The selection of essays contained in The Best American Essays which highlight painful truths and confront undesirable social realities do not only paint a clear picture of the imperfect world we live in, but also serve as catalysts for change that we may be sorely in need of. The relevant knowledge conveyed by the essayists provide more than catharsis or a cleansing or anxiety-relieving purging effect. They have huge potential to elicit concrete ethical responses, notably new attitudes and mindsets that will eventually shape future action.
The latter depends greatly, though, on how closely the readers identify with the painful truths or social realities contained in the literary pieces. Nonetheless, the superbly written essays merit close scrutiny or perusal, which should be enough, ideally, to jolt people to action. Exploring How Selections from The Best American Essays Can be Catalysts for Change Where does learning end and action begin? Can knowledge spur action?
Mulling over the hard facts, undesirable societal realities or painful truths expressed in beautiful fluid prose by literary talents in insightful essays contained in The Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace, one question comes to mind: are the masterfully written pieces capable of spurring people to action? Offhand, the answer points to a resounding yes. Literary masterpieces, particularly the essays under study, have an immense potential to serve as catalysts for change.
Any standstill or hindrance, however, for works of literature to elevate humankind in terms of heightened awareness and positive behavioral changes, may depend a great on the values and predispositions that the current crop of readers may have. It is a known fact that we, as humans, cannot escape pain as we go about our day-to-day lives. Just about everyone can identify with pain, but the natural tendency of the average person is to crawl into his comfort zone and not to ponder on negative or painful realities, much less do something about what they may have read.
The painful truths, usually in the form of trying individual circumstances or clear societal harms, expressed by the most gifted writer in the most riveting prose may not always warrant the desired ethical response. The sad reality is, complacent people who glean useful insights from reading about painful truths expressed in clear and incisive essays may not budge, even if the ideas may stick around in the recesses of their minds for some time. Each person will also be relying on his own perception of truth, and this perception will most likely guide his future action.
On the other hand, there are also those individuals who are inclined to strive to make life generally better, both for themselves and society-at-large. This latter breed of people brings to mind ancient Confucian teaching on doing the right thing at the right time. By following the dictum of choosing to do what is right and moral over one’s self-centered interests, people who adopt a new way of thinking or do something about a vexing social truth expressed, for instance, in an essay like “What Should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You? By Peter Singer (Wallace, 2007, p. 266), make the writer’s efforts worthwhile.
The sense of enlightenment, followed by change in one’s mode of thinking created by a well-written essay makes every ounce of investigative effort poured into it well worth it. There are also certain essays in the collection that highlight idiosyncrasies, or peculiar habits and traits, such as the piece about people with stage fright, or another dealing with the apex of sex childhood, or even the youth-oriented essay about a cellular phone ring tone that drifts into a discourse about adults’ tendencies as they age. They not only amuse and inform but also lead readers to adopt new ways of thinking and behaving.
There are other clear-cut examples of works included in the collection that forcefully makes the case for a controversial issue that may spur action, notably “Loaded” by Garret Keizer, who explosively says, “I hope that I shall never have to confront anyone with my gun, but owning a gun has forced me to confront myself” (Wallace, 2007, p. 137) and “Rules of Engagement” by Elaine Scarry, who opined that “every act that carries us into neo-absolutist territory burs our vision… and puts us at ever-accelerating risk of carrying out moral harms (such as the use of nuclear weapons) from which we may not soon recover” (Scarry, 2006, para. 12).
There are likewise lighter topics explored in essays in the collection, such as “What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell that focuses on how an egocentric person may not be emulated, while prescribing better ways of dealing with those around us. The various other essays, whether they serve as an earnest appeal for action or as subtle vehicles for behavioral change, providing stern warnings of things to come, derive much of their strength on the fact that what is presented is a shared experience, most of them culled from real-life circumstances and developments, forming painful realities that people must contend with.
They may reflect hard truths about society’s past intermingling with the present, or they may point to the future, but the single thread running through the selected essays in The Best American Essays that the writers may want to put across is that their readers can do something about the painful truths or hard-to-bear facts presented therein.
In essence, the essays under study embody a form of literature that “represents much more than a pristine chronicle of a particular time and place…As a flexible medium, literature (like the essays) allows the author to manipulate modalities of past and future, real and unreal to alter patterns of perception… Analysis of these models can shed light on the events which actually took place, and on the scope of possibility for alternative outcomes (Werbach, 1991, Introduction section, para.
1). Thus, when people learn painful truths about themselves or society-at-large, how they act depends, to a large extent, on where their beliefs and principles are anchored, not to mention the resources at their disposal, which still does not negate the fact that great works of literature can be catalysts for change. References Wallace, D. (Ed. ).
(2007). The best American essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Werbach, K. D. (1991). Literary models for alternative social development in Russia. Retrieved May 7, 2008, from http://werbach. com/stuff/thesis. html Scarry, E. (2006). Rules of engagement. Boston Review. Retrieved May 7, 2008, from http://bostonreview. net/BR31. 6/scarry. php