Of Essays and Norton Readers

The ever-extraordinary Anne Fernald has just put up a post asking for recommendations of essays, since she is on the advisory board for The Norton Reader and they're planning a new edition.

I have an extraordinary fondness for The Norton Reader, though some of that fondness is, as they say, extra-textual. The textual fondness is that I think it's a wonderfully generous selection of stuff -- in fact, I like it so much I've assigned the book in classes, and if I ever taught such a class again, I'd almost certainly use it again. The extra-textual fondness is entirely for John C. Brereton, one of the main editors of the book, who, almost exactly one year ago, had the excellent taste to marry one of my best friends and mentors.

So I care a lot about The Norton Reader.

And I like essays.

Thus, while my students were taking tests this afternoon, I thought about essays to recommend to the folks at the NR. My thoughts are all a-jumble on this topic, though, because I hardly know where to begin.

I had four immediate ideas, though:
  1. For years, I have wished someone would anthologize John Leonard's essay "A Victim of Surprises", which I've frequently used in classes to demonstrate all sorts of different things (I mentioned the essay in my eulogy for Leonard).
  2. The essay I have used most frequently to demonstrate certain types of rhetoric and argument is "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" along with a photocopy of the letters page of the NY Times Magazine the following week. I would love a book to include both.
  3. My favorite edition of Best American Essays is the one edited by David Foster Wallace. Heck, Wallace's introduction itself would be a good thing to include (although I also like "Consider the Lobster" which is already in NR. Actually, I'd support a whole "Essays By David Foster Wallace" section of the book...) There's very little in the book that wouldn't be useful in NR. At the very least, Jo Ann Beard's "Werner" should be a shoe-in.
  4. The NR should not ignore the online world. The context of rhetoric in our time is one that has moved more and more online, for better and/or worse. There are marvelous, professional online venues now -- and not just well-known-by-everybody spots like Salon, but also Strange Horizons and Quarterly Conversation and Rain Taxi Online and a gazillion other places that I don't happen to have written for. There are also all sorts of brilliant individual voices available via blogs (cf. the sidebar of this site). A book like NR would enter the current century if it were able to integrate such voices into its canon. But the key would be to avoid presenting the online world as if it's just like print. Two items particularly come to mind: The ability of blogs to use hyperlinks in all sorts of different ways, and the addition of comments from readers to not just blogs and opinion pieces, but even newspapers. If a book is really going to show the progression and potential of rhetoric, it can't ignore this, and it can't approach it in a superficial and cursory way.
Those were my immediate thoughts. Then I tried to think of a few more examples of specific texts that I would recommend. Given a week or two, I'd come up with a much better list, but I've got other things clawing at my attention right now, so in the spirit of keeping the online world in mind, here are some things I've kept bookmarks of that I think would be interesting or amusing additions to my beloved Norton Reader...
Helon Habila on Dambudzo Marechera
Louis Menand on cultural prizes
Barbara Ransby on Hollywood's Africa problem
"Viewing American Class Divisions Through Facebook and MySpace" by Danah Boyd
Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia
"How to Write about Africa" by Binyavanga Wainaina
"The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" by Jonathan Lethem
Tim Wise on institutional racism and the SAT
Mark Liberman on "Sexual Pseudoscience from CNN"
"The Color of an Awkward Conversation" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
"Obscenity Rap" by Geoffrey Nunberg
David Skinner on Webster's Third
"The Talking Helix" by Patricia J. Williams
"Being Poor" by John Scalzi and Nick Mamatas
Stanley Fish on norms and deviations
"The Gamble" by Samuel R. Delany (PDF)

"Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" by Clay Shirkey

(Those are just things I happen to have easy access to at the moment, so reflect my particular interests and prejudices, but I'm just making quick suggestions, not editing a whole book, so there's no attempt to be comprehensive or balanced.)

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