Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Plague of Essays (and a brush with greatness)

For the past month, I have been reading essays, essays, essays as part of a project to nominate essays for a new edition of a freshman textbook. I have done this once before, so I was less intimidated. But, having done it before, I had also already nominated many of my favorites. In the intervening four or five years, I have used the textbook and so I have a different sense of both the book and how it works in the classroom than I once did.

It’s a thrilling, daunting, and random project to have nominate a dozen essays: where to begin?

Here’s the process I went through: I sat down and thought about essays I had read in the intervening years that had impressed me. I thought about nonfiction writers whom I admired, focusing on the past five years but thinking back as far as I could—Coleridge was even on that first list. I made two lists: one of writers whose voices I’d like to see included in the anthology and one of resources for essays (including friends who read a lot of nonfiction, like Bud and Dave). I remembered the buzz around The Bitch in the House and read that, thinking that the collection’s topic might be of interest to college freshmen. I went gathered the titles of books nominated in the nonfiction category for the National Book Award and checked out the last three or four volumes of the Best American Essays from the library.

Then I read and read. Much of what I loved, I did not choose. Great, funny New Yorker pieces seemed too light and too insiderish. Moving arguments by great thinkers were too involved in a deep social context: taken them out of the debate where they originally appeared, and the contributions themselves seemed too flat, too polemical, or just too hard to understand. Novelists I admire and love with young, fresh voices turn out not to be good essayists or not to be essayists at all. Dave suggested it would be great to include some wonderful blog entries—he even suggested a few—but they died on the page for me and I didn’t have the time to find alternatives.

What did I end up with? I was asked to nominate ten to twelve and I nominated fifteen. Of those, only five are by women: a disappointing result, since I actively worked to find women writers. Only one was written before 2000; it is from 1910 or so. I chose three editorials from the Times and one additional article from the Times. Three essays come from collections published by Farrar Strauss Giroux, two from Jonathan Cape. I did end up nominating two essays from The Bitch in the House, though I recommended that they choose between them.

What am I excited about? Remembering a beautiful essay whose last line has stuck with me since I reviewed the book in 2000; finding lovely literary essays, one on Whitman, one on Chekhov, that are the perfect combination of sophisticated and accessible; and nominating Helene Cooper’s inspiring editorial about the new president of Liberia. I’ll be curious to see which, if any, among these choices makes the editors’ cut.

As for the brush with greatness… You know that little frisson of pleasure you get when you see someone famous? It happens to me often just before I can name who it is. Anyway, I got that feeling last night on the downtown A-train around 8:30 p.m. I thought, “wow, I know that person from somewhere! Cool! Now, who is it?”

Do you know who it was?

The security guard I like who checks bags in the Main Reading Room at the NYPL.



Bud Parr said...

We saw Baryshnikov at the Golijov concert a couple of weeks ago (not to make you feel bad). That was kind of cool, but it was more exciting to know that Golijov himself was there (someone whom I've met - briefly - twice). Now I sound like a name-dropper.

Anyway, sounds like a fun exercise altogether. What was the Chekhov essay?

Also, did you know that two nf writers, Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Johnson both have blogs now?

Unknown said...

How fun to see Baryshnikov! That's a good sighting.

I ended up choosing essays by both Gladwell (on college admissions) and Johnson (the NYT mag piece on how great t.v. is) and found their blogs while looking for some biographical info on them.

I chose James Wood's Chekhov essay--"What Chekhov meant by life," I think--from *The Broken Estate.* The comedy book is more fun, but every essay is rife with sentences along the lines of "More than Gogol, but not like Bulgakhov....": too many footnotes would be needed for a young reader.

Bud Parr said...

Went and read the Woods essay on Chekhov. Perfect timing too, since I just saw Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at BAM. I think his comparison is a good one (even though that idea, as correct as it may be, doesn't detract from enjoying a great play). But it did underscore why I love Chekhov.

Anonymous said...

It's somewhat terrifying to see famous people, though. What the hell are you going to say - Hi, are you enjoying New Jersey? Anne, I'm so glad someone else sees people they think they know and has to take the time to remember why. I am not alone!! :)