The Best American Essays 2010 Christopher Hitchens, Ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co
Each year, a prominent writer in their field is awarded the task of winnowing, as the title suggests, the most exemplary shortlisted pieces into the annual collection’s book form. This year- a troubling one for him in terms of his health- the task fell to iconoclast Christopher Hitchens, arguably one of the most provocative thinkers this decade. In a period when series editor Robert Atwan ponders in the Foreword whether essay form is in a kind of inexorable decline itself, it’s heartening that Hitchens’ introduction brandishes from the barricades, the case in this 2010 edition for the vital work that essays accomplish.
As Hitchens notes in the introduction,
An essay is really a try, an attempt, even an adventure.
America is for him, a uniquely suitable source,
Somewhat like the word ‘intellectual’, the word ‘essayist’, and its cousin ‘pamphleteer,’ has a natural kinship with the idea of dissent… may this kinship flourish and bring forth numerous and vigorous descendants.
Of unexpected pleasure among the 21 essays collected are those that deal with specialist and scientific subjects. Specialist John Gamel’s ‘The Elegant Eyeball’, an article first published in The Alaska Quarterly Review is especially engaging. Gamel treats his subject with passion and precision, using a mix of specialist terms explained in clear layman’s language. In doing so, Gamel not only educates with great respect to reader intelligence, but beckons, like an intrepid explorer inside an ocular adventure of mountains, ravines and channels; an inner world that from this miniscule vantage looms impressively.
There before me lay a stunning image- a lacework of arteries and veins delicate as a spider’s web, spread on a burnt umber palate swirled and streaked with shades of ochre. Most spectacular of all was the retina, a transparent wafer that gleamed…in the center the optic nerve shone like a risen sun. I was in love.
Only writing of this kind can serve more entertainingly and practically than any news piece to demonstrate the importance of scientific research, an attempt this essay fully accomplishes.
The adventure of this and Steven Pinker’s ‘My Genome, My Self’ go some way to answer Hitchens’ plea, made himself in writing over a decade ago, that more be written to bring scientific advances, in areas such as bacteria research and DNA to the wider awareness of a reading public. At no time in history has the physical sciences surged so far ahead and is yet more needing of general understanding, and its corollary respect, in the wider culture.
As might be more expected, but with no decrease in pleasure, Hitchens has also selected those writings of a more literary bent. Elif Batuman’s ‘The Murder of Leo Tolstoy’ is history written as murder mystery. Like any good novel, this ‘dead body’ is thrust to the beginning, the first piece in the collection. David Sedaris’ ‘Guy Walks Into a Bar Car’ reminds us that essays can serve a lighter purpose by highlighting the ordinary in extraordinary detail. The characters described in a train’s bar compartment are delimited so finely (and as such, so hilariously) here, you begin to appreciate all over again what John Gamel wrote about in ‘The Elegant Eyeball’. Nothing escapes David Sedaris’ merciless retina.
Zadie Smith’s ‘Speaking in Tongues’ pokes at the connections between voice and Identity. Here her pen serves just as eloquently to bridge cultural divides with empathy, knowledge and a breadth of personal experience.
Christopher Hitchen’s masterful selection has shown us the powerful need for this kind of literary form. The essay, as with the examples chosen for The Best American Essays 2010 will hopefully span the generations to come.