Almost two years ago, I reviewed The Best American Short Stories 2013—one annual collection amongst many “Best American” categories. I poked fun at the Best American Nonrequired Reading series, suggesting it was an attempt to “lure angsty, rebellious teens." I wasn’t entirely wrong! Each year, some lit-savvy Bay Area high schoolers choose “the best” works of that year from a range of genres (fiction, nonfiction, journalism, cartoons, etc.). Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (highly recommend), oversees the group and edits the final compilation.
I read The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, which I randomly selected from a lovely mom and pop bookstore in Charlottesville (shout out to Heartwood Books). Beck wrote the introduction because of course he did. Beck does everything. Aside from make music that I actually enjoy listening to. Sorry, Beck.
Beck does a good job of explaining the value of reading something not required—the relationship you have with a form of entertainment that you personally, actively seek out. Referring to his childhood reading curiosities, he says, “Everything we gravitated to probably had the weight of something discovered on one’s own, like we’d uncovered some secret thing nobody else knew” (Eggers, xxxi).
As with any collection, I love some, like others, and don’t like a few. I love Hell-Heaven by Jhumpa Lahiri—author of Interpreter of Maladies. As in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Lahiri integrates her Indian American experiences to show a coming-of-age culture clash for first-generation immigrants.
I also love Al Franken’s Tearaway Burkas and Tinplate Menorahs—a comedic account of his 1999 USO tour. Trigger warning: one of the sketches he details is more troubling in light of the sexual assault allegations from his 2006 USO tour. I’m going to keep my opinions to myself on this one (ahem, martyr) and simply say that his piece is very well written; it makes me laugh and gives insight as to what a USO tour entails.
I love George Saunders’ Bohemians and Manifesto. Apparently these high school kids love him too, considering they include him twice. Because he’s the short story king, I’ve already reviewed his collection Tenth of December, which I have truly not stopped thinking about since I read it two years ago. I revisit it from time to time. It’s a bedside table kind of book.
I do not like They Came Out Like Ants!, an article by William T. Vollmann that drones on and on and on and on and on and on about underground tunnels built by Chinese immigrants in Mexicali.
Do you like some of these things? Do you not like some of these things? I’m going to suggest that you will probably like most of these things. As indebted as I am to The Best American Short Stories series for provoking the short story addict within me, the mix of fiction and nonfiction within a collection makes The Best American Nonrequired Reading especially appealing. I give the 2005 edition 4 out of 5 humps.
*Eggers, Dave, and Beck, eds. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Print.