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Disappointing member of this series, but consistent with the modern shift in essays toward personal explorations of "generalized" experiences. Led off with an essay by series editor Robert Atwan on his experiences with Gertrude Stein (???), then various essays such as "Driving as metaphor," and ending with "Was Shakespeare a woman?" Almost all essays led with personal perspectives. No real science (in the Science or Nature version of this series?), political commentary, natural history, law, theology, etc. This will not be a Christmas gift next year.
In the foreward, Aciman points out that the prevailing style of nonfiction prose today seems quite the opposite of exploratory or experimental, is less interested in compositional challenges or literary playfulness and much more intent upon sustaining a sincere-sounding, unambiguous, straightforward documentation of largely painful personal narratives.
In the Introduction, Acumen tells the reader that writers write because it is their escape from a world in which they may not feel adequate enough, but it is also their way of justifying that escape, of claiming that it was their choice to banish the world, when in reality, as in Machiavelli’s case, it was the world that had banished them first. He further goes on to say: "Great writing is not the product of an outline, or of ideas that have already been fleshed out and are simply waiting to be transcribed to paper.The struggle to write what one hopes is entirely true, and the long incubation every piece of writing requires of a writer who is thinking difficult thoughts, are what ultimately give the writing its depth, its magnitude, its grace. And this is the very essence of what an essay is. If it knew where it was headed, it would be a report, not an essay; An essay is like a story, only with the difference that the author may have no idea where he is headed. An essay, as I said, embraces chaos but ultimately tames it. In the process, however—and herein lies the miracle—an essay may adventitiously uncover an idea, a truth, that only the act of writing could have propelled, because that idea or that truth did not exist before writing uncovered it—because, contrary to a foundational law of physics, something can indeed come from nothing, and the act of writing itself can ultimately generate as persuasive an idea as one that is born from research, from fieldwork, or from a well-formulated thesis. An essayist presumes that the more he discloses his own idiosyncrasies and his idiosyncratic way of seeing things, the more he mirrors the readers’ own. All an essayist says is, This is what I see, this is what I know—or think I know. But it comes from me and from how I see."
Rabih Alameddine in How to Bartend tells the reader that memory is the mother’s womb we float in as we age, what sustains us in our final days. H Leslie Jamison in A Street Full of Splendid Strangers contemplates how much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure . . . You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers
Andre Aciman has chosen twenty-four stories to make the reader think about what was read. As the writer writes to escape, as the author points out, the reader can also escape in the pages of The Best American Essays 2020.