IT'S HARD FOR any Y2K reader to turn away guidance in What to Read. Maybe several hundred years ago, when the bulk of the world's

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Bested by the Bests

Best American collections are a treasure for readers, but the Net is diminishing their worth.

IT'S HARD FOR any Y2K reader to turn away guidance in What to Read. Maybe several hundred years ago, when the bulk of the world's published texts could be contained in one good-sized library, yearly collections of Best This or That were unnecessary. But this is the age of info-glut, much of it the info-equivalent of info-swill. Enter Houghton-Mifflin, dispensing surety to the masses (those of the masses lacking New Yorker subscriptions at least) in their Best American series of annual noteworthiness. Returning nonfiction favorites on the Best American bookshelf are Sports Writing (edited by Dick Schaap and Glenn Stout) and the venerable Essays (Robert Atwan and Alan Lightman), both steals at $13 apiece. New to the collection and also running you $13 this year are Travel Writing (Bill Bryson and Jason Wilson) and Science and Nature Writing (David Quammen and Burkhard Bilger). The only one your humble reviewer didn't examine was Best American Recipes 2000, and for this she is most heartily and gastronomically sorry. For your shopping convenience, Houghton-Mifflin has kindly arranged to place a selection of these titles in large cardboard displays located near the escalators at large corporate bookstores near you. It's hard not to be flip. "Best" is a pretty big four-letter word, right up there with several I said when I realized that my deadline for this review, like the millennium, approacheth, and I had not yet plowed through these cumulative 1,824 pages of Best-ness. It's much harder to actually read these books than to praise them fulsomely; they're just too heady to handle in a sitting. Bad writing doesn't command one's attention so thoroughly—and then there's all that time spent alternately screaming with pleasure and weeping at the thought that one will probably never be able to write like this. It's hard reading quality stuff all day, which is why I so rarely venture from my Net cave to look at these, the stars. Ah, yes, the Net, tackled with greater or lesser aplomb by these editors. The sports and travel books make the best of it, dipping their toes into the digital ocean and coming back with Salon-soaked feet. (With travel it's a bit redundant, since Salon put out its own collection on the subject this year, but Rolf Potts' wry essay on the DiCaprio-ization of Thailand is worth reading wherever it turns up.) Sitting primly on the beach are the essay book and, inexplicably, the science and nature collection. Maybe not so inexplicably. Science and nature series editor Burkhard Bilger gets downright defensive about it in his intro, explaining why he didn't troll the Net for good writing for that segment of the population most likely to seek it online: "Is nothing worth saving in all those virtual haystacks? Well, yeah, probably. But searching them might take a lifetime and find hardly a needle." I'd take him out like the trash, citing the benefits of timeliness and availability that the Net brings to the worldwide scientific community, but to do so would be missing the point of the best-of genre. These collections don't deal in breaking news or even in writing meant to impact events in the world; they deal in what was, in how we assemble a memory of a year's reading. The omission of Web-based literature is less about how various and beautiful and (especially) new the Net's best writing is than it is about how we just can't lay hands on it away from the ever-changing screen. It is our loss. Our bookshelves are the lesser for it. AND THEN THERE'S Best American Essays of the Century (edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan, $30), rounding up the usual suspects and their unusual contemporaries in an overview of what in just a few weeks we can finally bookend as the American Century. Oates is a wonderful choice to manage this megillah: an activist in the age of activism, a critic looking at an era in which the personal voice of the essay became the most potent form of written address. She starts with Mark Twain and W.E.B. Du Bois and doesn't ease up until shutting down the party with Saul Bellow. It's too much. I couldn't read more than two pieces at a time without feeling glutted on chewy writerly goodness, and the Gertrude Stein left me so overwhelmed I made a friend read it to me while I drifted pleasantly into a coma. I felt as one with generations of 20th-century English lit undergrads. It was a fine thing. It may be madness to claim that these collections represent the indisputable pinnacle of all written achievement of the year. (And how pleasurably maddening must it be for Mssrs. Quammen, Bryson, Schaap, and Lightman to be paid to undertake such a task? And what of Ms. Oates, confronted with 100 times as much material?) But each is undeniably, taken en suite, as good as it gets. Even to list the authors anthologized is to feel very, very good about the state of American letters—even if few of them appeared onscreen. Best man! While it can't exactly claim kinship with the Best American series, Best Food Writing 2000 (Marlowe & Co., $14.95) is but one of many offshoots in the literary-roundup frenzy that occurs near the end of each year. Best Food Writing 2000 is particularly important to those of us at Seattle Weekly, for several reasons: We like to eat, and, as readers, we find a particular compatibility with reading while eating and, as in this case, reading about eating. But this delicious diversion, with a forward by Chez Panisse goddess Alice Waters (how's that for some cred?), also happens to include an essay by one Michael Hood, a venerable contributing writer of ours. Michael earned his place in a field that includes pieces by writers from the New York Times, Saveur, Vogue, and the Herbfarm Cookbook (written by another local, Jerry Traunfeld). With his essay titled "Getting Sauced," which appeared in these pages last winter, Michael breathes fire into the realm of hot sauce while keeping readers thoroughly entertained by his quirky and dead-on sense of observation. Emily Baillargeon Russin

 
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