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William C. Altreuter
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Monday, November 15, 2010

There are a lot of little markers of celebrity which I have fantasized about: back in the 80's I wanted to model for one of those black and white Gap tee shirt advertisements, for example. Being asked to guest edit the Best American Essays collection would be another. My travel schedule was such that I got to 2010 collection a bit early this year, a dependably worthwhile volume suitable for reading on any form of transportation not involving horses. Christopher Hitchens is the guest editor, this yeara writer that I don't feel I get most of the time. Is the point that he's English? Is it that English people probably think he's American? I'm surprised that I've read as much of his output as I have, and I guess it's because he is chiefly an essayist, and because he shows up in publications that I follow. The job of guest editor seems like pleasant work: the series editor, Robert Atwan, culls through the submissions for the year, then hands a stack over to the guest editor who picks the finalists and writes an introduction. The introduction can be tricky, because it should comment on the form, (at this point I award a mental bonus to writers who avoid mentioning Montaigne), and it should define the theme of the collection. I think the essay that will stay with me from this set will be Elif Batuman's account of attending a Tolstoy conference. Batuman's trip to the conference, held on Tolstoy's estate, included a long flight, so she dressed in sweatpants, a tee shirt and flip flops,so that she could could sleep comfortably on the plane. Naturally her luggage is lost, so she spends the first few days at the conference in this get-up. The other attendees assume that she dressed this way because she was emulating the eccentric Tolstoyans, who dressed simply and wore sandals year-round. Tolstoy is the alpha and omega of this collection, evoked again in the final essay, James Woods' piece on George Orwell, a Hitchens favorite.

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