Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Well, This Certainly Didn't Make Me Like Christopher Hitchens Any Better

Book Reviewed: The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens (Robert Atwan, series editor)

If I lived in a world of my own choosing, I'd be an essayist. I am always jealous of people who can write really great essays, people like Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace. Instead, essays are quite possibly the literary genre in which I am the most terrible. I have a hard time writing from a distinctive point of view on something I didn't invent or re-imagine. Even worse, I cannot write about myself at all without sounding slightly stupid and extremely passive. But I love reading essays, and great essayists are absolute heroes to me. So I checked out the latest volume of the Best American Essays series.

Man, was I disappointed. I should have stayed away as soon as I saw that Christopher Hitchens was the editor. I think Hitchens is a good writer and very smart, but he often makes me see red. I mean, this is the guy famous for stating that women aren't funny. But I decided to take a chance and read this book anyway.

It wasn't all bad. In fact, some of these essays are quite good. An essay I'd already read and loved earlier this year, Elif Batuman's "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy," started things off nicely. James Wood, one of my favorite serious literary critics, wrote a great essay about George Orwell, entitled "A Fine Rage," which actually made me like Orwell for the first time in my life. Same goes for Ian McEwan's rememberance of John Updike. Steven L. Isenberg's "Lunching on Olympus," talked a bit about Philip Larkin, so you know I enjoyed that one. And of course, as usual, David Sedaris delivers the goods with "Guy Walks into a Bar Car," which has a sweet ending seemingly hand-made for anyone familiar with Sedaris's essays of the last few years.

But the majority of the essays here just seemed really dull. Only five of the twenty-one essays were by women, which didn't help break up the old white man drudge that seemed to drag this book down so much. I particularly disliked Garry Wills's rememberance of the infamous William F. Buckley, in which Wills tried to make Buckley likeable. Good luck. It's hard to like a guy who thought whites were a superior race and who lived to sail. Yuck.

The above-mentioned essays of note, the ones that were genuinely good, made this book worth about half of my reading time. But I probably should have just read the writers and essay topics I knew I'd like and skipped the rest.

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