Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"The Best Non-Required Reading" series: fun reading, even in airports

Literary anthologies are meant be be read as randomly as they seem to be presented -- that is, in no order, and certainly with no specific goal in mind other than to pass the time while doing laundry or sitting in the Minneapolis airport waiting for a flight. So it was a surprise to find the 2006 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading (edited by McSweeney's Dave Eggers) arranged with some themes. Section One consisted of a pop-culture "best-of": Headlines from The Onion, first sentences of novels published in 2005, new American band names, things to know about Chuck Norris. Sure, okay, goofy bits and lists are fun reading, but their freshness-dating is pretty limited. I know that Dave won't find it so funny in ten years when Senator Norris's House Un-American Activities hearings catch up to him.

The second section seems more thoughtful, and more selective. By 2006 the initial "shock and awe" of the Iraq war was unraveling into an unending American role; reports from Iraq make up much of the serious material included here. Readers who are interested can read the new Iraqi constitution, along with the unpublished piece "Are Iraqis Optimistic?" by the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based defense contractor whose goal was to give a positive spin on the U.S. occupation. There are short stories by Rick Moody and Haruki Murakami, and David Rakoff's "Love It or Leave It," detailing his efforts to become an American citizen. There's George Saunders' visit to Dubai, "The New Mecca," which originally appeared in GQ, of all places: that one might have gotten away, but I would have missed his entertaining writing on Dubai's Arabian Ice City.

Capturing "the best" of a literary year in print (even its "nonrequired" reading) must be a maddening task, especially now, when the internet seems to be an increasingly attractive source. Eggers is at least upfront about it -- "we also came across a variety of things that didn't fit neatly anywhere, but which we felt should be included," he writes -- fitting the definition of "nonrequired" reading, of course, but much of it "non-essential" as well.

By broadening the scope of the book, Eggers runs the risk of weakening it. That's one of the issues faced by any anthology editor: with so many choices, how do you equate the timely writing of, say, Tom Downey's The Insurgent's Tale and Michael Lewis's return to a slowly-recovering New Orleans, Wading Toward Home, with five scenes from Miranda July's shooting script of Me and You and Everyone We Know? The inclusion of The Best American Things to Know About Hoboes, John Hodgman's overwrought "history" from The Areas of My Expertise, is a pale shadow next to Kurt Vonnegut's Here Is a Lesson in Creative Writing:

Now, I don't mean to intimidate you, but after being a chemist as an undergraduate at Cornell, after the war I went to the University of Chicago and studied anthropology, and eventually I took a master's degree in that field. Saul Bellow was in the same department, and neither one of us ever made a field trip.
Although we certainly imagined some. I started going to the library in search of reports about ethnographers, preachers, and explorers -- those imperialists -- to find out what sorts of stories they'd collected from primitive people. It was a big mistake for me to take a degree in anthropology anyway, because I can't stand primitive people -- they're so stupid. ... Primitive people deserve to lose with their lousy stories.
With his characteristic deadpan humor (and accompanying graphs and charts) Vonnegut then goes on to explain how Shakespeare's Hamlet shares the best features of a primitive mythology: the greatest English dramatist, he concludes, is "as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho." It's his final lesson in the power of storytelling and its charms (from A Man Without a Country), and a real gem. The benefits of a collection like the 2006 book -- Eggers has been the "Nonrequired Reading" series editor since its inception in 2000 -- is that it gives a place to writing that otherwise might be overlooked in the jungle of weekly magazines, monthly glossies, newspapers and literary magazines. (Perhaps it's time for Eggers to edit that next, glorious irony: a yearly compilation, in print, of the best of the internet.) The introduction here is provided by Matt Groening, who certainly had no trouble discerning his own required reading at a very early age:
My obsessive love of reading began before I could read at all. As a wee tyke I remember being entranced by my older brother Mark's 1950s-era Little Lulu, Donald Duck, and Mad comic books."You know how much you like looking at those pictures?" Mark asked me."Well, when you can read the words in the balloons, it's a zillion times funnier."

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