You can tell a lot about people from the books they sleep with. Alexander the Great is said to have slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. Charlemagne slept with Saint Augustine’s The City of God. When Edwin Herbert Land, the founder of Polaroid, was a boy, he snuggled up to Robert Wood’s Physical Optics.
I used to sleep with a copy of the essays of Montaigne. It was a thick volume — 1,035 pages long, a 1933 Modern Library edition with a threadbare gray cover and a missing spine — that would have made a sizable lump under my pillow. (Those other guys must have had cast-iron cheeks. Or maybe they owned abridged versions.) Montaigne reposed on my bedside table. What our relationship lacked in propinquity it made up in constancy, since I was confined to bed twenty-four hours a day for the first eight months of a fragile pregnancy. I’d spent the previous two decades as a wandering journalist, but now I required a literary trade that could be plied from a horizontal position: hence, my hasty metamorphosis from reporter to essayist. Who better to guide me than the ur-essayist, the inventor of the genre, the man who had retreated from public life at age thirty-eight to a round, bay-windowed, book-lined library on the third floor of a tower at his ancestral château: a solitary room, intentionally difficult of access, its silence broken only by the tolling of the Ave Maria on a great bronze bell?
Montaigne’s famously meandering essays — “Of Idlenesse,” “Of Lyers,” “Of Vanitie,” “Of Smels and Odors,” “Of Vaine Subtilties, or Subtill Devices” (my edition was the creatively spelled 1603 translation by John Florio) — were just the ticket for a supine pregnant woman who was drifting in and out of sleep and incapable of remembering what she’d been thinking five minutes earlier. They were, after all, essaies — a word their author chose in order to emphasize that he was attempting something, not perfecting it — and therefore didn’t aspire to military regimentation. Montaigne would start talking about the fallibility of human experience, quoting Aristotle and Manilius and Epicurus and sounding splendidly high-minded, and then he’d drift off into an aside on how he hated to be interrupted when he sat on his chamberpot. Or he’d be in the middle of a sober discussion of inherited traits, and all of a sudden he’d scoot into a three-page detour on his kidney stones (“Oh why have not I the gift of that dreamer, mentioned by Cicero, who dreaming that hee was closely embracing a yong wench; found himself ridde of the stone in his sheetes!”). This was exactly the way my own mind was working at the time — it could travel from motherhood to hemorrhoids at the speed of light — and, far from being intimidated by Montaigne, I began to think: Hey, maybe this is something I could do. And so, at the age of forty, lying on my left side, wrapped in a sweaty tangle of sheets, propping a laptop computer on the pillow under which Montaigne might have rested had I been less princess-and-the-pea-like, I wrote the first essay I ever submitted to a magazine.
Phillip Lopate has called the personal essay the voice of middle age. After compiling this volume, during the course of which I read essays of every conceivable stripe, I’d extend that statement by saying that any essay — personal, critical, expository — is more likely to be written by someone with a few gray hairs than by a twenty-five-year-old. (He’s too busy finishing his first novel.) Activity and reflection tend to be sequential rather than simultaneous. And it takes at least a dozen years before the taint of the schoolroom — the “essay question,” the college application “essay,” the “essay on the principal exports of Bulgaria, due Thursday at 10:00,” all of which have as much in common with an essay by Montaigne as a vitamin pill does with a chocolate truffle — wears off completely.
By the time Robert Atwan asked if I’d collaborate with him on this anthology, I had left the world of the dreaded blue-book essay far behind. The associations of the word were entirely hedonic. For several years I had worked as the editor of a small literary quarterly, a job I took because I could not imagine a more pleasurable way to make a living than reading essays all day long. The downside, of course, is that most of those essays are unsolicited manuscripts about the application of postcolonialist theory to the works of Beatrix Potter. You can therefore imagine how pleased I was to be invited to spend a few months reading essays that had not only been published but vetted. Bob Atwan would swim through the oceans of the year’s periodicals like a great baleen whale, letting most of their contents flow through unencumberedd, and filtering out only the most delicious bits of plankton for my delectation.
I owned a whole shelf of Best American Essays — my favorite color was indigo blue with red and green lettering (1994), my favorite introductions were by Elizabeth Hardwick (1986) and Geoffrey Wolff (1989) — and I’d always wondered how the volumes had been compiled. What criteria were used? What exactly was that list of “Notable Essays” in the back (in which I myself had been sequestered for years before finally making it into the sacred precincts of the collection itself)? How many essays did the “series editor” read, and how many did the “guest editor” read? Perhaps other readers have been similarly curious about the process, so I’ll tell you how it went this year.
Though I’ve met Bob Atwan only once, a year before we embarked on this project together, we’ve spent the last six months in a frenzy of communication by phone, letter, and e-mail. (He recently confided that I was the first guest editor of this series who used e-mail. By that point, we’d exchanged at least a hundred e-mails, both about this volume and about essays in general. Our correspondence resembled that of two rabid collectors of Hummel figurines, brief and businesslike at the outset but incrementally loosened up by their shared passion.) Bob had started the series in 1986, successfully resisting the advice of one publisher who, leery of the word essay, told him, “It’s a lovely idea, but shouldn’t we call it something else?” Every year he screens about two hundred small and large periodicals and reads about five hundred essays, of which he forwards a hundred or so to the guest editor. (He sent me a hundred and forty-two. Either it was a particularly fertile year or my e-mails gave him the impression that I was insatiable.) Bob’s Notable Essays list consists of those hundred or so essays, minus the ones selected as the best American essays, plus a few dozen that he considers unsuitable for the collection (too long, too short, too far to one end or the other of the journalistic-academic spectrum) but that nonetheless deserve recognition. The guest editor is also free to select essays from outside the Atwan pool; I picked three.
Twelve batches arrived by FedEx on my doorstop between the end of October and the middle of March. (The process oozed into the spring because so many understaffed quarterlies publish their winter issues long after the snow melts.) The first few were from what Bob called “especially rich sources” — mostly The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine — and, indeed, I ended up choosing six from the original batch of fifteen. But I didn’t start reading right away. I waited until about forty es...