For many years I was faithful to Robert Atwan's long-running Best American Essays series, which started in 1986. By the early '90s I was so enamored of the idea that I was good for the annual purchase, and it only dawned on me slowly that more often than not it was something of a chore to plow through, filled with work by a relatively small group of familiar names that recurred frequently. I finally gave it up after the 2009 edition, which seemed to me unusually deadened and of a trend long since going the wrong way. There's a case that this 2002 edition is no exception, with pieces by Atul Gawande, David Halberstam, Christopher Hitchens, Louis Menand, Gore Vidal, etc., and edited by no less a light than Stephen Jay Gould. But it remains my favorite of all of them, and only one of two I kept when I purged a roomful of books last summer to get back some living space. Much of its quality is actually the work of Gould, I think, a frequent contributor usual suspect himself in previous editions. I haven't read much of him but appreciate what I have. Not only is he a lucid, excellent writer, but his intersecting interests in science and culture provide a reliably valuable and informed point of view. In this collection he brings the clarity some more, even only in service as editor. The task he happened to be assigned in this case bore two additional burdens: sorting through the aftermath of 9/11 and dealing with a second bout of cancer, which killed him within weeks of finishing his work on this collection. One of the inherent nagging problems of the series and its chosen form is the paradox of looking for recent work while studiously striking an appropriate distance from news cycles, which is usually accomplished by ignoring most current events. This one is different. No other volume has ever been permeated so thoroughly by a single incident (or set of incidents), and it is to Gould's credit that he recognized the scope of 9/11 on the American psyche and fully engaged, adding the vital personal notes, in his introduction, that the event occurred 100 years to the day after his grandfather had arrived at Ellis Island as an immigrant, that if the towers had fallen north rather than straight down his home would have been destroyed, and incidentally that his 60th birthday had been the day before. At the same time he would not allow 9/11 to be the exclusive focus, writing, "[N]either decency nor common morality ... allow evil madmen to define history in this way." So there is also, for examples, great work from Jonathan Franzen and Barbara Ehrenreich on end-of-life calamities Alzheimer's and cancer, and a spirited and animating defense of literature from Mario Vargas Llosa—arguing that pursuit, examination, and analysis of it is not a refinement of privilege for a life that enables leisure but a crucial source of sustenance for everyone alive, very nearly a human right all unto itself. This is exactly the kind of volume I had hoped for every year back when it was habitual.