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Best of the Best 

Anthology features some of America's finest writing

The list gets longer every year, and this year is no exception: The number of anthologies boasting the best, most fantastic, most definitive collections of superlative writing in America has come to include just about everything.

This year, for example, you can choose from books with the best American writing on crime, travel, sports, music, science and nature (or just science), movies, politics, business and erotica.

Or, if you're not a topical type, you can choose by genre between the best American short stories, mysteries, essays, poetry, short plays and new voices.

And if you're too hip for all that, you can go straight to the Best American Nonrequired Reading. But then, none of it is required anyway.

However, if you have no idea where to start amid all this greatness, here's a suggestion. The best of all these collections is one with perhaps the least alluring title: Best American Magazine Writing 2003.

In last year's National Directory of Magazines there were 17,694 magazines listed as being published in the US and Canada. Over 6,300 of these were "consumer" magazines, i.e., publications for the general public. Chances are you may get one or two, and can hardly keep up with these.

Nonetheless, every year there are thousands of great stories that crop up in this glossy jungle and it would be a full time job to sort them out. Luckily for you and me, the American Society of Magazine Editors does just that. This year they waded through 1305 entries to pick the "Ellie" winners and nominees.

The Ellies aren't nearly as well known as the Pulitzers, but they are perhaps more highly prized among American writers. Because in their craft and depth, the Ellies often make the Pulitzers look like clunky term papers.

For four years now the Best American Magazine Writing has collected Ellie winners and nominees from the awards, and the book has been surfacing in bookstores before quietly slipping into the anthological sea. And every year so far it has been full of brilliant stories, compelling writing, incisive criticism, fascinating profiles, great fiction and deeply moving tales of people across America, penned by some of the best writers in the country. It is, quite simply, the best of the best.

Previous editions of Best American Magazine Writing have included David Foster Wallace's hilarious account of life on John McCain's campaign trail, Rian Malan's investigation of the origins of the song "Wimoweh," and Lauren Slater's profile of a plastic surgeon who wants to give people wings.

This year's collection is, once again, full of fascinating characters in the hands of brilliant storytellers like Elizabeth Gilbert, who in "Lucky Jim" tells the story of Jim MacLaren, who was hit by a bus, lost a leg, became a world-class one-legged triathalete, and then got hit again and now considers himself a "very lucky" quadriplegic; or Gary Smith who writes about fallen football coach George O' Leary; or Jeff Tietz, who writes about a serial NYC transit employee impersonator; or Michael Pateriti who writes about one man's love-hate relationship with the most beautiful anatomy book ever made, Pernkopf's Anatomy, which rose up out of the fires of Nazi Germany.

Or there is James Fallows' prophetic Atlantic Monthly piece, "The Fifty-first State?" which asked the question the Pentagon seems to have forgotten to ask: What happens after the war? An answer given by a former Air Force chief of staff was even more prophetic, at least until a couple of weeks ago. The "nightmare scenario," he told Fallows, was if Saddam escaped. "Then we've got Osama and Saddam Hussein out there, both of them achieving mythical heroic status in the Arab world just by surviving."

It's impossible to read all the good writing printed in a given year in America, let alone all the great writing, and you may as well forget about all the best writing. But if you're up for a few stories that are deeply telling about where our country is, where it's been and where it's going; stories so great they'll change your view of the world, possibly even change you, the Best American Magazine Writing could be the best place to start.

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