"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Best of...?

  "The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009" edited by Elizabeth Kolbert

I've mentioned before enjoying anthologies, but one somewhat notable exception to that has been the "Best American Series" put out yearly on a wide variety of subjects. These volumes (selecting some of the very best writing of the previous year from a variety of authors, subjects, and publications) tend to be very disjointed, no doubt selecting their varying pieces to appeal to a wide variety of readers. While I don't dislike these volumes, I don't find them as satisfying as other anthologies built around a single theme or by a single writer. The latest  "The Best of Science and Nature Writing 2009" edited by Elizabeth Kolbert (the editor changes each year) is no exception; if anything, I think it a little better than some of the previous editions and certainly an ok-read, but still just a "B-" for my tastes.

The writing is invariably good with plenty of familiar names (Wendell Berry, Walter Isaacson, David Quammen, Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks to name a few) selected, as well as some less familiar writers and publications. Each draws the reader into their subject effectively and carries them along for the ride. If I were reading any of these pieces in a newspaper or magazine I would undoubtedly enjoy them, but somehow perusing them back-to-back in book form is a less engaging experience, although it's difficult to say exactly why they don't gel better in this form. Just a couple weeks back I reviewed (much more favorably) Martin Gardner's "When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish," an anthology of pieces from him that are easily as disparate as this "Best of" collection. The difference is that the Gardner volume has a certain style throughout, and reflects back very engagingly on the thinking of a single individual. It has a unity or 'wholeness,' despite the 'hopscotchiness,' that the Kolbert volume lacks.

The "Best" series actually puts out separate "Best of Nature Writing" and "Best of Science Writing" volumes, and because science and nature writing are slightly different genres, I think this combined work is a tad more disjointed than those separate works. Each piece is a fine example of writing, but the styles and subject matter and themes are so unrelated that they just don't hang together well (for me) in a single volume. It's the sort of book I'll read once, semi-enjoy, and then pass off to a used bookstore, rather than put on my shelf to reference or savor again in the future.

Some will no doubt be more enamored of the volume though than me (especially if you've liked this series in the past), and below is a more positive Web review of it:


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