The Best American Essays 2023 – Vivian Gornick

You might use the word ‘eclectic’ to describe this book.

We get to hear retrospects from people who have climbed mountains we might otherwise never climb. There are essays from hopeful people mistreated in maximum security prison to elderly couples with cracks in their relationship, from struggling homeless meth addicts to a closeted mom during the cultural revolution.

I think it makes more sense for me to share some passages. Below are some passages or ideas that stood out to me:


“The reader who sits alone with a novel, a poem, or an essay in hand is free to let all her literary prejudices and predilections wander happily where they will. The delightful anarchy of the uncensored, undefended, even eccentric thoughts that spring to mind while she is reading constitute a significant part of the reading experience. “This is wonderful!” she might declare recklessly to herself after ten pages, or “This is going nowhere,” or “God preserve us from these sentences!” As there is no opinion to account for, no position to defend, no argument to take on, the declarative mode is hers to make use of without reservation.

But once this same reader opens her mouth about the same novel, poem, or essay to anyone, she’s in for an exchange—“You think this is good? It’s trash.” “This kept you up all night? It put you to sleep”—that may arouse primitive anxieties not only about one’s judgement, but perhaps even some fundamental sense of well-being.” – from Introduction.


Bidders of the Din is about some college kids in jail, moved to maximum security, trying to find hope in a place of destitution. Below are some passages:

“Bid was something entirely different, more like a purpose or raison d’etre. It was all about how you did your time, like finding a hobby or hustle to get you through your bit. For many guys it was about winning, no matter what the endeavor was. Others just wanted to make money. Some guys used it as a way to occupy their minds. For everyone, though, it was about escaping the slog of captivity” …. “He said that if I could find this thing—this sense of purpose—it would make all the difference in my life. Without it, he said, my sentence would feel like an endless misery. “Do the time,” he said, “don’t let the time do you.””

And then later in the essay: “After a while, the very idea of time as something quantifiable faded away. I wrote all day, every day, year after year. I devoted myself entirely to the ideal as if it would not only lead to redemption and forgiveness, but also to a sense of purpose. I owed it to those I’d hurt—the victims, my family—and also to myself.”


Gender: A Melee is about sexuality and the fading gender distinctions. I have always thought sexual orientation (and all deviations from the sexual norm including gender norm) as genetic. However, only after reading this did I realize bimodal gender roles are being continuously weakened, causing further deviations from the traditional order. Maybe the rise of feminism and the rise of transgenderism aren’t different stories; there are non-genetic forces redefining traditionally bimodal norms.

The dissolution of binary gender had social outcomes that reinforced the differences between sexuality. For example, many Trump supporters were trans as a platform to support ‘anti-feminism’.


The Rough Ride is about a doctor trying to find empathy treating a particularly difficult patient. Below are some passages:

“But as I got to know her, she began to reveal more of her struggle to stay sober, her estrangement from her children, money problems, and interpersonal difficulties. Those vulnerable moments made it easier for me to understand her and feel closer to her…”

Only later after being hurt by the police after she was the one who wanted to kill herself, we realize she’s black: “”Don’t ever call the police on a Black person, “ she continued, interrupting my attempt to sort out my feelings.”