Best American Essays, 2004, ed. Louis Menand  2004

A relatively thick edition, and a rather spectacular collection by this eclectic critic and Harvard professor.  Menand’s criteria for inclusion are summarized by him as ‘voice’, which he refers to as the most transcendental of all the intangibles of good writing, making even the subject matter irrelevant.  He uses a test of good writing to be ‘it is more painful to stop reading than it is to keep going.” and appleis it to a wide variety of essays including two from the 1940’s, one by Agee and one by Tennessee Williams.  He contrasts writing with speech, arguing that voice has nothing to do with the spoken word, but rather more to do with singing—transposing the verbal yakking into verbal music.  Menand claims to have chosen these essays ‘by ear’ since the ‘subject, to a point, doesn’t matter,” though he admits that his favorite essays ‘make a lost time present.’  Writing is a window for Menand, often the only access to some things, an access filtered by one writer’s sensibility and voice.  In rereading the table of contents, I am stunned by the beauty of these essays and their vitality.  Faulkner’s two books I read last year are cited as is Tolstoy and Kafka as well as Flannery O’Connor. A very rich treasure trove.