Book review: The Best American Essays 2017, ed. by Leslie Jamison

posted: January 13, 2018

tl;dr: Continues the theme of last year’s volume by focusing on painful life experiences...

What constitutes a superb essay? Is it the solely the quality of the writing: the author’s choice of words, the degree to which the author’s observations and conclusions flow naturally from the facts and opinions presented, the depth and range of emotions evoked in the reader by the author’s craftsmanship? Does subject matter affect essay quality at all? Cannot an essay about the morning dew at sunrise in a country field be every bit as moving as an essay about the author’s experiences in a war zone or refugee camp?

Apparently, judging by the essays included in the latest volume of The Best American Essays, subject matter does matter. As with last year’s volume, the essays included tend to deal with painful life experiences suffered by the author or others. Among the subjects discussed are (of course) death, date rape, drug addiction, cross-dressing and ambiguous sexual orientation, physical handicaps, pornography, poverty, industrial accidents, and war. There are a few essays dealing with more light-hearted subjects, such as Alan Lightman’s “What Came Before the Big Bang”. Still, be prepared to encounter some difficult material should you choose to pick up this volume.

I still enjoy reading this series every year, as it exposes me to writing and writers that I would not otherwise encounter. Here are the essays which I thought were the best:

“Revenge of the Mouthbreathers: A Smoker’s Manifesto”, by June Thunderstorm: this is certainly the most unique essay in this volume and I felt the most creative, in the way that it shatters the normal arguments about the war on cigarettes and smoking. Thunderstorm sees the world and this topic in terms of class differences, and she makes some valid points about how the liberal health-conscientious state is actually not at all liberal, and is instead repressing the underclass. She shows, convincingly, how “accessibility policies” limit access by smokers. It’s a thought-provoking piece that perhaps might open some minds.

“The Reader is the Protagonist”, by Karen Palmer: this taut essay combines some excellent writing with an intriguing storyline, namely a woman on the run from her abusive first husband who lands a job interview with a publisher of “how to” manuals on topics such as killing, poisoning, and bombing. Palmer first introduces the concept of the reader as the protagonist of a story by describing a children’s book. This concept takes a much more nefarious turn when she learns more about the publisher where she is interviewing.

“H.”, by Sarah Resnick: a timely story, given the rise in heroin and opioid deaths in the United States, about the author’s attempts over the years to help a family friend through his drug addiction travails. Resnick is in search of answers about the nature of drug addiction and the best way to help those caught up in drug dependency. She argues for compassion and help, but also shows how there are no perfect answers or one-size-fits-all solutions.