The Best AMERICAN ESSAYS 2010

®

Edited and with an Introduction by Ch ri s to p h e r H i t c h en s Robert Atwan, Series Editor

a mariner original houghton mifflin harcourt
boston

new york 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company Introduction copyright © 2010 by Christopher Hitchens a ll r ights re se rve d The Best American Series® and The Best American Essays are registered trademarks of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without the proper written permission of the copyright owner unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal copyright law. With the exception of nonprofit transcription in Braille, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is not authorized to grant permission for further uses of copyrighted selections reprinted in this book without the permission of their owners. Permission must be obtained from the individual copyright owners as identified herein. Address requests for permission to make copies of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt material to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003. www.hmhbooks.com issn 0888-3742 isbn 978-0-547-39451-0 Printed in the United States of America doc 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 “Who Killed Tolstoy?” from The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman. Copyright © 2010 by Elif Batuman. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Originally published in Harper’s, February 2009, under the title “The Murder of Leo Tolstoy.” “The Bad Lion” by Toni Bentley. First published in the New York Review of Books, November 5, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Toni Bentley. Reprinted by permission of Toni Bentley. “The Dead Book” by Jane Churchon. First published in The Sun, February 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Jane Churchon. Reprinted by permission of Jane Churchon. “Irreconcilable Dissonance” by Brian Doyle. First published in Oregon Humanities, Fall/Winter 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Brian Doyle. Reprinted by permission of Brian Doyle. “The Elegant Eyeball” by John Gamel. First published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Spring/Summer 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Alaska Quarterly Review. Reprinted by permission of Alaska Quarterly Review. “How Einstein Divided America’s Jews” by Walter Isaacson. First published in the Atlantic, December 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Walter Isaacson. Reprinted by permission of Walter Isaacson. Excerpt from The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, by Albert Einstein. Copyright © 1987–2008 Hebrew University and Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. “Lunching on Olympus” by Steven L. Isenberg. First published in the American

Scholar, Winter 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Steven L. Isenberg. Reprinted by permission of the author. Excerpt from “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” by W. H. Auden. Copyright © 1940 and copyright renewed 1968 by W. H. Auden, from Collected Poems by W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Random House, Inc. Excerpt from “Poem About a Ball in the Nineteenth Century” by William Empson, from The Complete Poems: William Empson, edited by John Haffenden (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 2000). Copyright © Estate of William Empson, 2000. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd. Excerpt from letter dated 28 June 1982 from Philip Larkin to Christopher Ricks. Reprinted by permission of Marvell Press. “Me, Myself, and I” by Jane Kramer. First published in The New Yorker, September 7, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Jane Kramer. Reprinted by permission of Jane Kramer. “When Writers Speak” by Arthur Krystal. First published in the New York Times Book Review, September 27, 2009. Copyright © 2009 the New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of the Material without express written permission is prohibited. “A Rake’s Progress” by Matt Labash. First published in the Weekly Standard, September 7, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Matt Labash. Reprinted by permission of The Weekly Standard. “Brooklyn the Unknowable” by Phillip Lopate. First published in Harvard Review, no. 37. Copyright © 2009 by Phillip Lopate. Reprinted by permission of the author. “On John Updike” by Ian McEwan. Previously published in the New York Review of Books, March 12, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Ian McEwan. Reprinted by permission of Ian McEwan. “My Genome, My Self” by Steven Pinker. First published in the New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Steven Pinker. Reprinted by permission of Steven Pinker. “Gyromancy” by Ron Rindo. First published in the Gettysburg Review, August 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Ronald Rindo. Reprinted by permission of Ronald Rindo. “Guy Walks into a Bar Car” by David Sedaris. First published in The New Yorker, April 20, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by David Sedaris. Reprinted by permission of David Sedaris and Don Congdon Associates, Inc. “Speaking in Tongues” by Zadie Smith. First published in the New York Review of Books, February 26, 2009. From Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith, copyright © 2009 by Zadie Smith. Used by permission of The Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Excerpts from “In Memory of My Feelings” from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara by Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald Allen. Copyright © 1971 by Maureen Granville-Smith, Administratrix of the Estate of Frank O’Hara, copyright renewed 1999 by Maureen O’Hara Granville-Smith and Donald Allen. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. “Rediscovering Central Asia” by S. Frederick Starr. First published in Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2009. Copyright © 2009 by S. Frederick Starr. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Gettysburg Regress” by John H. Summers. First published in the New Republic,

March 18, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by John H. Summers. Reprinted by permission of John H. Summers. “Fatheralong” by John Edgar Wideman. First published in Harper’s, August 2009. Copyright © 2009 by John Edgar Wideman, used with permission of The Wylie Agency. “Daredevil” by Garry Wills. First published in the Atlanic, July/August 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Garry Wills, used with permission of The Wylie Agency. Reprinted by permission of The Wylie Agency, LLC. “A Fine Rage” by James Wood. First published in The New Yorker, April 13, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by James Wood. Reprinted by permission of James Wood.

Introduction

Unusually d isquali fied as I am for this high privilege and responsibility (I never wanted to be an editor of anything; no, what I really always wanted to be was . . . a scribbler), I have found extraordinary pleasure in reading through the entries for this, the quarter-centennial of the annual edition of the best essays published in America. The very word “essay,” which I first learned in the most boring of its declensions — a school “composition” — has the power to thrill. When I was very young I lived in a remote village on the edge of an English moorland. Every week, a mobile library would stop near my house, and I would step up through the back door of a large van to find its carpeted interior lined with bookshelves. Anything one borrowed could be kept for seven days and then returned or exchanged for fresh lendings. (If I live to see retirement, I would quite like to be the driver of such a vehicle, bringing books to eager young readers like a Librarian in the Rye.) One day I took a chance on a collection of science-fiction stories. One of these concerned a weary teacher who picked up the scrawled “compositions” of his class after the children had piled them on his desk, and found at the bottom a letter from the future. Bound in luminous green plastic, it was headed in oddly shaped characters: “An Essy. By Jon Grom.” I was struck by this simple contrivance and also found myself noticing, as if for the first time, that an “essay” is really a try, an attempt, even an adventure. It also holds its meaning as a test, as in its cognate “assay” — which is useful, since the assayer’s job is to tell base metals from true

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gold — and as a trial, or a putting to the proof. One could also enfold it with the word “experiment,” as when Shakespeare in Sonnet 110 so ruefully says: “These blenches gave my heart another youth / And worse essays proved thee my best of love . . . Mine appetite I never more will grind / On newer proof, to try an older friend.” Allowance made for this grimmer version of an acid test or even an arraignment, the jaunty original French word essai still connotes a challenge, a good try, an effort, even a first draft (Gouverneur Morris: “I have made an essay of a letter”). The resulting form is agreeably provisional and elastic and invites one to take a chance or, to borrow one of America’s most charming idioms, to give something one’s best shot. It’s necessarily arbitrary to subdivide these “tries,” but some main subcategories would have to include the following. There is the heuristic essay: an attempt to call attention to new information that has been overlooked or ignored or even suppressed, or that perhaps is simply deserving of a larger audience. Then — in no especial order — comes the polemical, or an attempt to persuade, or refute, or explode and debunk, or to mobilize. One has to add the confessional, in which the writer seeks to engage the reader in either an apologia or a revelation, disburdening something (and not, thank heavens, always with the aim of attracting sympathy). No disgrace is the merely descriptive, where the writer paints a scene in the hope of presenting it through his or her eyes. I would want to add the revisionist to the heuristic: an article that approaches familiar material or common assumptions in a fresh light. Then perhaps we could mention the conversational: something composed for pleasure alone or for its own sake, where the “point” is that there is no particular point. A coda is provided by the valedictory, where the writer either bids adieu to someone else or tries to do the near impossible and deliver some last words of his own while the faculties are still intact. Though the essay form probably originates with Michel de Montaigne, I would still want to suggest that there is something about it that conforms very well with the Anglo-American style. After all, the United States itself — and even its very name, according to some sources — is partly the outcome of the essayistic brilliance of the radical English artisan Thomas Paine. Somewhat like the word “intellectual,” the word “essayist,” and its cousin “pamphleteer,”

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has a natural kinship with the idea of dissent. Or at least a kinship with its most celebrated practitioners, such as George Orwell — about whom somebody (James Wood this time) writes a decent essay almost every year. May this kinship flourish and bring forth numerous and vigorous descendants. And let us not neglect other sturdy branches of the tradition, such as Lord Macaulay, and John Maynard Keynes’s Essays in Persuasion, which go to show that this outwardly slight form need not be ephemeral and may have history-altering consequences. For all that, there are many slighter nonfictional subjects whose proper treatment falls somewhere between the merely anecdotal and the full-length. Perhaps I should already have mentioned the travel piece, relating something from a locale that is (to us) exotic while managing to phrase it in terms that are simultaneously familiar. Elif Batuman’s excursion into the topography of classic Russian literature made me envious because of its dry control over the farcical element and also because of its quiddity — an account of a trip gone slightly awry would have been only a tenth as good if it was about a less portentous subject. (She also made the absolute most of an absence of evidence in order to mount a challenge to the evidence of absence.) S. Frederick Starr’s learned plea for a closer acquaintance with Central Asia, by contrast, relies not on a traveler’s tale but on a distillation of many past travelers’ tales, urging a reconsideration of the area adjoining the near-magically named Aral Sea as something far more than partibus infidelium. The year 2009 was not an auspicious one for the American essay — or rather, it was not a healthy one for the sorts of magazines that take the risk of publishing the essay form. Following closely on the contraction of the advertising business and of the inflated boom that had sustained it, publications slashed budgets and pages, newsstand shelves were culled, and editors invited columnists to contribute articles with an accent on brevity. Perhaps not altogether a bad thing in itself in the long run, this meanwhile helped call attention to the smaller magazines which Americans so indefatigably continue to produce. (My colleague and series editor, the no-less-indefatigable Bob Atwan, continues to mine this resource with happy results.) I have been mightily impressed, paging through the submissions and making the final selections, by the staunch way in which publications like Missouri Review, Wilson Quar-

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terly, American Scholar, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Oregon Humanities continue to trust authors to write at length, and readers to take the trouble to repay that trust. It was also a year in which some great practitioners of the art were lost to us, and appropriately memorialized. Ian McEwan on John Updike and Garry Wills on William F. Buckley represent the retrospective mode at its most skillful — principally in producing with apparent ease what must have been quite exacting to write. The first, though beautifully modulated, is somewhat love-love, and the second makes up with true affection for a certain history of love-hate, but both perform the supreme office of evoking the still-echoing voices of their subjects and of doing so with care and measure. Perhaps surprisingly, 2009 was not an especially good year for the polemical. Possibly it was felt that the inauguration of a new president would or perhaps should see an end to a decade of rancor and “partisanship,” in which case my strong suspicion — and devout hope — is that this was only a twelvemonth of a very brief truce. Even Matt Labash of the vigorously combative Weekly Standard found himself looking for a human pulse in one of Washington’s notorious rogue figures — albeit a fallen one. The polemical element of the essayist’s craft is an essential one: the element that sounds an alarm or calls attention to an injustice or explodes an inflated reputation. John Edgar Wideman’s terse and eloquent piece on the background of the Emmett Till murder struck me as exemplary in this respect, not just because its sense of outrage was so well mobilized but because it taught me several things about a famous episode that I felt indignant with myself at not having known before. Walter Isaacson’s reconstruction of a neglected episode in the life of Albert Einstein and American Jewry was another instance — in this case heuristic rather than polemical — of a historical controversy with continuing relevance to the present day and the origins of its discontents. Combining a sense of history with a feeling for the environment is John Summers’s protest against the denaturing and pseudo-domestication of the Republic’s nearest approximation to hallowed ground. In my own case the inner urge to write an article is usually connected to the desire to inform or to persuade, and when I find myself writing about a general topic or for pleasure alone, it is almost

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always because somebody else has had the idea for me. Has asked me to “essay” something, in other words, or give something a try: I am fortunate in having editors who can think of things for me to do. Thus I have an inordinate admiration and envy for those who can simply make amusing and enlightening prose out of their own experience. (We continue to miss the lighthearted yet profound work of George Plimpton — a man of whom it might be said that he would essay anything once — in this vineyard.) It was a happy day for me when my younger daughter introduced me to the writing of David Sedaris, and ended up by causing me to wish I could meet “Hugh” as well (the inauguration of their relationship is actually curtain-raised here). The steady development of the individual voice of Zadie Smith has been something to notice every year for several years. About a decade ago, I published a plea for fiction and nonfiction writers to come up to the new levels of language and metaphor that have been set for us by the extraordinary pace and rhythm of two scientific revolutions. The first of these — the micro, so to speak — has been the unraveling of the skein of our DNA, showing among other things our genetic relationship with our fellow animals but also demonstrating the material basis for considering the evolved human species as one. The second — the macro — is the almost exponential manner, from the Big Bang to the Hubble redshift, in which physics has been both elucidating the origins of our cosmos and mapping the path to its, and our, eventual extinction. One or two novelists have tried to raise and refine language to the point where it recognizes and engages with this new imperative (Richard Powers being one and Ian McEwan being another), and some scientific popularizers have also taken on the hard responsibility, but so far the micro dimension has been largely the province of specialists. So it was a special pleasure to read Steven Pinker’s account — at once entertaining and instructive — of the humanistic implications of the genomic. One must hope that this is only the beginning of a new kind of writing on this and kindred subjects, because one of the first principles of essayism is that the proper study of mankind is man. As one who tries to teach the essay as well as to write it, I hear my share of collegial complaints about the short attention span of the young, the sharp decline of print, the randomness and promiscuity

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of electronic media, and the prevalence of instant and even grammarless or punctuation-free idioms. This is the familiar complaint, or so I suspect, of every generation that bemoans the decline of standards in the rising one. Yet working with David Eggers, say, on his Valencia Street project, or witnessing the enviably long and eager lines for a David Sedaris reading, I feel relatively confident that neither the demand for nor the supply of the well-wrought feuilleton will ever become exhausted. We are not likely to reach a time when the need of such things as curiosity, irony, debunking, disputation, and elegy will become satisfied. For the present, we must resolve to essay, essay, and essay again. Ch ristopher Hitchens