This summer I’ve very much enjoyed working my way back through the annual installments of The Best American Nonrequired Reading, a yearly collection of American short fiction and nonfiction edited by Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my choice for the best book title ever).
For those of you who may not know, Best Am Nonrequired is one in the array of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American series (which also includes Best Am Short Stories, Best Am Essays, Best Am Spiritual Writing, Best Am Science and Nature, and Best Am Travel Writing, the last of which is edited by Ramones fan, world traveler, and erstwhile chef Anthony Bourdain).
While I’ve never read any of the other Best Am’s, I keep going back to Nonrequired, maybe because its content makes me feel young, edgy, and hip rather than 40, suburban, and square. Where else would you be able to find 1,000 Hobo Names, a graphic novelette glimpse at Kim Jong Il’s repressive regime in North Korea, or a commencement speech by Conan O’Brien? Where else can you read about what really goes on in the factory that preps cadavers for the ever popular Bodyworlds exhibits? Where else will you read a measured reflection on the galloping insecurity that must have driven the dictatorial megalomania of the late Saddam Hussein in the same volume as the profile of a Guns N’ Roses tribute band?
While I’ve found a lot in Nonrequired that I’d not recommend to anyone (is there a rating “I” for ‘Ick’?), there’s a lot of quality stuff in there. For an example, there’s this, from the Introduction to the 2004 edition, by actor/poet/photographer Viggo Mortenson:
“I do not…recommend that you read any of this book, especially not a single additional word of mine beyond this one. Put the book down, if you like. Give it away, dump it, cut it into little pieces and eat it, burn it—apply any anarchic means or action you can invent to dispose of it, to put it out of your thoughts. Or, read on. Read some, read randomly, backwards, over a period of years, retain none of it, mock it, misapply it, write to the publisher about its defects in content and professional presentation—particularly this nonrequired introduction, if you wish—or about how your life was for the slightest instant disrupted or detoured for the better by reading this book. We are still free to read or not read (unless this book of nonrequired reading is required by someone you wish to obey), and still free to make up our own minds about what we have or have not read.”
For someone like me, whose summers of Catholic high school were spent groaning through required reading, I find a great retreat in the Nonrequired. I learn, I absorb, I forget, I try to forget, and I’m thankful that Eggers and the student panel at 826 Valencia is doing the helpful, if imperfect, screening work.