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The Best American Essays 2012, Series Editor Robert Atwan
Even those nonfiction writers who focus on science are often interested in the essay form regardless of the topic covered. And science writing makes its way into this annual collection of the best nonfiction from periodicals, which was edited by commentator and New York Times columnist David Brooks this past year.
Six of the 24 essays were first published in The New Yorker or some iteration of The New York Times, and Harper’s and Granta each have two bests in this collection. So, readers can expect to find familiar publications and familiar authors represented. Blink and The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell contributes “Creation Myth,” and Einstein’s Dreams and The Discoveries author Alan Lightman contributes “The Accidental Universe” (which also appears in The Best American Science Writing 2012).
One of the most relevant science-writing pieces in this collection is Ken Murray’s “How Doctors Die,” originally published at Zócalo Public Square. This essay fits into a conversation of several recent articles, including Jonathan Rausch’s “How Not To Die” and David Goldhill’s “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” both published in The Atlantic. “Almost all medical professionals,” Murray writes, “have seen what we call ‘futile care’ being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life.” A physician himself, he claims that medical professionals “don’t overtreat themselves” in the ways they overtreat the rest of us.
Six of the anthology’s contributions are written by women, and two of these can be considered science writing. Both discuss the state of mental health and treatment options.
Marcia Angell’s “The Crazy State of Psychiatry” uses the book review approach to challenge common assumptions about mental illness and illuminate “the ‘frenzy’ of diagnosis, the overuse of drugs with sometimes devastating side effects, and widespread conflicts of interest.” In addition to asking readers to ponder the current state of mental illness treatment, it’s an essay that fits into recent the conversation about the rise of the pharmaceutical industry, including Harriet Washington’s “Flacking for Big Pharma” in The American Scholar.
Lauren Slater’s in “Killing My Body to Save My Mind” uses a very different, autobiographical approach. She writes of switching to an atypical antipsychotic after her antidepressants stopped working, “At the time I was given Zyprexa, I was so desperate I couldn’t have cared less about diabetes, and my doctor’s warning that I might plump up as a side effect of the drug fell on deaf ears.” She sees this drug as something that saved her life but one that has left her with a likely shortened life because of the physical side effects.
That two writers can tackle similar subject matter in very different ways is reason for writers to read around in a particular area of interest but also beyond one’s comfort zone of subject matter. That’s one reason why annual anthologies are appealing to us at Lofty Ambitions. As writers, we read selfishly, honing the tools we can use to do our own thing on the page and screen. Of course, as readers, we learn about the world around us as we read science writing, and the nonfiction pieces in this and other anthologies are brimming with information we can use as we decide how to live our lives.
We suggest you purchase a copy of The Best American Essays 2012 at your local physical bookstore, or consider ordering a copy from Tattered Cover HERE.