-checked for awesomeness—once by its original publisher, again by the series editor, and again again by the guest editor for any given year. And it came out today—you can't get any more modern than that.

2. Even if, despite the fine taste of three editors, something in one of these books doesn't appeal to you, that doesn't mean the whole book was a waste. With essays, all you have to do is wait for half a dozen pages—or skip half a dozen pages—and you've got a new essay with a new author.

3. You probably haven't read many essays since high school and college ruined them for you by imposing deadlines and minimum page requirements. So if you've been steadily reading novels or memoirs and want a change, here's twenty or more short changes in one book.

4. I haven't actually read either book yet, so I won't be offended if you don't like it after all. (Somehow, recommending something I haven't read seems right. I recently sent E-style two CDs for her birthday that I had never even heard before.) I've never yet been disappointed with a Best American Travel Writing. On the one hand, every essay in it is loaded with heaps of fantastic knowledge about the world: it's the best kind of education. I've learned about eating whale meat in Iceland, the disappearing Aral Sea, the Pope's favorite ski lodges, and even Wilmington, Delaware, the credit card capital of the world. But even if I don't happen to be particularly interested in the place or topic of a particular essay, there's still the other hand: every essay is the account of someone's crazy adventure someplace. You can't lose.

The Best American Essays isn't as foolproof (since essay is a term widely interpretable) but it has the added advantage of being wide open for length and topic and style. I'm not out of the roman numeral pages yet, but I'm excited by the introductory remarks of this year's guest editor, Adam Gopnik. He seems to share my opinions of what an essay is.

6. They are self-perpetuating. Meaning (1) they come out every October, (2) if you like a particular piece you can look up the magazine or journal that originally printed it and perhaps find a whole treasure trove of reading you never knew you were looking for, and (3) they each contain a list of "notables" that were considered but not selected for the book, which you can look up on your own time if you still haven't gotten enough.

5. They're beautiful outside and in. Just look at that blue. And for those of you with an eye for typography, they have nice fonts, kerning, leading, gutters, and all that. Quite nice on the eyes. They have a nice heft too. My only concern is that they seem to be using a noticeably cheaper paper this year, thinner and grayer but by no means lousy.

So there it is. And in case you were interested, they also publish the Best American Comics, Short Stories, Mystery Stories, Nonrequired Reading, Science and Nature Writing, Spiritual Writing, and Sports Writing.

Read or die.

1 comment:

lilacsky said...

I just took note of the Best American Essays. I manage a writer's group, and we're actually going to start reading the Best American Short Stories 2007 (there are several copies in the library and it makes everything easier)

If you're ever stumped about what book to recommend, read, or review, I suggest you check out http://www.bibliopages.com -- Rachelle Knight's "Read, Remember and Recommend" book journal. It has tons of book lists (including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction) and will help any serious book reader decide on what book to read next.

A recommendation for your recommndation. Hope this helps!