Book review: The Best American Essays 2021, ed. by Kathryn Schulz

posted: November 18, 2023

tl;dr: The best essays in this volume are not the ones about the pandemic...

The 2020 volume of the Best American Essays series was edited during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and published later in the year of 2020, and hence contains no essays about the pandemic. The next year’s volume, The Best American Essays 2021, is the first volume in the series to contain essays about COVID-19 and other major events in the first year of the pandemic, such as the aftermath of the death of George Floyd.

While editor Kathryn Schulz did select some essays about COVID-19, there are plenty of essays on other topics. Readers shouldn’t expect The Best American Essays 2021 to be a volume of essays devoted to the single most important event of the prior year. In fact, I was not particularly impressed with the COVID-19 essays. As a rule they adhered to the mainstream media view of the pandemic, which was highly politicized from its earliest days. (Note: if you believe that COVID-19 arose from government-sponsored gain-of-function virus research, then the political aspects of COVID-19 go back many years before the virus escaped from a lab into the human population.) Readers seeking a more comprehensive written record of what transpired during the first year of the pandemic should check out Alex Berenson’s Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives.

Essays are supposed to be chosen for The Best American Essays because of the quality of their writing, not their topics. For the most part, guest editor Kathryn Schulz followed this standard. Here are my favorite essays in the 2021 volume:

A book cover featuring a slanted black banner stating the book's title and editor, while in the background are visible two fountain pens each creating a wavy pool of yellow-orange ink on a very light blue background

“Vicious Cycles” by Greg Jackson: a long, detailed rumination that attempts to answer the question “What is news?” Jackson’s observations are insightful and his examples are well-chosen. He only occasionally strays too far into trifles.

“Two Women” by Claire Messud: an intimate family portrait whose main subjects are two women related not by blood but by marriage, when the brother of one woman marries the other. The women have many differences and dislike each other, yet they often have to find a way to get along in quarters that are tight both physically and mentally.

“Love in a Time of Terror” by Barry Lopez: a world-traveler reminisces about different peoples and societies he’s sought out. The “terror” in the title refers to the challenges facing the modern world, whereas the “love” refers to the bonds that Lopez attempts to form with human beings from vastly different backgrounds than his own.