Book review: The Best American Essays 2004, ed. by Louis Menand

originally posted elsewhere: December 31, 2004

tl;dr: 22 tasty, nourishing servings of brain food...

The Best American Short Stories may be more popular, but The Best American Essays anthology is an even better choice for readers seeking the utmost in nourishment for the brain. The twenty-two selections chosen by Louis Menand, which cover a wide variety of topics, are all exceedingly well written, mind expanding, and, to a high degree, personal, in that they reveal something about the author as well as the subject matter. In spite of the two minor flaws of Menand's selections (discussed below), this collection will definitely reward the reader seeking substantive reading material.

The two most powerful essays in the book are two of the most personal. Kathryn Chetkovich's "Envy" pulls no punches in her analysis of how she reacted to the success experienced by her boyfriend and fellow writer, Jonathan Franzen, who rocketed to literary stardom in 2001 with The Corrections. Interestingly, Chetkovich doesn't name Franzen, but Menand chose also to include an essay by him ("Caught"), which, although interesting, doesn't have the same emotional depth or power as Chetkovich's essay. The other extraordinary essay in the collection is Laura Hillenbrand's "A Sudden Illness", which describes her incredible struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Her personal story is every bit as poignant as the story of the racehorse Seabiscuit, which she chronicled in her best-selling book.

Other essays of note, I feel, include Luc Sante's "My Lost City", which actually celebrates the crime-ridden, graffiti-covered, anarchic, decaying, pre-Rudy Giuliani New York of the 1980s, and Oliver Sacks' "The Mind's Eye", which describes differences in the extent to which several blind people use visualization techniques, thereby illustrating the power of (and structural differences among) human brains.

As for the minor complaints: Menand openly admits, "I like to read stories about my own times." This bias shows up most obviously in the inclusion of an essay by a CUNY colleague of Menand's: Wayne Koestenbaum's "My `80s" will likely not at all resemble your `80s unless you are a NYC opera buff who kept up with the cutting edge of male homosexual intelligentsia literature. The other complaint is that a small number of essays exhibit the stereotypical upper West side salon superior-than-though attitude which sneers at red state values and culture (e.g. Fox News). Of course, if you are of a similar opinion, this won't bother you a bit. However, one essay takes this attitude to completely illogical extremes: Jared Diamond's "The Last Americans", which somehow claims a linkage between Enron's financial shenanigans and global warming (hey, it's all George Bush's fault, right?). Diamond's essay will leave some readers fuming and others shaking their heads, while still others applaud, but it will cause all readers to think, as do all the essays in this collection. Thus, Menand has created a collection well worth spending the time to read and ponder.