I’ve been reading the Best American series.
To be exact, I’ve been reading it for 35 years, since high school, when I found a copy of the “Best American Short Stories” 1986 (edited by Raymond Carver) for a quarter at a yard sale. I don’t know why I bought it; that copy was years old, and even in 1988, who needed the best writing from two years earlier? Still, it was cheap and full of the kinds of writers I wanted to claim I had read (Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro). If you don’t know, the Best American series arrives annually and vacuums up great writing — from magazines, newspapers, literary journals — into categories: “Best American Essays,” “Best American Travel Writing,” “Best American Mystery and Suspense,” etc.; each genre gets its own volume, though (misleadingly) reflects the best of the previous year, not the year on the cover. “Best American Short Stories,” the longest-running, was first published in 1915.
I can chart my life with these books.
Reeling backward: Today, pudgy and complacent, I presume the Best American series will be waiting on their own rack beside the checkout at Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview. For years, I bought them at the Book Stall in Winnetka, which gave Best Americans a dedicated shrine. (Those who love this series, love this series.) Before that, since I was often in New York in October, when new Best Americans arrive, Three Lives bookshop in Greenwich Village was my go-to. Before that, the late Shaman Drum bookstore in Ann Arbor was my spot. All of which made buying the Best American series feel like an event. Or at least, a personal tradition. This started after high school, when I began dropping into used bookstores wherever I was, trying to collect a complete set.
Which never happened.
Decades later, I have a complete set of “Best American Essay” books (which began in 1986), and a complete set of every other Best American spin-off published since the 1990s, though nothing like a complete “Best American Short Story” set. I have so many I have moved them from bookshelves into closets and now a cubby, reachable by ladder.
The Best American series — the latest editions just arrived — feeds a kind of reader we fear is fatally endangered: The voracious, curious reader, open to the far-flung and counterintuitive, outside siloed social-media headspaces. This year, “Best American Food Writing” has an excellent story on cheese extinction; “Best American Essays” has a piece on parenting (by University of Chicago’s Agnes Callard) that reads like the sanest howl of bewilderment in ages. I wasn’t much of a science and nature reader, now “Best American Science and Nature Writing” is the Best American I reach for first. As guest editor Padma Lakshmi writes in the introduction to the “Best American Travel Writing,” the lack of travel itself in 2020 resulted in a book partly about dreaming of travel in isolation.
At its own best, the series begs a certain mutability.
That said, like many of you, I also renew fewer print subscriptions these days. Best American has been my Reader’s Digest, an annual catch-up of missed reading. That’s also a problem: Without subscribers, Best American’s pool would grow even shallower.
Never mind how often a handful of sources (The New Yorker, Atlantic, New York Times) has long been the backbone of the series. After many static years, like other corners of the country, the Best American books are just now resembling America itself. Of its 20 pieces this year, Best American Essays has 11 by women — which seems like more than usual. The new “Best American Short Stories” was edited by Jesmyn Ward, probably the finest chronicler of Black childhood today, who includes South Shore native Gabriel Bump, himself earning a reputation as a smart writer of coming-of-age narratives. “Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy” (edited by Chicago’s Veronica Roth) contains a light sci-fi showstopper in Tochi Onyebuchi’s “How to Pay Reparations: A Documentary.”
That sort of variety was once wanting.
And as Phillip Lopate, a longtime prolific writer and chronicler of personal essays, argues in a vital new series of anthologies spanning centuries — “The Glorious American Essay,” “The Golden Age of the American Essay,” now “The Contemporary American Essay” — the richest collections like this are snapshots of an American family, delivering bite-size miracles. “The Contemporary American Essay,” in particular, with masterworks by Aleksander Hemon, Eula Biss, Laura Kipnis, Samantha Irby (to name a handful included with Chicago roots) might even be a keeper for Best American devotees, the unrelated anthology that further boils down the Best American books — to what lasts.
What hasn’t, as Best American series go, is “Best American Spiritual Writing,” “Best American Recipes,” “Best American Comics,” “Best American Non-Required Reading” (which had given the series some diversity). Each once existed and each has since been discontinued by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This year, “Best American Sports Writing” is gone. But continued (as “The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2021″) by another publisher. In my cubby collection, there are a number of similar off-brand piggybackers: “Best Movie Writing,” “Best Math Writing” (seriously), “Best Poetry,” “Best Magazine Writing.”
None are actually official Best American books.
Though taken together, flipping through, I see no distinction, so the point remains: I can chart my life here, by the concerns of each installment, the fears of each age, the price tags of the bookstores where each of these books came from. “Best American Science and Nature Writing,” heavy with climate change the past few years, devotes a third of its pieces this time around to the pandemic.
I’m setting those stories aside.
It’s almost too much, too now. I’ll return, eventually. I always do. So for the moment, there’s a piece in “Best American Mystery and Suspense Writing” that’s a queer retelling of “Jaws.” I didn’t see that one coming, though somewhere between the pandemic and pop culture, that’s America, circa 2021.
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I’ve been reading the Best American series.