I’m a sucker for the “Best Of” essays, but the truth is that I usually thumb through most of the pieces and read very few of them from start to finish. No patience here, not even for “the best.”
This year is an exception. I’ve read every single essay from David Brooks’s selections, from start to finish. There’s the one by Mark Doty about the connection between Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman; Miah Arnold, who teaches kids with cancer at MD Anderson in Texas; Dr. Ken Murray’s take on what doctors choose for end-of-life care; Garret Keizer’s profound experience of going back to teach high school after a long hiatus; Jonathan Franzen’s essay on David Foster Wallace; Mark Edmundson’s take on kids’ unrealistic expectations of college; the importance of being bored, surviving menopause without becoming a total bitch, and taking drugs that make you fat but save your mind.
This morning I went early to the gym to grab a tennis court and read Dudley Clendinen’s “The Good Short Life,” about a man who is dealing with the insidious ALS and has something to say before he goes. It just so happens I play tennis with a woman who has been diagnosed with ALS this year. She’s still playing (and playing great!) but her speech is going. It’s hard for her to communicate the simplest words. And all in just a few short months….
In David Brooks’s forward for this collection, he says: I had so many jewels to choose from. I tried to pick ones that crystallize an emotion, in the belief that reading them will add to your emotional repertoire. I tried to pick ones with new or daring ideas that will alter how you look at the world. I tried, in short, to pick ones that will be useful to you. That, I’m afraid, is a middlebrow activity. But I plead guilty. I want to be improved by the things I read.
If you’re looking to learn — or even to laugh, because there are many, many laughs — buy this book. This collection is proof that you don’t have to be famous or write perfectly or have all the right turns of phrase; this collection is proof that you just need to have something to say. And be honest enough to say it.