This week, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released this year’s Best American Series, a familiar collection of seven anthologies featuring what the esteemed editors (including Dan Ariely, David Brooks, and William T. Vollman—six out of the seven volume editors are men) determined were the superior written work in various categories—travel writing, essays, short stories—from the past year. Or rather, from last year. Though the books come out now and have “2012” in their titles, their purview is 2011. Among the pieces in this year’s crop are articles originally published nearly two years ago, and—by definition—none published in the past nine months.
On the one hand, complaining about this feels crotchety. A few of the included pieces were genuinely timely, in the traditional news sense—I imagine it will be weird for readers to leaf through The Best American Non-Required Reading 2012 today and find celebratory essays about Occupy Wall Street from October 2011—but most of the articles are either fiction or essays whose relevance does not depend much on current events. Even most of the sports articles hold up: the main difference between Lionel Messi in May 2011, when the New York Times profiled him, and Lionel Messi in October 2012, when that profile appeared in The Best American Sports Writing 2012, is one more Champions League title, one more FIFA Ballon d’Or prize, and one more Copa del Rey. He is still, as the profile title puts it, a “Boy Genius.”
But the Best American timing discrepancy is a problem, because the books risk being ignored in favor of nimbler competitors that seem to do the same thing, but really don’t. As everyone knows—the confirmation du jour being BuzzFeed’s much-publicized search for a “longform editor”—the Internet and various mobile platforms have changed the way we consume (and arguably fetishize) long articles and essays and short fiction. The upshot is that a bunch of websites like Longform, Longreads, Byliner, and older ones like Arts & Letters Daily and even The New Republic, which daily curates a few longer pieces at TNR Reader, provide daily fixes of the better longer content, from publications big and small, national and local, every day. That Messi profile, for example, was highlighted soon after it was published on Byliner; on SportsFeat, Longform’s sports site; and, of course, on Twitter, where, as BuzzFeed’s longform bet confirms, long articles are as welcome as animal pictures.
So then the solution is to update your Twitter and RSS feeds accordingly, read (or ReadItLater or Instapaper) the good articles as they come across your transom, and treat the Best American series as one more legacy medium that, like the land line, survives increasingly thanks to those members of the population still largely stuck in the analog age. Right?
No. These books, being books, can’t be too long, which means they can’t have too many articles, which means they must choose only the, well, best. Best American Essays 2012 contains 24 entries, which is exactly as many articles as Longform curated in the past week. The books, in other words, are necessarily more discriminating than the Websites, and while you could quibble with some of, say, David Brooks’ selections, they clearly aspire to represent the absolute best that was thought and said in 2011 (and simply by including Peter Hessler’s outstanding report on a small-town pharmacist, it succeeds).
The daily online aggregators are great, but they need to be complemented by a stricter gatekeeper that filters the best from the merely good and very good. That is the role these books can fill—a role that is made only more valuable by a world in which substantive, months-in-the-making 7,000 word articles get posted on Twitter right next to hashtag jokes and Donald Trump’s paranoid pontifications.
Yet finally the 2011/2012 problem remains worrisome. If the Best American series performs a valuable service, it does so with an increasingly critical fault by waiting for the end of the next year to publish. We measure our lives by those otherwise arbitrary 12-month cycles; and if the best writing is timeless, that is because it is also timely. A good yearly anthology is a capsule of our consciousness from that year. The sports writing anthology has an article on football-induced head trauma; the science and nature writing anthology contains pieces on the latest in brain physiology and on urbanism; and Occupy Wall Street was indeed on the collective brain in 2011, even if it hasn’t been in 2012. In fact, especially because it hasn’t been in 2012, it is important that a rigorous anthology use contemporary technology—e-books, print-on-demand, the Internet—to publish at or near the end of the year it depicts, keeping the insights it contains from going stale. Five or ten or fifty years from now, when some reader happens upon a 2011 anthology, they should open (or download, or upload, or mindmeld with) intellectual air that is as fresh as the day it was sealed inside.