The Best American Essays 2008

Author: Robert Atwan (series editor), Adam Gopnik (editor)

Type: Non-fiction, essays

Published: 2008

I read it: September 2010

best essays 2008

I’ve come to realize that essays would be hard to write, and extremely hard to write well. It’s that elusive balance between non-fiction subject matter and storytelling savvy. This collection was blast after blast of cool air, as each author seemed to up the ante a bit in their own way. The ones I hope to revisit years from now are “Buzzards” by Lee Zacharias, “The Renegade” by Charles Simic, “Tripp Lake” by Lauren Slater (in fact I know I’ll read this again next summer before camp week), and I had actually read John Updike’s “Extreme Dinosaurs” when it was published in National Geographic a few years back.

There are a couple other pieces I’ll use as reference in the future because they are so important to writing. Ander Monson’s “Solipsism” is postmodern in the most constructive way, because its form comments on form and its style comments on style, its typography on typography. It’s also an essay online, and while reading you realize there are words you would click on to read more about, and you’re so used to doing this you wonder why you can’t just put your finger to the page and reveal a sidebar (there are plenty of sidebars he does include in this version). It’s a stirring reflection and forecast of our communication.

Louis Menand’s “Notable Quotables” is a fun analysis of famous quotes that are not verbatim or completely mis-attributed (Marie Antoinette apparently did not say “Let them eat cake”!) which leads into the idea that literature spreads memes that we shouldn’t be afraid to claim as our own, which is at the heart of “The Ecstasy of Influence” by Jonathan Lethem. This piece hit me like weather I didn’t know was possible, a hailstorm in Kenya. The entire essay is a plagiarism, which the author announces up front, but that fact doesn’t sink in until you get to the Key at the end, in which he outlines all the phrases, ideas, and paragraphs he lifted wholesale from other artists. It’s a rejection of the copyright’s stranglehold and an embrace of the idea of art as part of a gift economy. As Dizzy Gillespie, and now Jonathan Lethem, and now you if you choose to, put it, “You can’t steal a gift.” Another tidbit to take away without bothering to remember the source’s name is “Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions.” I could go on, but I think I have some copying and pasting to do.

So, the lesson: I need to read more essays. This was all the good stuff of aught-eight. What’s gone under my radar before and since?

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