Revisiting the Last Millennium: The Best American Essays 2000 by Kyoko Mori
The cover is a purple so dark it’s almost brown, the color of the oval vase in which my mother once arranged her dahlias. The spine is cracked and pages are falling out because I taught from this copy, thumbing through it repeatedly during my second year at Harvard when I was afraid of my students and worried about my future. I had resigned from a tenured position at a small college in Wisconsin and moved east for a five-year lectureship. My new students wrote about their trips to London, Paris, Florence, or Prague. The only foreign country I knew was Japan, where I’d grown up but didn’t expect to go again.
Preoccupied by my own millennium upheaval, I didn’t notice how many of the essays in The Best American Essays 2000 express apprehensions about our collective future. Wendell Berry’s “In Distrust of Movements,” Edward Hoagland’s “Earth’s Eye,” and Terry Tempest Williams’ “A Shark in the Mind of One Contemplating Wilderness” are about the disappearing wilderness. In “Listening for Silence,” Mark Slouka criticizes how our culture, with its barrage of noise from cell phones and pagers, has turned silence into a commodity that only the rich can afford (like “a rare Chardonnay or an exclusive bit of scenery”), and William Gass in “In Defense of the Book” laments the shrinking space given to actual books in private homes and public libraries. He loves the decrepit “body” of a book smeared with the jam he spilled on a passage whose genius astonished him the first time he read it. That book, Treasure Island, moved with him from the dime-store book case of his adolescent bedroom, to college, to the various homes of his adulthood. Words on the screen, by contrast, “have no materiality, they are only shadows, and when the light shifts they’ll be gone. Off the screen they do not exist as words.”
In his foreword, Robert Atwan cautions us against the lure of speed and convenience in our digital age: “Though retrieving and downloading Walden or Portrait of a Lady can be done in the blink of an eye, savoring the prose, word by word, sentence by sentence, will always take time.” He is ultimately optimistic, though. Surely, most of us can understand the difference between accessing a text and reading it, and the essay, with its flexible structure, nuanced language, and leisurely pace, is still the ideal form for slow reading. Alan Lightman, the guest editor, advocates slow and deep understanding on the part of the writer as well as the reader: “For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection. I want to see a piece of the essayist. I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand.”
The essays chosen by these editors do not seem “dated” because the problems the writers tackled haven’t gone away (in fact, most are with us in a more serious way), and with that comes the need for even slower thinking, reading, writing, and understanding. Re-reading the edition in 2015, I can engage, once again, in the “recursive” task that William Gass describes in his essay: “the act of reading, of looping the loop, of continually returning to an earlier group of words, behaving like Penelope by moving our mind back and forth, forth and back, reweaving what’s unwoven, undoing what’s been done.”
This time around, I was more aware than ever of the range of essays in the edition. All nonfiction inhabits the continuum between the self and the world, the private and the public. This edition spans the entire range from the intensely personal, as in the two elegies for lost parents (Fred D’Aguiar’s “A Son in Shadow” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Heroin/e”) and the two accounts of life-threatening medical crises (Richard McCann’s “The Resurrectionist” and Floyd Skloot’s “Gray Matter: Thinking with a Damaged Brain”), through a selection of essays that combine personal narrative with philosophical reflections and social commentary, to two that take strong, even extreme, stances on controversial public issues: Peter Singer’s “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” and Andrew Sullivan’s “What’s So Bad About Hate?”
The two polemic essays are utterly different. Singer, who recommends that “whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away” (by which he means $20,000 a year in donations, for a household making $50,000 a year) employs a deliberately simplified logic. He recounts the plot of an obscure movie and improvises his own parable-like scenario to assert that anyone who doesn’t make a substantial donation is, morally speaking, no better than a woman who sells a child to be murdered for his organs or a man who saves his sports car by causing a train wreck with multiple fatalities. Singer is careful to point out, parenthetically, “I do not believe that children are more worth saving than adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues,” but otherwise, he offers no qualifications or apologies. Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, presents a carefully constructed and calibrated argument in five numbered parts to support his view that hate crime laws are arbitrary, counter-productive, and undemocratic—he advocates equal penalties for crimes that target minority groups and those that victimize everyone else. Sullivan uses examples from history, literature, current events; he defines and re-defines the key terms; he acknowledges and dispenses all possible objections one by one. He waits till a few pages into the essay to casually reveal that as a gay man, he, too, is a member of a minority. I remain unconvinced by either argument, but I can never think of world poverty, my own guilty life of comfort, or the added fear and revulsion I feel about hate crimes in quite the same way.
The essays I taught in 2000 are annotated in green ink. In class, I must have pointed out the writers’ strategies in story-telling and argumentation, the choices they made in style (my favorite sentences are underlined with a star next to them: I must have read them aloud in class), the evocative details they used, the sly way they managed to avoid going down narrative or ideological paths in which they might have gotten hopelessly lost, while still giving the impression that everything important has been covered. At least that’s what I assume from the notes. I can’t recall a single lesson I’d planned. I was afraid of my students because no matter what I said about the essays in the book or about the essays they wrote, no one ever seemed surprised. A few were clearly worried from time to time, but that’s not the same thing. I remember wishing that at least one student, just once or twice a semester, would allow herself or himself to appear naïve or clueless: that is to say, taken aback by some information or advice she or he didn’t already know.
My two favorite essays from the collection call attention to the writers’ confusion. Geeta Kothari’s “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” begins with the can of tuna the narrator and her mother opened “in the doorway of the kitchen, in semidarkness, the can tilted toward daylight.” Neither mother nor daughter has any clue about how to turn this pink, shiny, fishy-smelling substance into the tuna sandwiches other kids at school eat for lunch. Even at nine, the narrator knows, “Indians, of course, do not eat such things.” The essay, written in seventeen short sections, is an autobiography through food and an exploration of cultural identity. At the end, the narrator is married to a man who is not Indian and she can laugh with her mother about that can of tuna, but she is wistful about the way food separates her from her mother. Her mother doesn’t eat lobster, for example, because overcoming her disgust would mean “becoming, decidedly, definitely, American—unafraid of meat in all its forms, able to consume large quantities of protein at any given meal.” This definition of being American is one of the most accurate, humorous, and poignant I’ve ever read.
Mary Gordon’s “Rome: The Visible City” also portrays the progress of the narrator’s life from childhood to adulthood by focusing on one thing: in this case, Rome. The first picture Gordon presents of the Holy City is St. Peter’s seen through a View-Master, a device that looks “a bit like a camera, a bit like binoculars, a bit like a diving mask.” The picture is utterly lacking in artistic merit (“an atmosphere of equivocal artificiality. Why did I love it so?”) and yet it is suffused with mystery. Gordon reports what she knew instinctively even then, if only she could have articulated the thoughts, but she doesn’t lose sight of herself as a child: “I loved the silence of those images, their freedom, not only from noise but from the harsh demands of time. Because nothing was alive, nothing would change. Having partaken so entirely of death, they were entirely free of death’s surprises. But I wasn’t, of course, thinking of death when I put the mask up to my eyes. If you asked me what I liked, I would have said, ‘The colors.’”
Gordon recounts her subsequent trips to Rome with the same sense of immediacy and distance. In the View-Master of her essay, we see the narrator, up close, as the confused and frustrated character she once was (caught between her mother and her husband; rebuffed by Natalia Ginzburg, whom she traveled all the way to meet and interview; overwhelmed by the Catholicism she was raised in, with its adulation of virgin martyrs) with occasional wry commentary from the writer who now lives in the world outside the magnifying box. The final section, written in the present tense and set in Rome, unites these two halves of the narrator, writer and character: “I am sitting in the golden light in the park among lovers, dogs, and babies. . . There is no place I need to be. No one expects me. . . How has it come about that I have, to this point, escaped my fate, that I am here in the sun under the blue sky, not a martyr? How has it happened that I have become someone who, as a child, I would never even have thought of? Someone I would not have seen on holy cards or in movies? Someone I might not even have read about?”
The culmination of the repeated journey isn’t control, sophistication, or mastery. In her moment of joy, or grace, this narrator is overtaken by surprise. She is at once wise and clueless. That—I think—was what I wanted my students in 2000 to understand.
Revisiting Gordon’s essay about revisiting Rome, re-reading Gass’s essay about re-reading his favorite books, I am taking a tour of my own past as well as the essays’. I can return to the pleasure of weaving and un-weaving the same cloth (the point of Penelope’s task, I remember, was NOT to finish). Like Gordon’s narrator in the last paragraph of her essay, I am now mystified by my good fortune. After my lectureship was over, I found a teaching position that allows me to make a home in Washington DC—a city I’d revisited throughout my adulthood—and teach students who are willing to be surprised. A sense of wonder, which requires the ability to be vulnerable, is what I came to value the most both in the classroom and on the page. I wasn’t able to connect with my Harvard students to show them. With my current group, I can.
Robert Atwan was, of course, right about the benefits as well as the dangers of the digital age. After all, this essay about essays will be posted on a web site. I have to confess, though, that I still haven’t read a book on a computer or I-Pad or Kindle. Every week, I make my students distribute actual paper copies of their work for the following week’s workshop discussion. For me, any document that requires careful reading has to be tangible. Draft after draft, I print my revisions instead of simply saving them electronically. I can’t leave my thoughts unfinished on a machine that blinks out the moment I push down the screen and the already-written words on it touch the yet-to-be-written words I imagine hovering over the keys.
Kyoko Mori is the author of three nonfiction books (The Dream of Water; Polite Lies; Yarn) and four novels (Shizuko’s Daughter; One Bird; Stone Field, True Arrow; Barn Cat). Her stories and essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Fourth Genre, Ploughshares, the American Scholar, Conjunctions, The Best American Essays, and other journals and anthologies. She lives in Washington DC and teaches in George Mason University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and Lesley University’s Low-Residency MFA Program.
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