The Best American Essays 2008
Houghton Mifflin US$14 pb, 316 pp
In 1977, in three consecutive issues, the New Yorker published Hannah Arendt’s ‘Thinking’. Each part was called an ‘article’, a strangely modest, journalistic word in the face of the length of each part of the essay and the profound subject. Thirty-two years ago, the magazine showed curmudgeonly modesty: writers were named in small print at the foot of each ‘piece’, there was never, god forbid, a sub-editor’s catch-all under the title, no short biographies of the writers were printed, and there were never, ever, visual illustrations or photographs to accompany the text. The issue in which the first of Arendt’s ‘articles’ appeared included poetry by Mark Strand; the long book review was by George Steiner; Pauline Kael was the film reviewer; there were four Saul Steinberg drawings; and Andrew Porter reported on classical music. The list of names we revere could go on.
In 1985, the year he bought the New Yorker and placed it under Condé Nast’s masthead, S.I. Newhouse Jr visited Australia and ate at Berowra Waters Inn, which I owned at the time. In a fit of pathetic supplication, I knelt (I swear I did) at his feet and begged him not to change the magazine. He laughed, moved on – so too the world. Over the next decade the magazine did change, especially under Tina Brown. Photographs appeared, fashion raised its ugly but sometimes interesting head, the contributors began to be made much more of, their names appearing at the top of their articles, and their past relevant performances listed. Nevertheless, excellent critics, reporters and thinkers, fine poets and writers of fiction continued to contribute, and there is still a steely attention to proofreading and fact. Its current editor, David Remnick, has my confidence; forty years on from that first subscription, I’m still hooked.