I am a longtime reader and collector of essay anthologies. A well-written essay provides an opportunity to learn something new and interesting, and also an opportunity to sample the writing of an unfamiliar author, without committing to a full-length book. Essays are often the perfect length to read from start to finish in one sitting, providing a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. Further, for someone who generally prefers to read fiction, an essay delivers a nice dose of nonfiction without becoming too great a distraction from other reading. Essay anthologies offer the added benefit of variety—of subject, of author, and of original publication. For all these reasons, I’m rarely without an essay anthology on my nightstand.
The Best American series releases several annual essay anthologies, including The Best American Essays, The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and The Best American Sports Writing. This year’s The Best American Essays (2010), edited by Christopher Hitchens, collects writings on a wonderful variety of topics, including a trip to Tolstoy’s house for an academic conference, the emotional burden associated with the power to declare a person’s time of death, a rogue lion in a wildlife preserve in Africa, the various ailments of eyes, encounters with literary luminaries, and much more. Most of the selections are concerned with subjects of general interest rather than specific events or people, ensuring that most of these essays will be just as accessible and relevant years from now as they are today. I also appreciate the mix of shorter and longer writings included in the collection. No matter the amount of reading time available, this anthology includes an essay of the perfect length to fill that time. Consider this anthology for your nightstand or as a sure-to-be-appreciated gift.