"Plenty of incredibly smart people cannot write to save their lives," Tom Bissell correctly notes in Magic Hours; I'll throw on an addendum, which is that many of the incredibly smart people who can write generally choose to write about one thing. Or they focus, intentionally or not, on a few discrete themes, or they stick to a genre, or a form, or they hone and smooth their work until all that's left is exactly what you expect when you see their byline. One of the reasons I like Bissell's work so much is that it's a grab bag: I'm never certain what he's going to be writing about, or whether it'll be fiction or non-fiction. All that's guaranteed is that Bissell is incredibly smart and can write very well.
Magic Hours, Bissell's collection of a decade's worth of essays, has a through line—it's subtitled Essays on Creators and Creation—but its pages contain a dense, fantastic range of stuff, much of it culled from the revered pages of the Believer and Harper's and the New Yorker, and much of it concerning subjects somewhat less revered. Tommy Wiseau, for example, the accidental mastermind of the terrible film The Room, who sits down with Room fanatic Bissell ("I have seen The Room at least 20 times. I know I will watch it again soon. I am probably watching it right now") for an interview, then refuses to answer questions. Or Chuck Lorre, the showrunner of two gobsmackingly successful sitcoms, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, and a man who is not who you would expect him to be, and who, with laser-like focus, has utterly conquered an art form Bissell notes is "old-fashioned, American, rule-bound, and deeply resistant to change." And there's Jennifer Hale, "a kind of Meryl Streep of the form" of videogame voice acting—her name is unknown to all but the most hardcore gamers, but Hale's approach to her emerging craft, and her role in the massive industry of electronic entertainment, is remarkable and fascinating. Even when Bissell zeroes in on less obscure subjects—Werner Herzog, David Foster Wallace, Jim Harrison—he brings a sharp perspective, a sharper wit, and a voice that's amiably earnest and, when necessary, refreshingly smartass. Magic Hours is consistently, sometimes intimidatingly intelligent, and it is frequently funny, and at times it disarms and stuns—but more than anything, it's surprising. And that, like just about all of Bissell's essays, is a thing that shouldn't be underrated.