Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Best American 2013

Elizabeth Gilbert (editor), The Best American Travel Writing 2013 and
Siddhartha Mukherjee (editor), The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013

The most interesting essays in each year’s Best American Travel Writing usually address some place no sane person would go. This year includes visiting a faith healer in Tanzania’s deep interior; sharing tea with Bedouins known to kidnap Western tourists; meeting an aspiring teenage poet in an illegal wildcat gold mine high in the Peruvian Andes. The authors make their settings, distant as another planet, seem humane and nearby.

Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat Pray Love fame, in her introduction says: “I read great travel writing to feel, at the conclusion, I have now been there.” But she doesn’t hold herself or her authors legalistically to this standard. Daniel Tyx and Ian Frazier, for instance, don’t travel anywhere during their essays. Tyx discusses the momentous decision to stay put, while Frazier reminisces how travel psychology has changed in his lifetime.

Most essays, though, consider some place, particularly the people who make this place so fascinating. David Farley, in “Vietnam’s Bowl of Secrets,” describes the family who makes a unique rice noodle considered a delicacy, but so rare that you can only purchase it in one Vietnamese village. Christopher de Ballaigue’s “Caliph of the Tricksters” describes Kabul plutocrats who endure Afghanistan’s generational violence by betting on gory, interminable cockfights.

This year’s selections run short and concise. Many essays run under four pages; only two exceed twenty pages. Yet these authors pack their narratives with such incisive, engaging detail that one feels refreshed after reading, like returning from a much-needed vacation. Celebrity authors like Frazier or David Sedaris rub shoulders with wise but unfamous professionals who tell tales well. These compact, elegant essays transport eager readers outside their humdrum existence.

Gilbert succeeds in her stated mission. I really feel I’ve visited Sinai, or coastal Maine, or Britain’s ill-starred Dickens World park. Having never seen these places myself, I feel I could knowledgeably discuss them with natives, or anyway ask smart questions of seasoned travelers. These essays make engaging, uplifting lunchtime holidays, restful breaks from the non-literary world. I feel rested, restored, and more cosmopolitan for having read this collection.

Elsewhere, oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee aggregates twenty-seven essays from across scientific and naturalistic disciplines. Some are written by scientists and researchers, including one Nobel laureate. Others come from journalists, novelists, and other writers with strong interest in developing science. Some discuss single, specific discoveries; others have more eclectic scope, describing entire ranges of new thought or developing disciplines of science.

A rare Mediterranean jellyfish doesn’t die of old age; it just reverts to childhood and relives its life. I learned that in one essay. But in another essay, at almost the far end of this collection, an oceanic researcher, one of the first women in a formerly all-male field, laments that the beautiful ecosystems that first made her love the ocean sixty years ago, are now severely depleted, in danger of imminent extinction.

Our real joy comes in the unspoken relationships between essays. David Deutsch and Arthur Eckert, for instance, describe implications of quantum physics for molecular-level computers, potentially defining processing capabilities grander than anything we’ve previously considered. But Michael Moyer describes how, approaching the Planck Length, the smallest possible length in existence, reality itself appears granular, binary, almost computerized. The potential interplay between these two realizations is chillingly beautiful.

Likewise, both Jerome Groopman and Katherine Harmon describe how recent developments in immunology offer new hope in fighting invasive cancers. But while Groopman examines the science, hopscotching among personalities, Harmon intensively focuses on one man whose discoveries let him treat his own cancer, with remarkable consequences. The shifting focus between ideas and personalities reveals unspoken truths about how science makes its advances.

Unlike other Best American selections, this one resists celebrity authors. Sure, Oliver Sacks and Kevin Dutton include excerpts from their latest books, and authors famous from other fields, like Mark Bowden, contribute to the collection’s overarching movement. But this specific collection rewards profound ideas, explained well, rather than authorial virtuosity. I contend this makes it easier reading, since the product, not the personality, defines quality.

I abandoned my childhood ambition to become a scientist when I discovered it’s hard to make test tubes explode. But I never quit my love of science and discovery, and continue enjoying new insights into how our universe works. This collection, laced with eye-opening expositions in the latest science, reminds me why I love science, and why our society, plagued by anti-intellectual thinking, needs science so badly. Read this book, and relearn the joy of discovery.

For reviews of other collections in this series, see:
The Year's Best Alice Munro and
Proving Personal Writing Still Matters

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