In part this review is based upon my use of the book in the classroom, in essay writing classes. But this may not be so much a bias, for what other possible reason would this book be written? (And it does overtly identify itself as for the classroom.) And yet I have to ask, why would you then collect this particular group of works? Yes, there are some truly great essays in this collection: Emerson's "Nature" (but no other Emerson, strangely), Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," Swift's "A Modest Proposal," but how do you explain excerpts from _The Communist Manifesto_, _Natural Selection_, and other books? Obviously they are not essays. So of what value are they in exploring the structural and stylistic demands of the essay? And what of the Gettysburg Address? Or the introduction to Brownmiller's book _Femininity_? Or Plato's Allegory of the Cave?
Yet that excerpt might be more damning than Diyanni realizes, for it is worth pointing that the excerpt of the Republic that covers the allegory of the cave is limited to the allegory proper, and eliminates the rhetorical context that follows: a context that puts the allegory within Socrates's argument as a whole. If the allegory was to be of some value as a "Great Essay," wouldn't it be necessary to keep it within the greater rhetorical structure, so the reader could see how Plato developed the structure and rhetoric of the argument as a whole? If the first question offered by Diyanni in the "Possibilities for Writing" (that follows every 'essay') is "Analyze Plato's allegory carefully," wouldn't it be necessary to include the whole of the rhetorical structure of the text, so the allegory could be analyzed in full? After all, the main point of the allegory is not the issue of the world of illusion, but the obligations of the enlightened to educate. Something Diyanni seems to have fallen short on.
Beyond the silliness of 'great essays' that are not essays, there are far too many contemporary essays that really are not that good at all. In using this book in an upper-class, collegiate article and essay course, we spoke far more (and far more readily) of flaws, weaknesses, and flat poor writing than moments of quality. To many of these examples are no more great essays than a Grisham novel is great literature. And far too many of them offer nothing in the nature of examples of brilliance in essay writing for the anthology to be of any value.
There are some great things. And many of the essays are fun to read -- in the way that Grisham might be considered fun to read. But I believe they were chosen far more on content than on writing excellence. One of the primary reasons I believe this are those questions, those "Possibilities for Writing," that follow the texts. For example, after Guy Davenport's "The Geography of the Imagination," a rather incontinent piece, the first question is: "Define what Davenport means by 'gothic,' 'classical,' and 'arabesque,' using your own examples to supplement your definitions." How in any way is that question involved with great essay writing? How in any way is that about essay writing -- or essays! -- at all? (That is, outside of revealing to an attendent student just how poorly Davenport utilized, defined and controlled those ideas.) It isn't: it concerns content only. As such this is a poor anthology for any educational purpose.
I titled this review "Commentary on the State of Belles Lettres?" Obviously this anthology offers texts from over a large span of time, and some of the writing is obviously of quality, so I don't mean the essays themselves (as a whole); rather, I refer in a lesser part to the contemporary essays, and in a greater to Diyanni's sensibility: for if this is what is considered a collection of 'great essays,' how far, indeed, the concept of the essay has fallen. Perhaps a better title would be _100 Examples of Prose (both Great and Not-so-great)_. If you enjoy prose, but without great demands of quality, perhaps this is worthy bedside (or commode-side) reading. But if you are looking to explore what lies within writing great essays, look elsewhere. (Buy a collection of Emerson.)