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The Best American Spiritual Writing: 2004
Edited by Philip Zaleski
Houghton Mifflin, 2004

review by John Tintera

Have you ever noticed that the books you give to friends and family at the holidays always seem to disappear, never heard from again? Admittedly, there are books on my shelves that were given to me years ago that haven’t moved since. I’m plagued with guilt every time I see them and vow to read them “this winter.”

There’s one gift book on my shelf, however, that I have read over and over. It is the 2000 edition of The Best American Fiction Writing, part of the series of anthologies published each year by Houghton Mifflin. Since then I have purchased and received subsequent editions of the fiction annual and copies of the travel and mystery collections. Without fail, I have delved into these books the moment I get them. Though rarely have I finished an entire volume, I go back and read favorite pieces again and again.

I have a theory as to why these books are so much more successful as gifts than other kinds of book —the stories and essays in them are short! What’s more, year after year the quality of selections remains consistently high. Rather than giving your friend or loved one a stack of magazines and having them sift through all the articles, with this series, the work is already done.

This year’s edition of The Best of American Spiritual Writing is no exception. The volume editor, Philip Zaleski, is one of the best read people on the planet when it comes to spirituality. He has a wonderful appreciation for the many avenues of spiritual reflection and a deep sensitivity toward the diversity of spiritual traditions. Some of the high points in the 2004 edition are an essay on the spirituality of wilderness by Rick Bass; an essay on the spirituality of the desert by Peter Friederici; and a poem on the spirituality of snow by Allen Hoey. Each of these writers possesses the highest command of the language and is a poet in his own right. Despite their traditional themes, each piece runs against the grain and is full of surprises. And as all good spiritual writing ought, each broadens one’s perspective and provides food for further thought and reflection, if not action.

One caveat I would offer, however, especially if you are thinking of giving this book as a gift, is the fact that several of its features deal with sobering topics such as depression, the degradation of the environment, and the loss of a loved one. An experienced spiritual warrior will recognize these topics as the heart and soul of the spiritual journey, but they might be too painful for someone with fresh emotional wounds. Also not all of the essays in this volumes are as enlightened or ecumenical as the book as a whole. For example, there is a piece written by a Jewish fundamentalist that left me feeling quite angry afterwards. Obviously, not every piece will speak to every reader. Be that as it may, this is a wonderful collection and whether you buy it for yourself or a loved one, there are enough riches here to keep one going through those long winter nights.

Copyright ©2004 John Tintera

The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004

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