I just treated myself to the new 2009 edition of The Best American Essays. I’m often left speechless at the incredible diversity of work as well as the brilliance, cleverness, wit and pathos of individual selections.
The first essay in the collection, “Taking a Reading” by Sue Allison, starts with, “A yard, a pace, a foot, a fathom. How beautiful the language of measurement is…,” and ends a mere page later, reiterating her point: “A ream is a lot of paper, sold and purchased blank. Written on, it’s a book.”
John Updike and Cynthia Ozick offer insightful pieces about writers. And Brian Doyle, in “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” speaks of the perfect essay as having an ending that provides “a shot of espresso hope.” Wow!
In her editorial introduction, Mary Oliver champions the form. In the essay, she says, “what we receive is not didactic, not even, sometimes, totally believable, but the soul-felt truth from the individual perspective of someone deft in the craft of expression. The essay is not the world of Middlemarch, of Mrs. Dalloway going out to buy the flowers—it is neither less nor more, but different.”
Her reference to Mrs. Dalloway struck me as an irony in that she’s using Woolf the novelist to talk about what the essay is not, and yet Woolf was such a prolific and masterful essayist herself. One only has to revisit “Street Haunting” or “On Re-Reading Novels,” to name just two that come to mind, to recognize that she takes her place among the greats from Montaigne and Samuel Johnson to E. B. White and Joan Didion.