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The "Best American" Essays in The New Yorker, 1985 to the Present

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I was happy to see Emily’s statement of allegiance to The New Yorker at The Millions the other day. For that matter, I was heartened to C. Max Magee launch such an impassioned argument in favor of the magazine. While I fully agree with him, it’s occurred to me before that there are more objective measures of the quality of The New Yorker. Two years ago now, I tried to summon a collection of like-minded readers around the project of isolating the finest treasures in The Complete New Yorker. Later, I realized that that group had already coalesced here at Emdashes; what’s more, others had already done much of the work of isolating the best work that has appeared in the magazine.

You’re familiar with Houghton Mifflin’s annual “Best American” anthology series. Not too long ago, there was only The Best American Essays and The Best American Short Stories. Today, the series have proliferated, in more ways than one. Houghton Mifflin has branched out into The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Best American Comics, and so on. Meanwhile, other presses, noticing the popularity of the line, have followed suit: Da Capo now has a Best Music Writing series, Harper Perennial has its own Best American Science Writing series (Houghton Mifflin’s counterpart is called The Best American Science and Nature Writing), and so on. It’s become a crowded field.

As a rule, each series has a general editor, and every year a prominent practitioner of the art is asked to serve as guest editor. In each Best American Essays (or whatever), approximately a score of exemplars is selected to be reprinted, along with—important for my purposes—several dozen also-rans listed in the back of the book.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has leafed through these books that The New Yorker regularly dominates them. It is the rare table of contents that does not feature an artifact from The New Yorker, more commonly two or three. The also-rans in the back also invariably feature a handful of additional gems that originally appeared in The New Yorker.

I would never claim that these selections are the final word on the subject. Surely The New Yorker and other outlets benefit from familiarity, and surely reasons that are not purely quality-based might account for this or that article or story being selected over another. Sometimes the selections seem more notable for their ability to get people talking than strict level of achievement. The guest editors are idiosyncratic; nobody’s perfect.

Nevertheless, in the aggregate the baseline quality represented in a listing of all of The New Yorker’s selected essays or stories is simply very high. No matter how you cut it, these books are a tremendous resource for anyone seeking the best writing from the magazine over the last two decades or so.

And every last one of them is in The Complete New Yorker.

For that reason, I have sought to provide a list of the pieces from The New Yorker that have been deemed worthy of inclusion over the years. There are many; the length of the list is itself a proof of the claim that The New Yorker is superlative.

As of now, there are gaps. Anyone with a yen to trudge off to the library and jot down some authors and titles (dates I can get on my own) and then e-mail them to martin@emdashes.com is incredibly welcome to do so. I promise to add the entries to this post with alacrity, with credit. (Note that the items in this list dated, say, 2001 appeared in the collection with the year 2002 printed on the cover.) The essays are listed chronologically, so the merest glance will reveal the years I have not yet been able to secure. Please report the inevitable errors to the same address. Outright selections and also-rans are listed without noting which is which—they’re all gonna be good, right? [Update: I’ve changed my mind on this; selected essays, where available, are set in italics. —MCS]

The list can fulfill multiple purposes, of course; if you are worried about missing gems in general, this list will help you catch up. But even if you want to indulge your skeptical side and test whether that overhyped John Updike or Cynthia Ozick is really any good; well, here are the certified hits. They might not be the most exceptional works that Updike or Ozick ever wrote, but somebody clearly thought they were pretty good. I swoon at the very thought of the reading lists (a handy feature of the CNY) this post may inspire. Calvin Trillin, Adam Gopnik, Alice Munro, Roger Angell—you could generate a short reading list for each of them, and many more.

I sincerely hope readers find this list useful. More are on the way. —Martin Schneider

“Best American Essays” originating in The New Yorker:

1985 (Elizabeth Hardwick, editor)
Calvin Trillin, “Right-of-Way,” 5/6/1985
John Updike, “At War with My Skin,” 9/2/1985
Ian Frazier, “Bear News,” 9/9/1985
Joseph Brodsky, “Flight from Byzantium,” 10/28/1985

1986 (Gay Talese, editor)
Calvin Trillin, “Rumors Around Town,” 1/6/1986
Adam Gopnik, “Quattrocento Baseball,” 5/19/1986
Anthony Bailey, “A Good Little Vessel,” 6/2/1986
Vicki Hearne, “Questions about Language,” 8/18/1985
Berton Roueche, “Marble Stories,” 10/27/1986
William Pfaff, “The Dimensions of Terror,” 11/10/1986
Calvin Trillin, “The Life and Times of Joe Bob Briggs, So Far,” 12/22/1986

1987 (Annie Dillard, editor)
E.J. Kahn Jr., “The Honorable Member for Houghton” 4/20/1987
Harold Brodkey, “Reflections: Family.” 11/23/1987
Susan Sontag, “Pilgrimage,” 12/21/1987

1988 (Geoffrey Wolff, editor)
Veronica Geng, “A Lot in Common,” 1/25/1988
Calvin Trillin, “Stranger in Town,” 2/1/1988
E.J. Kahn Jr., “Hand to Hand,” 2/8/1988
George W.S. Trow Jr., “Subway Story,” 2/22/1988
Dan Hofstadter, “Omnivores, 4/25/1988
Gwen Kinkead, “An Overgrown Jack,” 7/18/1988
Robert Shaplen, “The Long River,” 8/8/1988
Joan Didion, “Letter from Los Angeles,” 9/5/1988
Berton Rouech�, “The Foulest and Nastiest Creatures that Be,” 9/12/1988
Jane Kramer, “Letter from Europe: West Berlin,” 11/28/1988

1989 (Justin Kaplan, editor)
Frances FitzGerald, “Memoirs of the Reagan Era,” 1/16/1989
Robert Heilbroner, “The Triumph of Capitalism,” 1/23/1989
Calvin Trillin, “Abigail y Yo,” 6/26/1989
Roger Angell, “No, But I Saw the Game,” 7/31/1989
Sue Hubbell, “The Vicksburg Ghost,” 9/25/1989
Cynthia Ozick, “T.S. Eliot at 101,” 11/20/1989

1990 (Joyce Carol Oates, editor)
Joan Didion, “Letter from Los Angeles,” 2/26/1990
John McPhee, “Travels of the Rock,” 2/26/1990
Michael J. Arlen, “Invisible People,” 4/16/1990
Ian Frazier, “Canal Street,” 4/30/1990
Terrence Rafferty, “The Essence of Landscape,” 6/25/1990
George W. S. Trow, “Devastation,” 10/22/1990
Calvin Trillin, “The Italian Thing,” 11/19/1990

1991 (Susan Sontag, editor)
Jane Kramer, “Letter from Europe,” 1/14/1991
Muriel Spark, “The School of the Links,” 3/25/1991
Roger Angell, “Homeric Tales,” 5/27/1991
Susan Orlean, “Living Large,” 6/17/1991
George W. S. Trow, “Needs,” 10/14/1991
Adam Gopnik, “Audubon’s Passion,” 12/25/1991

1992 (Joseph Epstein, editor)
Roger Angell, “Early Innings,” 2/24/1992
Alastair Reid, “Waiting for Columbus,” 2/24/1992
Oliver Sacks, “A Surgeon’s Life,” 3/16/1992
Cynthia Ozick, “Alfred Chester’s Wig,” 3/30/1992
David Owen, “One-Ring Mud Show,” 4/20/1992
David Rieff, “Original Virtue, Original Sin,” 11/23/1992

1993 (Tracy Kidder, editor)
Calvin Trillin, “The First Family of Astoria,” 2/8/1993
A. Alvarez, “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” 3/8/1993
Jamaica Kincaid, “Alien Soil,” 6/21/1993
Harold Brodkey, “To My Readers,” 6/21/1993
John McPhee, “Duty of Care,” 6/28/1993
Edward Conlon, “To the Potter’s Field,” 7/19/1993
Joan Didion, “Trouble in Lakewood,” 7/26/1993
Adam Gopnik, “Death in Venice,” 8/2/1993
Ted Conover, “Trucking Through the AIDS Belt,” 8/16/1993
David Denby, “Does Homer Have Legs?” 9/6/1993
Ian Frazier, “The Frankest Interview Yet,” 9/27/1993
Alec Wilkinson, “The Confession,” 10/4/1993
F. Gonzalez-Crussi, “Days of the Dead,” 11/1/1993
Cynthia Ozick, “Rushdie in the Louvre,” 12/13/1993
John McPhee, “Irons in the Fire,” 12/20/1993
Linda H. Davis, “The Man on the Swing,” 12/27/1993

1994 (Jamaica Kincaid, editor)
Harold Brodkey, “Dying: An Update,” 2/7/1994
Alfred Kazin, “Jews,” 3/7/1994
Louis Menand, “The War of All Against All,” 3/14/1994
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “In the Kitchen,” 4/18/1994
John Edgar Wideman, “Father Stories,” 8/1/1994
David Denby, “Queen Lear,” 10/3/1994
Jamaica Kincaid, “Earthly Delights,” 12/12/1994

1995 (Geoffrey C. Ward, editor)
Harold Brodkey, “The Last Word on Winchell,” 1/30/1995
Ian Frazier, “Take the F,” 2/20/1995
Jamaica Kincaid, “Putting Myself Together,” 2/20/1995
Calvin Trillin, “State Secrets,” 5/29/1995
Nicholson Baker, “Books as Furniture,” 6/12/1995
Amitav Ghosh, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi,” 7/17/1995
William Styron, “A Case of the Great Pox,” 9/18/1995
Adam Gopnik, “Wonderland,” 10/9/1995
Chang-Rae Lee, “Coming Home Again,” 10/16/1995
Joyce Carol Oates, “They All Just Went Away,” 10/16/1995
Joan Acocella, “Cather and the Academy,” 11/27/1995
John Irving, “Slipped Away,” 12/11/1995

1996 (Ian Frazier, editor)
Roger Angell, “True Tales—Well, Maybe,” 1/22/1996
Harold Brodkey, “This Wild Darkness,” 2/5/1996
Paul Sheehan, “My Habit,” 2/12/1996
Jane Kramer, “The Invisible Woman,” 2/26/1996
Francine du Plessix Gray, “The Third Age,” 2/26/1996
Daphne Merkin, “Unlikely Obsession,” 2/26/1996
Marjorie Gross, “Cancer Becomes Me,” 4/15/1996
Jonathan Raban, “The Unlamented West,” 5/20/1996
Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter,” 6/24/1996
David Denby, “Buried Alive,” 7/15/1996
Kathryn Harrison, “Tick,” 7/29/1996
Calvin Trillin, “Anne of Red Hair,” 8/5/1996
Alison Rose, “Bathing-Suit Heroines,” 8/12/1996
Garry Wills, “John Wayne’s Body,” 8/19/1996
Vivian Gornick, “On the Street,” 9/9/1996
Richard Ford, “In the Face,” 9/16/1996
Cynthia Ozick, “A Drugstore Eden,” 9/16/1996
Hilton Als, “Notes on My Mother,” 11/18/1996

1997 (Cynthia Ozick, editor)
James Atlas, “Making the Grade,” 4/14/1997
Adam Gopnik, “Appointment with a Dinosaur,” 4/21/1997
John McPhee, “Silk Parachute,” 5/12/1997
Alison Rose, “Tales of a Beauty,” 5/26/1997
Oliver Sacks, “Water Babies,” 5/26/1997
Diana Trilling, “A Visit to Camelot,” 6/2/1997
Noelle Oxenhandler, “Fall from Grace,” 6/16/1997
David Denby, “In Darwin’s Wake,” 7/21/1997
Andre Dubus, “Witness,” 7/21/1997
Patrick McGrath, “Jealousy,” 8/25/1997
Cynthia Ozick, “Lovesickness,” 8/25/1997
Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The Naked Republic,” 8/25/1997
Salman Rushdie, “Crash,” 9/15/1997
John Updike, “Lost Art,” 12/15/1997

1998 (Edward Hoagland, editor)
Bill Buford, “Thy Neighbor’s Life,” 1/5/1998
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The End of Loyalty,” 3/8/1998
Arthur Miller, “Before Air-Conditioning,” 6/22/1998
John McPhee, “Swimming with Canoes,” 8/10/1998
Richard Ford, “Good Raymond,” 10/5/1998
Joan Didion, “Last Words,” 11/9/1998
John Lahr, “The Lion and Me,” 11/16/1998
Andre Aciman, “In Search of Proust,” 12/21/1998
George W.S. Trow, “Folding the Times,” 12/28/1998

1999 (Alan Lightman, editor)
Calvin Trillin, “The Chicken Vanishes,” 2/8/1999
Alec Wilkinson, “Notes Left Behind,” 2/15/1999
Hilton Als, “The Dope Show,” 2/22/1999
Cynthia Ozick, “The Synthetic Sublime,” 2/22/1999
Joseph Epstein, “Taking the Bypass,” 4/12/1999
Daphne Merkin, “Our Money, Ourselves,” 4/26/1999
Malcolm Gladwell, “The Physical Genius,” 8/2/1999
Bill Buford, “Lions and Tigers and Bears,” 8/23/1999
Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Rope Burn,” 8/23/1999
John Seabrook, “Nobrow Culture,” 9/20/1999
John McPhee, “Farewell to the Nineteenth Century,” 9/27/1999
Adam Gopnik, “The Rookie,” 10/4/1999
Dave Eggers, “The Orphans Are Coming!” 10/18/1999
John Updike, “The Future of Faith,” 11/29/1999
Oliver Sacks, “Brilliant Light,” 12/20/1999

2000 (Kathleen Norris, editor)
Dagoberto Gilb, “I Knew She Was Beautiful,” 3/13/2000
John McPhee, “They’re in the River,” 4/10/2000
Marcus Laffey, “The Midnight Tour,” 5/15/2000
Edward Hoagland, “Calliope Times,” 5/22/2000
Stephen King, “On Impact,” 6/19/2000
Tony Earley, “Granny’s Bridge,” 7/3/2000
Andre Aciman, “Arbitrage,” 7/10/2000
Mary Karr, “The Hot Dark,” 9/4/2000
Daphne Merkin, “Trouble in the Tribe,” 9/11/2000

2001 (Stephen Jay Gould, editor)
Daphne Merkin, “The Black Season,” 1/8/2001
Jamaica Kincaid, “Sowers and Reapers,” 1/22/2001
Darryl Pinckney, “Busted in New York,” 2/5/2001
Atul Gawande, “Final Cut,” 3/19/2001
Susan Sontag, “Where the Stress Falls,” 6/18/2001
Eric Konigsberg, “Blood Relation,” 8/6/2001
David Samuels, “The Runner,” 9/3/2001
Jonathan Franzen, “My Father’s Brain,” 9/10/2001
Adam Gopnik, “The City and the Pillars,” 9/24/2001

2002 (Anne Fadiman, editor)
Atul Gawande, “The Learning Curve,” 1/28/2002
Judith Thurman, “Swann Song,” 3/18/2002
Alice Munro, “Lying Under the Apple Tree,” 6/17/2002
Donald Antrim, “I Bought a Bed,” 6/17/2002
Katha Pollitt, “Learning to Drive,” 7/22/2002
Jane Kramer, “The Reporter’s Kitchen,” 8/19/2002
Cathleen Schine, “The ‘Holy Ground,’” 9/16/2002
Adam Gopnik, “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli,” 9/30/2002
Oliver Sacks, “The Case of Anna H.,” 10/7/2002
Jerome Groopman, “Dying Words,” 10/28/2002
Gay Talese, “On the Bridge,” 12/2/2002
Ian Frazier, “Researchers Say,” 12/9/2002

2003 (Louis Menand, editor)
Scott Turow, “To Kill or Not To Kill,” 1/6/2003
Adam Gopnik, “The Unreal Thing,” 5/19/2003
Roger Angell, “Romance,” 5/26/2003
Susan Orlean, “Lifelike,” 6/9/2003
David Sedaris, “Our Perfect Summer,” 6/16/2003
Jonathan Franzen, “Caught,” 6/16/2003
Cynthia Ozick, “What Helen Keller Saw,” 6/16/2003
Laura Hillenbrand, “A Sudden Illness,” 7/7/2003
Alex Ross, “Rock 101,” 7/14/2003
Oliver Sacks, “The Mind’s Eye,” 7/28/2003
Cynthia Zarin, “An Enlarged Heart,” 8/18/2003
Don DeLillo, “That Day in Rome,” 10/20/2003
John McPhee, “1839/2003,” 12/15/2003
George Saunders, “Chicago Christmas, 1984,” 12/22/2003

2004 (Susan Orlean, editor)
Cathleen Schine, “Dog Trouble,” 1/5/2004
Katha Pollitt, “Webstalker,” 1/19/2004
Roger Angell, “La Vie en Rose,” 2/16/2004
Alex Ross, “Listen to This,” 2/16/2004
Donald Antrim, “The Kimono,” 3/15/2004
Adam Gopnik, “Last of the Metrozoids,” 5/10/2004
Simon Schama, “Sail Away,” 5/31/2004
Robert Stone, “The Prince of Possibility,” 6/14/2004
Joan Acocella, “Blocked,” 6/14/2004
Caitliin Flanagan, “To Hell With All That,” 7/5/2004
Oliver Sacks, “Speed,” 8/23/2004
Malcolm Gladwell, “The Ketchup Conundrum,” 9/6/2004
Calvin Trillin, “Dissed Fish,” 9/6/2004
Calvin Tomkins, “Summer Afternoon,” 9/13/2004
David Sedaris, “Old Faithful,” 11/29/2004
Jonathan Franzen, “The Comfort Zone,” 11/29/2004

2005 (Lauren Slater, editor)
Ian Frazier, “Out of Ohio,” 1/10/2005
Oscar Hijuelos, “Lunch at the Biltmore,” 1/17/2005
Roger Angell, “Andy,” 2/14/2005
Susan Orlean, “Lost Dog,” 2/14/2005
Jonathan Lethem, “The Beards,” 2/28/2005
Jonathan Franzen, “The Retreat,” 6/6/2005
Edmund White, “My Women,” 6/13/2005
Adam Gopnik, “Death of a Fish,” 7/4/2005
Oliver Sacks, “Recalled to Life,” 10/31/2005

2006 (David Foster Wallace, editor)
Calvin Trillin, “Alice, Off the Page,” 3/27/2006
Daniel Raeburn, “Vessels,” 5/1/2006
Malcolm Gladwell, “What the Dog Saw,” 5/22/2006
Louis Menand, “Name that Tone,” 6/26/2006
John Lahr, “Petrified,” 8/28/2006
Richard Preston, “Tall for Its Age,” 10/9/2006
Jill Lepore, “Noah’s Mark,” 11/6/2006
David Sedaris, “Road Trips,” 11/27/2006

Many, many thanks to Benjamin Chambers of The King’s English for fully nine of the years listed here. It made all the difference.


I would add to this great, cornucopic list two personal favorites: Arthur Lubow’s “This Vodka Has Legs” (September 12, 1994) and Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “George & Eddie’s” (December 24, 1990).

Thanks for the reading list. (Like I need another one!) Should be a fun way to noodle through my Complete NYer. Still, I’ve been a bit disappointed by the two essays I began with; since they were both from 1985, I’m wondering if fashions in essay-writing have anything to do with it. I’m a fan of Ian Frazier, so I started right off with his “Bear News.” Even though it had a few things I liked, it simply tailed off as if Frazier had run out of steam. I’m also a fan of Trillin’s light work, but I’ve never read his reporting. My hopes for “Right-of-Way,” however, were unrealized. Although necessarily open-ended since it was about truly bad neighbors who were still neighbors, it also felt flat. Perhaps that says more about the kinds of essays I’ve come to like - or my overriding predilection for fiction, which can be more easily shaped - but I’ll be interested to see if I notice changes as I read through the decades.

Hi Benjamin, thanks for the thoughtful comment. It’s certainly possible that e.g. the Internet has radically altered our expectations for the written word. Also stuff that’s like 10-20 years old is awkward, if it’s older it’s got that veneer of another time; something from 1985 is close enough to us that it’s just going to feel like an affront. I dipped into some of the 1998 selections and came away feeling either “That was fine, I guess” or “Darn good!” Here’s to your ratio improving!

I hope I can steer you a little bit with Trillin. Start with the “U.S. Journal” pieces from the 1970s. There are a lot to choose from, and you can settle on a subject that is more to your taste. You can’t go wrong.

Thanks for the suggestion - I won’t pretend I’ll get to it quickly, but I’ll file it away. I won’t blame my troubles with these essays on the Internet, however; my aesthetic predates the Internet sufficiently that I haven’t been particularly ruffled by or influenced by what I see or publish there. I still expect work to be cohesive, where every part of it — voice, theme, structure — serves its argument or subject. I’m mystified by the popularity of rants (which never bear re-reading), the I’ve-been-there-so-my-experience-is-worth-reading-about school, and the idea that cleverness is deemed to be sufficient unto the day (though I admit it’s sometimes enough). None of these ills plague the essays I mentioned, either; those two simply lack a sense of completion, of narrative drive. And as I say, my expectation that they should deliver this might have more to do with what fiction reliably gives me than any actual fault of theirs. I’ll check back in after I’ve read more from this list.

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