The twenty-two essays in this powerful collection -- perhaps the most diverse in the entire series -- come from a wide variety of periodicals, ranging from n + 1 and PMS to the New Republic and The New Yorker, and showcase a remarkable range of forms. Read on for narrative -- in first and third person -- opinion, memoir, argument, the essay-review, confession, reportage, even a dispatch from Iraq. The philosopher Peter Singer makes a case for philanthropy; the poet Molly Peacock constructs a mosaic tribute to a little-known but remarkable eighteenth-century woman artist; the novelist Marilynne Robinson explores what has happened to holiness in contemporary Christianity; the essayist Richard Rodriguez wonders if California has anything left to say to America; and the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson attempts to find common ground with the evangelical community.
In his introduction, David Foster Wallace makes the spirited case that many of these essays are valuable simply as exhibits of what a first-rate artistic mind can make of particular fact-sets -- whether these involve the 17-kHz ring tones of some kids’ cell phones, the language of movement as parsed by dogs, the near-infinity of ways to experience and describe an earthquake, the existential synecdoche of stagefright, or the revelation that most of what you’ve believed and revered turns out to be self-indulgent crap.”
Wallace (Infinite Jest) expects that most readers usually pass over the guest editor's introduction to sample the selected entries in an anthology like this. That may be for the best in this case, depending on your political beliefs (red flag for elephants). In his introduction to the 22 literary essays published in 2006 in national and regional periodicals, Wallace discusses the series title at length; when he finally gets to the volume at hand, he rambles about the failures of the George W. Bush administration. True, several of the selections-e.g., George Gessert's "An Orgy of Power" (Northwest Review)-concentrate on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the abuses of power at Abu Ghraib. But their range extends beyond matters of power, politics, and war. Malcolm Gladwell's "What the Dog Saw" (The New Yorker), e.g., examines the skills of dog whisperer Cesar Millan, while W.S. Di Piero's "Fathead's Hard Times" (Threepenny Review) addresses the capacity of music to help fight pain. Also included are a foreword by series editor Robert Atwan, contributors' notes with brief author biographies, and a list of "notable essays." A sundry and robust collection; highly recommended for all libraries.