Anthologies of essays are good to read when traveling — if one essay is bad, you simply skip it. If the novel you bring on your trip is bad, you’re screwed. I recently read The Best American Essays of 2001 and the Best American Essays of 2007. All in all, about 40 essays on a range of topics. Below are my favorite excerpts from the 2001 edition. In another post, I’ll excerpt my favorites from the 2007 edition.
"India’s American Imports" by Adam Hochschild in The American Scholar
Hochschild, an American, observes how pervasive his own country’s values, brands, and dreams are in India, where he lived and lectured for a year. His moment of insight came watching a Hindi-language film in a poor town in the North. The story was about India, but the images, not so much:
But the West itself, paying no fee, was the real product placement, from the California-sleek furnishings of the characters’ homes to the distinctly un-Indian rolling green pastures of the hero’s imagined ream landscape, through which the heroine runs in a gauzy white dress. So: an Indian film without India in it.
This reminds me of when I watched a film in a Bombay movie theater. The moviegoers were traditionally dressed, middle class Indians. The content of the movie, however, surprised me: tons of skin, promiscuity, expensive cars and houses. Staggering poverty lay just outside the theater, and hardly anyone dressed provocatively. At times I turned my eyes from the screen and watched the conservatively dressed women in the seats next to me. How were they reacting to such blatant sexualized themes, such Western shows of material excess?
But travel anywhere for an American today involves getting to know not something totally unfamiliar but a combination, often an uneasy one, of the unfamiliar and the familiar.
True. And then the money line:
To a country like this, what gets imported is seldom America at its best: a commitment to human rights, American informality and skepticism toward authority, equality between men and women, a school system that values individual creativity more than rote learning. Instead, cultural imports are mainly those things that someone can make money selling. Ideas travel slowly. The desire for objects travels at the speed of a TV transmission.
"Refugium" by Barbara Hurd in The Georgia Review
An essay about refuge by explaining how minks live in swamps. She connects refuge with solitude:
Those who are fond of various retreats — writers, ecstatics, parents with young children — often comment on the silence such time away allows. Silence becomes something present, almost palpable. The central task shifts from keeping the world at a safe decibel distance to letting more of the world in. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty arrests motion. He meant, I think, that in the presence of something gorgeous or sublime we stop our natterings, our foot twitchings and restless tongues. Whatever our fretful hunger is, it seems momentarily filled in the presence of beauty. To Aquinas’s wisdom I’d add that silence arrests flight, that in its refuge our need to flee the chaos of noise diminishes. We let the world creep closer; we drop to our knees as if to let the heart, like a small animal, get its legs on the ground.
Beautiful. Later, more on being alone:
Part of the appeal of a refuge is surely its isolation. There nobody can see you still weeping over a lover who hunched off with another some thirty years ago. Nobody is there to notice whether you stand straight or slouch, or how you suck your stomach in. Or don’t. A refuge is like a locked bathroom door where you can practice the fine art of extending your tongue until you can finally touch the tip of your nose, which you also feel free to pick as thoroughly as you want. Nobody’s watching; you can do whatever you want.
"On Impact" by Stephen King in The New Yorker
King tells the story of how he was hit by a car and almost died. At the end of his essay, he tells how he began writing again, and there are some beautiful sentences:
On some days, that writing is a pretty grim slog. On others — more and more of them, as my mind reaccustoms itself to its old routine — I feel that buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and put them in a line. It’s like lifting off in an airline: you’re on the ground, on the ground, on the ground…and then you’re up, riding on a cushion of air and the prince of all you survey.
"Facing the Village" by Lenore Look in Manoa
Her story about going with her father to visit the remote Chinese village that was his birthplace. A second generation immigrant to America, she writes about how she tried to shed her Chinese heritage, a process made easy in a country where "remaking oneself is nearly a national religion." When she and her parents decided to visit her father’s village, she thought of it opportunistically — maybe there’s a novel or story in the trip. But when she arrives, she discovers the powerful tug of physical roots:
Ironically, it was my arrogance that had brought me to the village: I came looking for what I could take from it. Details for a novel in progress. But somewhere between my desire and the fulfillment of it, I fell into an abyss. Like my father, I heard my name called in that place — audible only to my ears perhaps, but maybe not — and I tumbled headlong after him into that strong morning light, undeserving. In that place full of beginnings and ends and everything in between, I knew that I, too, had come home. Here was the home that I sought. I cannot turn from it — it is more than I deserve, and it is enough.