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This is not what I’m reading: The Best American Essays 2006

by Houghton Mifflin

I’m not reading this book; I probably won’t bother with Best American Essays 2006 until it’s out in paperback this fall. But courtesy of my local public library (MPL?), I’m reading through the set of BAE from the first volume–1987–forward, up to 2001, which will then mean I have read the entire series.

This is quite possibly the best summer reading I’ve ever done. I’m up to 1991, cherry-picking my way through essays by Jonathan Franzen and Gretel Ehrlich and Margaret Atwood and Amy Tan and Frank Conroy and on and on and on… with editors such as Joyce Carol Oates to opine about the essay in elegantly grand turns of phrase. “There are no second-rate genres, only second-rate practioners”–indeed.

These collections are such perfect books. They start with a brief foreword by Robert Atwan, the series editor, and are then followed by the editor’s introduction, which always teaches me something new. Should I ever run out of essays to read, the back of every BAE offers a list of “notable essays” with their sources; should I forget Stephen Jay Gould’s background, it’s right there in his biographical note. And every essay tells me where the piece was first published, not only establishing its provenance but making me want to drive to Kepler’s and pick up a copy of Kenyon Review or Harper’s–stat!

Because these hardcover books are not purse-sized, I am dutifully dragging around A River Runs Through It, which, I have been advised, is great lit. (I took Z.Z. Packer’s stories to ALA and devoured them on the plane; I’ll review after a re-reading, which they richly deserve.) But I bring my current BAE to the gym every day, and am always surprised and even a little disappointed when the treadmill slows down, signalling the end of another half-hour of wheeling and diving through great writing.


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