Book Review: The Best American Essays 2015 Edited by Ariel Levy

I haven’t read a book-length collection of essays by disparate authors before, at least not that I can remember.  I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the experience.  I was out of reading material and I went to the library to browse.  This book caught my eye, but I put it back on the shelf at first and went home.  Then, realizing I still didn’t have anything to read, I went back to the library the next morning to check it out.  Before I did, though, I promised myself that I could skip ahead past any essays that bored me.  I usually devour books like scavengers devour a carcass: flesh, blood, bones, organs, everything.  I had to give myself an out if wasn’t enjoying the experience.

In the end, I only skipped past three essays that were so boring I couldn’t bear them.  There were a few more that I read through but in aftermath I wished I hadn’t.  Most of the essays were good, and a few were very good.  The best ones dealt with subjects of universal concern: family tragedy, sickness, race relations, old age.  The best styles were conversational; the ones that turned me off were those that affected pomposity, ostentation, self-conscious complications of language not for the sake of communication but as a means of showing off.  Most of the essays are short, which is as it should be: they make one point or address one theme, and then they end.  The ones that didn’t say anything or get anywhere are the ones I abandoned.

It came to me as I read that the essays were entertaining and competent enough, but really weren’t much different than well-written blog posts.  The only difference was that somehow the authors managed to get them into elite venues that paid a lot of money for them.  Some of the authors are staff writers of the magazines in which their essays appeared, which makes it easier to achieve publication and payment, of course.  I suppose that for writers without some sort of special “in” it’s probably about as difficult to get essays accepted in these elite venues as it is short stories, and that is very difficult indeed.  Literary magazines typically hold on to short stories under consideration for a year or more, and then if they don’t want them, they send form rejection notices.

And it got me thinking about personal blogs and, inevitably, about self-publishing.  Personal blogs are a freely offered form of self-expression.  Without a doubt some are more popular than others, but just about anyone can put a blog out there to be read by anyone who is interested.  I have read many blog posts that are every bit as erudite, well-written, and interesting as the best of the essays in this book.  The only differences are the form in which they are published and the compensation or lack of it the author receives.  I like the freedom of expression that the web allows, but it’s too bad that bloggers can’t somehow be compensated when they write worthwhile essays.  Some have found ways to make them pay through advertisements on their websites.  Others use the material on their blogs as loss leaders to point prospective readers to their books.  All well and good.  In conclusion, there’s really nothing in this book of essays that beats material you can find online for free, but it’s an okay read if you have nothing else at hand.

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