[28 March 2010]
In her introduction to The Best American Non-Required Reading, graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi admits that the first time she read Dostoevsky, she was so awed she vowed never to be a writer, because she felt she could never compare. Fortunately for modern culture, Satrapi was able to overcome her doubts and produce truly remarkable work of her own, although in a form that diverged greatly from the work of her favorite Russian author.
In this collection, the tirelessly unconventional Dave Eggers collects a year’s worth of American writing that ostensibly is a far cry from what we deem “the classics”. However, if we examine what we value in those works of high literature, we might determine that is not form, but the qualities of sincerity, truth, dramatic tension, humor, and humanity that define them. In that case, each piece in Non-Required Reading might also be considered a classic.
The collection starts small, with lists like “Best American Book Titles”. It makes sense. A title is often the beginning of an idea. The least likely writers of all are capable of suggesting a book title. Immediately, it is apparent that the collection is organic and authentic. It is of the people. The substance of the work grows slowly to include the best Craigslist ads and the best letters children have written to President Obama. We move into personal and discursive essays, creative journalism, and short fiction. Each work is politically or emotionally pressing in its own way. And they all share the common thread of artistic urgency.
This collection may not be “required reading”, but it feels liked required writing. Unmarred by the demands of the publishing industry, these pieces are mandated by authorial impulse and instinct. These authors blend quality with the kind of instantaneous relevance we are accustomed to in the world of digital over-saturation. While it seems like “raw” should be the word to describe the work, these are quite polished pieces of writing that have been catalyzed by an impulsive encounter with truth.
In particular, the pieces that are journalistic in form stand-out. In “The Chameleon”, David Grann follows the story of Frederic Bourdin, a French con-artist who has traveled the world adopting fake identities. Grann’s writing conveys both suspensfully staggered facts and unfettered, unanalyzed emotion and sensitivity. In “Mississippi Drift”, Matthew Powers shares a homemade raft with an anarchist who believes he can travel minimally all the way down the Mississippi. The work has the air of journal entry. There is both the factual frustration and the internal, emotional roadblocks that come directly from the author, ostensibly an investigative journalist. Author and subject co-exist with uncanny grace and fluidity. The hypertext of these print works is the dark matter of human relationship.
The re-printing of these pieces are a sad but subtle reminder of the great importance of magazines like the New Yorker and Harpers. These magazines make no money. These pieces may simply be “non-required” because no major publisher has dumped money into a marketing budget that will sell them as the next big thing. As a result, even truly “big things”, such as Jonathan Franzen’s memorial speech to his friend David Foster Wallace are allowed to be unguarded, purely communicative, and full of integrity. We don’t frequently read things that are this personal, and as a result, we don’t often read things that are so direct or true.
In “How to Work a Locker Room”, Michelle Seaton provides a narrative of her experience covering hockey. The story is carefully positioned towards the end of the collection. After we find bits of pieces of authors within their stories, we finally get full, candid exposure. She openly and beautifully describes her difficulties and tentative triumphs as a female in the locker room. She baldly admits that stories are not just about subjects; they are about the relationship between author and subject.
The exploration of that relationship is the common thread of all the works in this collection, and it is a thread that makes them all quite important, in their own way. Dostoevsky might have brilliantly portrayed humanity, but these writers breathe their own humanity into their work. They encourage us to rethink our definition of what “required reading” is, and challenge us to look beyond the mandates of a publishing industry that is more like a banker than a discerning critic.