“Essential Ellen Willis” a varied, sprawling read

book cover - essential ellen willisThe Essential Ellen Willis, out now from University of Minnesota Press, collects a lifetime of Ellen Willis' work, looking to give a more nuanced and thorough view of her career and importance than was presented in her collection of music writing, Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Now, important and thorough does not necessarily an interesting or involving read make. I found myself struggling and trudging through some pieces. Historical importance and documentary worth do not equal easy or entertaining reading, because anthologies are inherently exhausting. They jump topics, tone varies, and just keeping one's self temporally oriented can leave a head spinning. It requires a nimble mind to be able to read straight through without needing the occasional break. Despite loosely grouping essays together by topic -- sex, drugs, et al -- it's a massive undertaking for even those short groups. For instance, "Classical and Baroque Sex" is a whimsical and clever relief from weighty subjects, yet by no means tossed off. While it's absolutely necessary in its placement, coming as it does before the harrowing details of "The Trial of Caroline Hunt," the tonal switch between the two take a bit of time to adjust. However, as much as one can struggle through the likes of "Why I'm Not For Peace" or "Confonting the Contradictions," something like "Beginning to See the Light" will blow your mind with a line such as, "It's just that they acknowledge the sixties, instead of trying to pretend all that stuff never happened." That idea -- that the past happened, and frames our modern views on everything -- is kind of the whole point of this anthology. It's a real joy to see positive hopes regarding sexual freedoms and preferences born out as prescient, and still relevant today. Ultimately, however, what I came to enjoy most in The Essential Ellen Willis were her pieces where she brought a personal element to weighty moral or philosophical concepts. "Next Year In Jerusalem" and "Escape From New York," while personal stories of travel on the surface, end up being about so much more. They're reflections on personal change and how one's perspective -- and especially their ideals -- can differ so much from those of one's firmly-held youthful beliefs. The Essential Ellen Willis is available now from University of Minnesota Press, where you can find mroe information and watch a trailer for the book.