Brooks, D., & Atwan, R. (2012). The best American essays 2012. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I was travelling a few months ago and one thing I tend to do when I travel is buy books. Since, I was taking a break after finishing my doctorate in information science (job hunting), I thought it was a good time to start reading other stuff (fiction, non-doctorate literature, general how-to guides to daily living, non-fiction, teen novels, real estate manuals, etc.), I picked up The Best American Short Stories 2012. I was ready to dive in to some fiction, remind myself why I have two degrees in English literature and how much I enjoyed it all. I started it, but it didn’t capture my attention right away (I’m going to go back soon enough). I haven’t read short stories in a while and I was seeing the results. I read a few stories but put the book aside. Back to reading journal articles.
On my next airport expedition, I picked up The Best American Essays 2012. I was in search of some change in my reading habits and a desire to learn new things. It fits with my growing interest in documentation, particularly of documenting daily life, reflection and lived experiences. Documentary films are fast becoming my favorite genre. Keeping a record of life and living was a new hobby. Reading about people’s reflection on life and living is exactly what essays provide. I was ready to dive in and find out how others are living in this changing world.
In the foreword, Atwan reflects on the traditional essay and the changes that have occurred over time. Today’s young creative writing students have yet to grapple with the reflective nature of the traditional essay. The essay focused on topics and ideas that the author spent time considering. As Atwan puts it:
Deliberation on a topic also returns one to the creative roots of the genre: essaying, the trying out of, or fooling around with, ideas, and observations, an imaginative activity that the first-person narrative as it’s usually written today leaves little room for. Writing students in nonfiction, perhaps, need to back off a little on “showing” and reconsider the art of “telling.” (p. xiv)
After reading that foreword, I was back in my element. The essay is a great form and it requires reflection. Reflection is important to a great many aspects of life and if we are to really sit and reflect on all that is occurring, we can understand where we need to go next. At first, I decided to read the book in the traditional order, first page to last. I read the first few essays this way. One day on the train, I simply opened the book and read the essay that appeared. I read the rest of the book this way because each time I opened the book, the essay that appeared spoke to my state of mind and thoughts at the moment. It was a wonderful way to read the book. It connected the author’s reflection with my own reflections at moments when I least expected it.
Here are some of the essays with a brief, I mean really brief, description/reflection. All the essays are great and really work well with each other.
Who are you and what are you doing here? | Mark Edmundson
A much needed discussion on higher education. College education is not what it’s cracked-up to be. To get a good one, you have to fight for it. This means fight anyone or everyone that poses an obstacle to your learning.
Education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play – work you do so easily that it restores you as you go.
Duh, Bor-ing | Joseph Epstein
A philosophical discussion about humanity’s natural inclination to experience boredom. Researching teens, one encounters the word boring frequently. A great many things can be boring, the kiss of death for anything that aspires to be something not boring in the teen world. Epstein makes a great point. Life can be boring, but we need to learn to “Live with it.”
Paper Tigers | Wesley Yang
It was interesting to read about the complexities of culture and the role it plays in addressing the glass ceiling, which seems to be the ceiling of most businesses. Basically you can look up and see what’s there but when you try to ascend, you hit your head and fall back down. The Asian glass ceiling, “The Bamboo Ceiling,” discusses the issue from an Asian perspective and what it means in that community. Yang suggests that it is time for Asian Americans to be more than successful at tests and to push boundaries, become entrepreneurs, and to “stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone’s happiness.”
There are many more interesting and fun essays that require reflection. Essays that cover objects, death, beauty, womanhood, and a score of other topics that we all consider as we live our daily lives.