While the premise of the Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology has sometimes been suspect, its motivation and regular development has always been righteous. Started in 2002 by Dave Eggers (who stayed in the role of editor through the 12th edition in 2013) and developed through his national non-profit 826 Valencia (and eventually 826 National) literacy initiative, this collection of non-fiction, graphic narratives, and fiction is regularly selected by a group of students usually between the ages of 16-22. Each volume has featured interesting introductory essays from such disparate authors as Zadie Smith, Viggo Mortensen, Beck, Guillermo del Toro, and Ray Bradbury — people who have comfortably embraced (and in turn been embraced by) the conventional (required) and unconventional (nonrequired.)
One of the distinguishing features of this series is the routinely cheeky and optimistic bios of the selection committee (complete with thumbnail photos) at the end of the book. The reader comes away from this with the sense that transparency was paramount to the choices embraced each year, and it’s with this in mind that a question might be raised now, after 17 editions of this series: Is there still any credence to the idea of non-required reading? Has this series implicitly defined (and dismissed) the conventions of required reading based on the choices made every year? Based on some of the more popular and pervasive 2017 selections that are reprinted here from such generally acclaimed names as Roxane Gay, Alex Tizon, Kara Walker, and Ben Passmore, the series’ editors might want to re-think the overall mission. This volume benefits from the contributions (and more), but there are other problems that will test the tolerance for quirkiness of even the most patient reader in 2019.
The problems come first with the way this volume hesitantly embraces the political entries. The introduction takes as a point of pride (and rightly so) that these pieces from 2017 don’t mention by name the current President of the United States. The problem is that some committee members (as quoted in the introduction) seem hung up on terminology. If it is good, should it be required? Take this observation: “This feels like something that everybody should be reading, and as such, doesn’t really fit the label of our book.” It’s this insistence on meeting the demands of the title that seems to have been reasoning for the inclusion of such articles as “Divine Providence”, ( Quim Monzó), “In Conversation with Vi Khi Nao (Stacey Tran), or “Meanwhile, on another planet,” (Gunnhild Øyehaug.) They’re like anchors that weigh down the usual strengths of this volume when its quirkiness is kept in check.
There are some suitable strange minor selections interspersed, which might qualify as interesting first reads that may not last for future reference. Jesse Ball and Brian Evenson’s “The Deaths of Henry King Selected Demises” (with illustrations by Lilli Carre) doesn’t provide much more than what its title suggests, and at 37 little paragraphs, it becomes ponderous very quickly. A longer article by David Wallace-Wells (“The Uninhabitable Earth”) seems the very definition of “required reading”, thick and didactic and pedantic, a legitimately argued but still exhaustive anti-Global Warming article that could work better as a TED talk.
It’s the relatively minor number of stronger entries here that more than make up for the weak majority. The May 2017 Atlantic cover essay, “My Family’s Slave”, by the late Alex Tizon, was a devastating story of the author’s family secret. For more than 50 years, when the family moved from the Philipines to the US in the 1960s, they brought along with them his mother’s nanny. Lola, real name Eudocia Tomas Pulido, was their slave, but the author didn’t come to understand this until he was at least 11-years-old. It comes in at approximately 21 pages but reads like a thick, richly detailed memoir of confession that asks for neither absolution nor forgiveness.
Again, the idea that a piece as widely read and debated in mid-2017 as “My Family’s Slave” should be deemed “nonrequired” seems a stretch. The same goes for Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person”, one of the most widely viral pieces of literature of the year. This isn’t to say that viral sensations have no place in quirky anthologies. It just seems as if a piece like “Cat Person” could have immediately landed itself in the bigger leagues. (Again, this isn’t to minimize the Best American Nonrequired Reading series but by its very name, it separates itself from the pack.) It’s a simple story of a 20-year-old student, Margot, who has an awkward assignation with a 34-year-old man named Robert. He patronizes and pursues her at the same time. He’s the cat person. She is with him but wishes to stop but feels “that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious.” It’s a remarkably suspenseful, tightly structured and shocking story that ends with a litany of upsetting text messages. Roupenian’s story is the furthest thing from non-required in this collection. Its initial appearance in The New Yorker quickly aligned the author and the story with the #MeToo movement. In many ways, coming upon it here for the informed reader will be old news.
Another selection that will be old news for many (but no less striking or important) is the excerpt from Roxane Gay’s Hunger, A Memoir of (My) Body, one of the landmark confessional memoirs of 2017. It’s one of those deliberate and carefully textured books that kills, little by little with a woman’s razor-sharp devastating reflections about her body image:
“…I hate how I am extraordinarily visible but invisible… I want to have everything I need in my body and I don’t yet, but I will, I think. Or I will get closer.”
As usual with Best American Nonrequired Reading, some of the best entries are visual. Take “Six Selected Comics”, credited to Chris (Simpsons Artist.) A human surprises her friend by hiding in her toothpaste tube and appearing when she’s squeezed out. In one panel called “I love my cat”, a woman is seen holding a huge cat. The words tell us: “I love my cat because she ate my son so now she is my son.” In Ben Passmore’s “Your Black Friend”, it’s all about being a stranger in a strange land. A man (the title character) takes us through his life, how “The TV taught your friend what beautiful [sic] was and it didn’t look anything like him. Your black friend always comes into himself over time but will always carry scars.” Still referring to himself in the third person, in another panel he concludes:
“Your black friend knows that he is valued for his close proximity to ‘whiteness’ by black and white people alike, but is also devalued for it at the same time. He is lost in this contradiction and held responsible for it.”
The #MeToo movement and sexual harassment, in general, are clearly and powerfully addressed in such pieces as Lucy Huber’s “A Fair Accusation of Sexual Harassment or a Witch Hunt?” She wrote this two-page questionnaire satire in response to Woody Allen’s defense of Harvey Weinstein, and it’s devastatingly on-point. Seo-Young Chu’s “A Refuge for Jae-in Doe: Fugues in the Key if English Major” is a long, horrifying look at campus rape and survival. She calls out her rapist by name and ends her article saying “I am one of the lucky ones.” It’s incredibly hard to take but impossible to ignore and in keeping with the inconsistencies of the series title, this entry is definitely required reading.
How should the informed reader dive into The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2018 in the early days of 2019? Take it with a generous degree of skepticism and patience. Readers of this series who have been with it since the beginning understand that notions of “required” and “nonrequired” are as irrelevant now as notions of “alternative rock” compared with conventional. Dismiss the premise of this series and indulge with the young committee members the idealism of picking through so much great work. (Ta-Neheshi Coates’s brilliant “The First White President”, from the October 2017 issue of the Atlantic, only made it into the notable nonrequired reading of 2017 list.) Perhaps next year some of the more pedantic and academic textbook entries can be eliminated in favor of the more visceral selections (like Gay’s, Chu’s, and even Kara Walker’s “Artist’s Statement”.) Quibbles aside, this series is always a welcome addition to the annual collection of great American writing. Some more focused and decisive editing, however, will make the non-required reading essential reading.