Book Review: The Best American Essays of 2012

This year’s edition is curated by David Brooks, and as usual, it’s phenomenal. One of the things I most look forward to in my annual reading diet is diving into the latest Best American Essays series.

Brooks must have death on his mind as several essays in the anthology are directly or indirectly on the topic.

There’s Miah Arnold’s piece on teaching English classes to some of the sickest children in the world in Houston. Imagine teaching a class where your child-aged students are dying every day, every week–you grow attached to your students but before the semester’s over, they’re dead. “When you know somebody with less than six months to live and that person agrees to spend any moment of it with you, the immensity of that generosity does change you, undeniably.”

There’s Dudley Clendin’s short piece titled “The Good Short Life,” about living (and dying) of A.L.S. It’s very moving. There’s this serious point:

We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.

And after describing why he’d rather die than be an (expensive) vegetable:

Last month, an old friend brought me a recording of the greatest concert he’d ever heard, Leonard Cohen, live, in London, three years ago. It’s powerful, haunting music, by a poet, composer and singer whose life has been as tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.

The song that transfixed me, words and music, was “Dance Me to the End of Love.” That’s the way I feel about this time. I’m dancing, spinning around, happy in the last rhythms of the life I love. When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over.


Here are my excerpts from the 2001 edition. From the 2007 edition. Thanks to Amy Batchelor for her on-going inspiration to read this series.

1 comment on “Book Review: The Best American Essays of 2012
  • Glad that David Brooks does something besides use his column at the New York Times to lobby for the top 1 percent by misdirection and obfuscation.

    The story You Owe Me by Miah Arnold is very affecting. I couldn’t help but think as I read it how ironic it is that Brooks works so diligently to diminish the general welfare of the rest of us, with cancer or not.

    And David Brooks teaching a course on “humility” at Yale? It’s as if George Will were teaching a course on marital fidelity at Sarah Lawrence.

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