Pick up any edition of “The Best American Short Stories” but don’t crack open the cover. Whether it’s the 1915 publication or the newest 2002 volume, you can pretty much assume, without even thumbing through it, that it’ll be stuffed to the gills with some of the best writing this country has to offer. Take away all the John Updikes, Alice Munros and Richard Fords, replace them with a few satirical pieces of journalism, a 24 page long comic, and many, many coming-of-age stories, and you’re now holding a copy of “The Best Nonrequired Reading 2002.”
This year, the creators of “The Best American” series (“The Best American Essays,” “The Best American Sports Writing”) have introduced a new addition to the family. Instead of a rosy-cheeked newborn, however, “Nonrequired Reading” seems more like a delinquent stepchild in a family of books usually brimming with literary poise. Series editor Michael Cart, and this year’s guest editor, Dave Eggers (author of the critically acclaimed memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) have teamed up to produce an anthology geared toward readers between the ages of 15 and 25. “Nonrequired Reading” differs from “Short Stories” in that it includes satire, essays and news pieces that are plucked from both mainstream and alternative publications – a worthwhile project when you consider that “Short Stories” often reads more like selections from the New Yorker or the Paris Review.
The fiction chosen for “Nonrequired Reading” is, at its best, poignant, clever and touching, although the book steers clear of material that is too stunning or challenging. David Schickler’s “Fourth Angry Mouse,” the best story in the anthology, spins the rich tale of Jeremy Jax, the grandson of a famous comedian, who suddenly discovers that he is not funny. Schickler’s Manhattan is like a vibrant, pulsing cartoon – the only setting in which we might be willing to fly with the silliness and sweetness of his plot. Elizabeth McKenize’s gentle prose makes “Stop That Girl” a lovely piece as well; in it, a fifth grader is banished to Europe after kicking her new stepfather in the shin. Also of note is Heidi Jon Schmidt’s “Blood Poison,” in which the grown daughter of a feeble failure of a father must come to terms with his weaknesses during a trip to New York City’s Museum of Natural History.
The non-fiction pieces are all well written, but many seem to have been chosen for their gimmicks, which steers the tone of the anthology in a cheesy sort of direction. Take, for example, a piece like “Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good,” – it sounds like it could have potential, but is in fact boring, unless you truly care about scientists who make flavors in the New Jersey area. The humor pieces are funny, especially “‘Jiving’ With Your Teen,” (which translates slang for confused parents) and “Local Hipster Overexplaining Why He Was At The Mall.” However, their inclusion, mixed with some of the more serious (and manipulatively saccharine) pieces about war in Afghanistan and speed addicts in Bangkok, makes for a muddled and watered-down reading experience.
The stories, explains Dave Eggers (in an annoying and un-funny introduction), were chosen by he and his “team” of student “helpers.” Herein lies the book’s main problem. Instead of being an edgy collection of stories that we don’t normally get to read because they’re published in ZYZZYVA and Zoetrope instead of The Atlantic Monthly and Ploughshares, we get material chosen because its content – not the power of the writing, but the topics addressed by the author – appealed to a dozen teenagers from the San Franscisco area. To college students, and maybe even some high school students, this anthology will feel a bit insulting. However, the book explains in its foreword that it exists for “young adults” – whoever they are – in order to provide material that hasn’t been censored by mean parents.
If this is true, then that is precisely the angle that is spoiling what could potentially be a wonderful read. Instead of a celebration of lesser-known works, we are given a sort of anthology of rebellion. This is disappointing, but if “Nonrequired Reading” is meant for the “Goosebumps” and “Sweet Valley High” age groups, it’s certainly a valuable volume (although Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield are actually way more fun than “Nonrequired Reading”).
For us college kids, though, this book might be a tad too dumb. As a whole it felt bland; nothing really struck too powerfully, and almost everything read like a weak David Sedaris piece (including the David Sedaris piece itself). Instead of picking up this anthology, which might have been good had it not taken a left on “Chicken Soup for the Soul” avenue, explore a copy of one of the independent/alternative publications that “Nonrequired’s” pieces have been chosen from. Or, just buy “The Best American Short Stories.” After “Nonrequired Reading,” required reading has never looked better.