The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 is instant literary hipster cred, and that’s the first reason to take this garrulous, enthusiastic book to heart. I’d recommend keeping a copy on your person in case you need to dazzle a stranger.
Most of us can’t find the time to read everything that crosses the threshold. Dave Eggers and the smart folks at 826 National have made it their business to make sure we get the best of the offbeat best.
Take out a pencil and mark each item in table of contents of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 with “already read it” or “meant to read it”. Good anthologies are like that, and all 496 pages here are guaranteed to increase your smart and sassy quotient.
Maurice Sendak’s cover art — a series of illustrations of a little girl battling her television set and winning before dragging her doll – and presumably her restored imagination—off to bed is a direct demographic hit. If you somehow missed Sendak in your childhood, the visual parable of creative thinking versus passive entertainment is charmingly, snarkily, clear.
With wit in gear, David Sedaris’ introduction is refreshingly straightforward and smart. Yes, he makes reference to his mother, his childhood and two bad fifth-grade poems he produced, but here he does what I miss in his newer work. He’s unabashedly literary, quoting poets William Carlos Williams and Robert Hayden, (who “wore glasses with super thick lenses,” which Sedaris concedes is “beside the point.”) His actual point is that writing begets reading, and the more reading one does, the more enraptured (his word) one becomes about life.
And this is the happy premise of The Best American Nonrequired Reading. All that reading you meant to do is here between two covers. The selection process for inclusion, according to Eggers’ editor’s note, is just as lucky. There’s a “yes” bin and a “no” bin, and then there’s a ping pong table, on which the “yes” choices get moved literally over the net to the “definite yes” side. And who’s reading and moving? In part, a team of high school students, members of the youth literary program 826 San Francisco and 826 Michigan. Our literary future is bound into TheBest American Nonrequired Reading, and I, for one, am relieved.
The first section of the book is devoted to shorts like “Best American Sentences on Page 50 of Books Published in 2009”, “Best American New Patents”, and “Best American Fast-Food-Related Crimes”. (Two of these involve 911 calls related to lemonade or chicken.) “Best Sentences…” suffers from randomness, but then again, humor is subjective. For example, in “New Patents”, the “insertable popcorn buttering apparatus” seems like kind of a decent idea, while “sheep-shaped key light” is plain funny, although incomprehensible. Declaim the “Best American Tweets” from Chewbacca out loud.
My own “already read” checklist covered Sherman Alexie’s “War Dances”, an acerbically funny story that jumps from cockroaches to an inner ear problem to hospitals, his father, and the real meaning of a blanket; Andrew Sean Greer’s “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines”, a Whitman-esque take on NASCAR culture; Edgar Keret’s modern caution, “What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?” (translated from Hebrew by Nathan Englander); and Rachel Aviv’s reportage about evangelism, “Like I Was Jesus”, which first appeared in Harper’s magazine.
These are good enough to merit a second and a third read.
There are new favorites here, too. Wendy Molyneux’s “Best American Woman Comedy Piece Written By A Woman”, from therumpus.net, battles the premise that women aren’t funny. “My humor deficiency,” she writes, “is one of those womanly crosses I have to bear, along with… making seventy cents on the dollar.” Courtney Moreno writes of her work as an EMT in Los Angeles, in “Fed to The Streets”. George Saunders examines homelessness in his own experiment, with field notes, diagrams, and dialogue, in “Tent City, U.S.A.”
The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 includes bright, ruminative, slice of life graphic novel work from Lilli Carré, and a portion of “The Photographer”, a mixed media photographic and illustration narrative documenting a Doctors Without Borders mission in Afghanistan, by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemericier.
Kurt Vonnegut makes a posthumous appearance with “The Nice Little People”, originally published in Zoetrope: All Story
This party could go on all night, and I’ve only introduced you to some of the guests. Invite these choices from that editorial ping-pong table to your party. You know, the one where you’ll want to have read The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010? The conversation will never stop.