The Best American Essays 1998
Cynthia Ozick Guest Editor; Robert Atwan, Series Editor
There’s even an instance of a plan resulting in stacks of unread books. Well, part of a plan. And part of a stack.
But I assure you, it was one of my grander ones. I’d figured out everything, right down to the impression the matched spines comprising the entire series would leave on any guest who took the time, as I would, to inventory my bookshelves.
Then my life blew up and a whole lot of things which were to be amicably divided risked becoming sticking points, prolonging an unpleasant task. “It’s just stuff,” I told myself, trying hard to find a part of my psyche willing to muzzle the other part, the buying-books-is-not-consumerism-masquerading-as-virtue guy who actually holds a sizable tenancy.
Well, I walked away and then promptly set about replacing items, including the volumes purchased in the middle of the maelstrom. Then they sat. And sat. And sat. Until finally, lo these many years later, at least one of them can reside on a proper shelf.
This installment, assembled with the assistance of Guest Editor Cynthia Ozick, fits in toward the end of what I call the textured cover era. It’s one of two editions where an art director tried to diminish any possible negativity the word essay generates. That nearby picture doesn’t do the color scheme justice. The cover is a glorious teal carrying mostly peach type. Things toned down as the millennium turned.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the guest editor in these series seems to serve two functions. One is to winnow the material that was not eliminated early on and the second is to shape the volume by assigning the order in which items appear. I used to pay lip service to those jobs but I’ve come to realize that they’re why the GE credit matters: the major difference from year to year is the sensibility of whoever undertakes those important tasks.
So what has Ms. Ozick given us? Well, a lot to chew on, actually. I’m somewhat conflicted about these annuals. On the one hand, I’m never going to take 87 literary review subscriptions, and even if I did, I don’t think I’d sit around all day every day immersing myself in them. On the other hand, though I tell myself that I’m freeing up time for other reading, I fill that time with plenty of crap. So I fret that I’m distracting myself from real work and trying to let myself off easy because I’ve experienced rather than absorbed these different ways of thinking.
And here we have quite a few. The opening essay, by Anwar F. Accawi, recounts the changes, not all for the better, that follow the installation of the first telephone in his boyhood Lebanese hometown. It sets the tone for much of what’s to come where looking back–for reference, in longing, to gain understanding–emerges again and again, as in André Acciman‘s rumination about exiles and place.
Sometimes, delight arises from confirmation. Brian Doyle, writing of his days as a pre-Vatican II altar boy, reminded me of things that changed by the time I took on that role, probably just a few years behind him. I smiled in recognition at his confession that he and his friends rated the priests of the parish by their efficiency, humanity and carriage. We did the same. And yet for all his skepticism, confronted with a sick child he falls back on the comfort that belief can lend.
Ozick is a native of New York. In fact, she grew up in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, a fact I picked up from the only piece of hers I’ve ever read, an article in The New Yorker about her parents’ drug store, under the tracks of the Pelham Bay el, nowadays the 6 train. So she treats us to Ian Frazier‘s walk around Queens. He’s done this with the Bronx and Route 3, in New Jersey, but here the geography has an illogic all its own. In the span of two paragraphs, he moves from Douglaston, where I once lived, on the far eastern edge of the county, to Astoria, backed up against the East River on the borough’s western flank to a cemetery smack dab in the middle of the county that he describes as being far out. I guess literary New York is like cinematic New York that way.
There’s more, much more. I’ve never read J.M. Coetzee, but the piece here, entitled ‘What is Realism?‘, is an excerpt from or a study for a novel he published a few years later. Is it an essay? Not really. But I’m interested. There are two pieces on aging. Joseph Epstein on approaching sixty, a subject of more interest to me now than in 1998, and William Maxwell on nearing ninety. Many of these writers, like Maxwell himself, are no longer with us, a bracing reminder of pace and finality.
There’s Oliver Sacks, in a piece I remember reading in The New Yorker, writing about swimming, and swimming long distances. I often think about him circumnavigating City Island as I plow back and forth across the climate-controlled pool at the Y.
Diana Trilling‘s retelling of a grand dinner party thrown by President and Mrs. Kennedy, published posthumously, offers a glimpse of a bygone era. Mrs. Trilling was a scholar in her own right, and a fine writer, able to tell an engaging story, and yet, in the style of the times, she took a back seat to her well-known husband, Lionel. I know it’s fashionable to believe no progress has been made and that grand conspiracies against women, people of color and other marginal communities exist, but it’s hard to read this and not think about all the positive change in just my lifetime.
Near the end, I encountered an old friend, John Updike. It’s been years since I read him and I welcomed settling into his familiar way of telling a story, this time about his boyhood love of cartooning. Who knew that Fred Gwynne went to Harvard and was a fine cartoonist?
That question illustrates my quandary. I worry these collections just give me more fodder for chatter over dinner. But they also gave me more than a few things to think about.
And I can never find fault with that.