Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Best American” Series is a blessing and a curse, if a pandora’s box of good writing can be considered a curse. For readers who aspire to be conversant in the recent and most talked-about writing in the US in any given year, these collections are a helpful place to start. That the writing is selected by leading authors in their disciplines, from travel writing to short stories to sports writing, adds to their appeal. Yet there’s also the nagging sense that, for example, if I am a fan of mystery stories, this counts as required reading. What do we make, then, of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2017? To begin with, the idea of “nonrequired reading” poses a bit of a conundrum.
The Nonrequired Reading series was edited by Dave Eggers from its inception in 2002 through the 2014 edition, when Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame took the reins. This year’s editor is the equally quirky and delightful author Sarah Vowell. Her sideways glance into many books on American history earned her the moniker “a Madonna of Americana” from the Los Angeles Times. Vowell is joined in this endeavor by 826 Valencia, a group of high school students who met regularly in the basement of McSweeney’s Publishing in San Francisco to argue on behalf of the writing they love. The group is part of 826 National, an initiative organized by Eggers to encourage creativity, writing, and publishing for students ages 6-18. If anyone wonders what interests “today’s youth”, the answer is captured in this book.
Several selections resonate with the political landscape of the moment. Louise Erdrich writes about Standing Rock for the New York Times. Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on the end of the Obama administration in “My President Was Black”, originally published in The Atlantic, where he is a national correspondent. Andrew Sullivan contemplates life online and its ubiquity in “I Used to Be a Human Being”. The collection ends with George Saunders New Yorker essay, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?”
A quality shared by many of the nonrequired readings, whether excerpts or full articles, is the degree to which authors dig into their subjects. Meagan Day takes readers deep into the underside of Tonopah, Nevada in the excerpt from her book Maximum Sunlight. Simon Parkin’s “So Subtle a Catch”, from Harper’s, is an almost unbelievable story of the extremes of carp fishing and theft in England.
The contents reveal that “nonrequired” may be the only common genre shared among the selections. The eclecticism of the sources can be an awakening for the reader who seeks the best writing in books and literary journals. As a reader who values the pleasures of Twitter, I was especially heartened to see a selection of Tweets from @WernerTwertzog, William Pannapacker’s parody account of the possible musings of German film director Werner Herzog. The ever-present cultural icon Lin-Manuel Miranda appears with the selection of sheet music for “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton Songbook. Turning the page of the collection to find Tweets or sheet music creates the kind of unexpected surprise that’s often encountered in digital space, but seldom in print. The variety of genres is an apt reflection of contemporary reading culture: not just paragraphs and chapters but expressions in so many different forms. Those forms also include a chapter from Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Centered on a fictional graphic artist from Singapore, the book tells a history of Singapore as part of its narrative.
A surprising and important inclusion is Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, excerpted and edited from Utah v. Edward Joseph Strieff, Jr. While the title may not be familiar, the content likely is. As Sotomayor writes in her direct, unadorned style: “Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language. This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants — even if you are doing nothing wrong.” She goes on to say that “although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for far more.” Sotomayor’s dissent resonates broadly in her assertion that the Court’s decision will erode civil liberties, particularly in light of the increasing concerns about police brutality at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.
For the reader looking for an escape from the political pulse of the moment, The Best American Nonrequired Reading also contains a rich collection of prose, poetry, and other engagements with the written word. Long before she won the Nobel Prize in literature for her poetry in 1996, Wislawa Szymborska wrote a newspaper column titled Nonrequired Reading. While ostensibly a book review feature, she insisted that these musing on books were not reviews because, she claims, she realized she could not write book reviews and did not want to. In the same way that Szymborska used the much-loved experience of reading as a point of departure for thinking about people and places in the world, so does The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2017 lead the reader to a variety of launching points for thinking more about who and where we are.
Bemoaning the selections that the editorial team had to leave out, Vowell notes, in accord with Szymborska , “The cheapest, most pleasurable way for a country of strangers to get to know each other and the rest of the world is through reading.” This book is certainly a good place to begin.