The Best American Nonrequired Reading


From "Q & A" by Dave Eggers A group of senators and assemblypersons were pressing The Best American Nonrequired Reading on a number of questions relating to the collection, so we decided to kill that stone in the shape of an introduction in the shape of a Q & A.

Who are they, the Nonrequired committee’s members who decide on things in this collection?
They are high ...

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From "Q & A" by Dave Eggers A group of senators and assemblypersons were pressing The Best American Nonrequired Reading on a number of questions relating to the collection, so we decided to kill that stone in the shape of an introduction in the shape of a Q & A.

Who are they, the Nonrequired committee’s members who decide on things in this collection?
They are high school students from all over the San Francisco Bay Area.

Are they touched by some kind of divine light?
The question is a good one. There is rampant speculation on the subject.

Are they all great-looking and charming and well dressed?
Yes. All of them, and especially Felicia Wong, who can even make her own clothes.

I have a question about the process by which the entries in this collection are chosen. Is it scientific?
The process by which The Best American Nonrequired Reading is put together is not scientific. It is whatever one would consider the opposite of scientific.

Well, no, it’s not creationist either. The point is that we are probably a bit less top-to-bottom thorough than, say, the Army Corps of Engineers. Well, actually, scratch that. We are probably about exactly as thorough as the Army Corps of Engineers, in that we are intermittently thorough.

What is your opinion and the committee’s opinion of the state of short stories and small magazines and other periodicals?
This is a good time. It really is.

More specifically?
Not all of us Americans appreciate the fact that we have about 150 very good quarterlies in this country. Every state seems to have a very good quarterly, and about a hundred colleges have very good quarterlies—from the Kenyon Review to the University of Illinois’s Ninth Letter. So by our estimate there are about 150 very good quarterlies in this country. Maybe more. Now, the thing we don’t always appreciate here in America is that elsewhere in the world there are few to no quarterlies.

How does it feel to select something for the collection that you found in an unlikely place?
It feels so good. This year, for example, at the last moment we found “Humpies” by Mattox Roesch. It was published by Agni Online, and we all loved it, and here it is, ideally able to reach a new audience. We all took pleasure in finding that one; the mandate of the committee is to find the offbeat and the lesser-known and bring these pieces to our readers, most of whom have great skin and bad eyes.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Short stories are not meant for short attention spans; the best are as dense and nuanced as a good chocolate truffle. Selected by writer Eggers and his 826 Valencia workshop students, many of the 24 stories in this fourth volume of the "Best American Nonrequired Reading" series are delights. In the best short story tradition, they provoke interest quickly and linger in the memory long after. Cartoon, nonfiction, and quirky short pieces are included among the predominantly traditional short stories, and there's a nice mix of established and lesser-known writers whose offerings range from the mordant wit of Douglas Trevor's "Girls I Know" to Jhumpa Lahiri's beautifully crafted "Hell-Heaven" to Amber Dermont's moving and funny "Lyndon." George Saunders's and Molly McNett's pieces also stand out. Noteworthy among the nonfiction pieces is William Vollmann's "They Came Out Like Ants," about Chinese immigrants living in Mexacali tunnels. The eclectic mix in this anthology shares some recurring motifs: troubled childhoods, a feeling for the woes of American outsiders, and a sort of melancholic irony about the world. A representative and worthwhile holding for public and academic libraries.-Laurie Sullivan, Sage Group Int'l., Nashville Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fiction and nonfiction pulled from the main- and side-stream by McSweeney's editor Eggers, founder of a San Francisco writing lab for city youth, is the latest in Houghton Mifflin's Great American Series. Even with forewords from inaugural guest editor Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, 2000) and series editor Michael Cart, a well-known YA author, the new category "nonrequired" is less than clear. Even so, there are pieces from old standbys Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and, yes, the New Yorker, cheek by jowl with bits from the Onion, Optic Nerve, Spin, and ZYZZYVA. Though aimed at younger-than-boomer readers, the pieces are not necessarily by or about the less-than-middle-aged. Eric Schlosser's "Why McDonald's French Fries Taste So Good" is a fascinating but almost geekily well-researched piece about the flavor enhancement biz; it educates even though it was probably chosen to appeal to vegan terrorists and their supporters. Adrian Tomine's "Bomb Scare," from Optic Nerve, is a gloomy and graphic high-school-life-sucks-so-bad piece that goes on nearly as long as high school. Karl Taro Greenfield's "Speed Demons," from Time, clearly explains the appeal of meth and other uppers. While a number of pieces have been included as comic relief, only David Sedaris (unsurprisingly) and the Onion bits ("Local Hipster Overexplaining Why He Was At The Mall" and "Marilyn Manson Now Going Door To Door Trying To Shock People") are likely to crack anybody up. Perhaps the truly cool don't want to be caught guffawing. Rodney Rothman's almost-nonfiction "My Fake Job," disowned by the New Yorker, is amusing but so dryly that there's no danger of snorting or snotflying. The sentimental favorite is a long, wonderful piece from Sports Illustrated, of all places, by Gary Smith, about a black coach who brings magic to an Amish community in Ohio. Readers who aren't reduced to blubbering should seek medical attention. An alternative to the Banana Republic gift certificate for that difficult nephew with a birthday.
From the Publisher
"An excellent literary compilation . . . Eggers deserves credit for another first-rate collection." Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618902811
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/1/2007
  • Series: Best American Nonrequired Reading Series
  • Pages: 386
  • Sales rank: 820,280
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

DAVE EGGERS is the editor of McSweeney’s and a cofounder of 826 National, a network of nonprofit writing and tutoring centers for youth, located in seven cities across the United States. He is the author of four books, including What Is the What and How We Are Hungry .

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction How I Trumped Rudolf Steiner and Overcame the Tribulations of Illiteracy, One Snickers Bar at a Time

There are some things you tell no one, secrets packed and folded away in the far reaches of your mind—admissions of mouth herpes, for example, or athlete’s foot, or a night spent in jail for drunk driving. These irreversible facts, like birth certificates and blood donor cards, we keep under cover in the fireproof safe-deposit box hidden in the closet, under the Ouija board and Christmas-tree stand and the packs of Nicorette gum. I’m a glutton for exhibitionism, so I’d like to reveal a dirty secret: I didn’t learn to read until third grade. As an elementary school kid at the Detroit Waldorf School, I was encouraged to learn at my own pace. For the uninformed, let me tell you a little about Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf system. An Austrian philosopher, writer, and social theorist, Steiner developed an educational system that was holistic, noncompetitive, and emotionally balanced, emphasizing social health, artistic expression, and pluralism in the classroom. In practice, this meant there were no textbooks, workbooks, reader’s guides, or learning manuals—only paint, clay, knitting needles, and sheep’s wool. I don’t recall a library or a science lab in our school. There were indoor planters, pieces of felt, animal costumes, and wax paper. The classrooms were decorated with satin drapes and paper lanterns. There were no parallel walls or right angles. Quiet nooks and secret hollows were constructed in the corners, quilted blankets and hand-woven shawls held up with rocking chairs and wood broomsticks. Every room was designed to imitate a tree house or a bear cave or an underground den where foxes slept through the winter, nuzzling their young. Learning was an amorphous metaphysical experience measured by the students’ creative whims—beeswax one day, cotton string the next. There were no vocabulary exercises or math quizzes. The syllabus was hand drawn on the chalkboard, oil pastels in Renaissance colors simulating the seasons, sweeping rainbow illustrations of unicorns and magic owls and eavesdropping elves. The school did everything to blur all lines between fact and imagination, between art and science, between math and English, between student and teacher. For some, the disregard for standards was galvanizing. My peers took up the violin, spoke French, learned botany, identified plants and animals, mastered oil painting, weaving, and the classical guitar. But I was a slow learner, the youngest of five, easily distracted, unmotivated, listless, prone to daydreaming. I spent much of my time huddled by the radiator, keeping my beeswax warm, humming the theme to Star Search. The classroom’s lack of parallel surfaces coddled me in a fluid womb of sleep and thumb-sucking. I had trouble finding the restroom, so I peed in the cot. I had trouble finger- knitting, so I balled up the yarn and used it for a pillow. I had trouble making friends, so I imagined them: Peter the ox, Dora the talking skeleton, Herb the dietician. I lived in a world of fantasy and make-believe where reading and writing were banned by laws of my own creation. Years went by—preschool, kindergarten, first grade, second grade—the dreamy sweep of a Steiner childhood. I was shuffled from calligraphy class to recorder lessons to eurythmy, with the choose-yourown- adventure of progressive schooling. It didn’t matter that I was so far behind the other kids—those bold, brassy, multicultural, bilingual children with their knitted vests and viola cases. I would catch up, the teachers said. I would come around someday. I would learn to read and write by the powers of the Maypole, the winter solstice, the constellations, and Orion’s enchanted belt.Waldorf teachers were less concerned with literacy and standardized testing—the unpalatable concessions of the public school system—than with watercolor pencils and cotton balls. For them, the real process of learning was to be stewed and simmered in a slow cooker, or kneaded and pulled in the baby’s bottom of bread dough. We learned not by worksheets and chapter guides but by watching seedling trees grow from teacups, the passing of the seasons, Baroque music, folk songs, and Nordic mythology. These things poked and prodded the child’s imagination, opening up vast moments of wonder, inspiring great works of art, cultivating joy, encouraging artistry and a lifetime of learning. Truth be told, I wasn’t learning anything. I rode the absent-minded wave for four nebulous years, whistling and waving my way through educational anarchy. By the time I finished second grade, it was clear something was wrong. I sttill couldn’t read or write. I had no friends. I had no ambitions. I was a Waldorf flunky. But by then it was too late. My parents’ mmmmmarriage began to crumble, along with the general downward slide of the times: Ronald Reagan, John Lennon, Mount St. Helens, to name a few. My parents started watching daytime TV, drank coffee till all hours of the night, ordered pizza, bleached their teeth, and shed their educational ideologies once and for all. They fought and kicked and threw dishes across the kitchen. Then they got divorced. That summer, I went to live with my father, who had moved to the remote upper reaches of northern Michigan, to a small logging town with a bait shop and a swing bridge and aMethodist church at the top of the hill, a quiet, historical village where people spoke with a southern drawl and wore overalls and chewed tobacco and drove tractortrailers to work at Kmart. My father apologized for everything—for Waldorf, for watercolor pencils, for recorder lessons, for est training, for past-lives séances, for macrobiotics, for pot-smoking, for the ridiculous, holistic trial and error called parenting, of which he confessed to failing greatly. “It’s time you became a man,” he told me. “It’s time you learned to read.” So in the beginning of third grade, I was transferred to a public school, a cinderblock prison camp with metal lockers and industrial carpeting and fluorescent lights so severe they took all color out of your complexion. Right angles abounded. Maps of the USSR. Protractors. Carbon copies. Vending machines. The sterile metal surfaces of the modern age. Computers, textbooks, worksheets, MEAP, SAT, PTA, all the formidable abbreviations of public schooling. I clawed at the classroom windows like a hamster in a glass cage, desperate for fresh air. The other children—raised on hot dogs and homogenized milk—were pig-nosed, bucktoothed, albino bullies who spent their free time at the arcade downtown playing Dig Dug or Dungeons and Dragons. But at least they could read. I couldn’t even spell my own name, so I was beaten up at recess, tickled and punched behind the swings, left in a rumpled mess in the gravelly residue of the playground. After the first week of school, I was forced to take a series of multiple-choice tests—reading comprehension, basic math, language arts—each of which I failed, having artfully filled every blank with affectionate shades of the color wheel using my Swiss watercolor pencils. That’s when I was ordered to go to special ed. They sent me to a boxy trailer slumped behind the cafeteria with a stack of flash cards and a vocabulary book, highlighting useful, ordinary words that would help me navigate the everyday life of the working- class man. Apple pie. Toothpaste. Driver’s license. Checkbook. Garbage can. I recognized the letters, but I couldn’t piece them together into tangible, audible words. I was uninspired. “Give me a ball of beeswax,” I begged, “or a slab of clay, and I will shape the letters from the earth and choreograph a dance for each vowel while pulling the streamers of the Maypole around the schoolyard, singing the folk songs of the ancients!” My English teacher, Mrs. Lubbers, pulled me aside and said, “What is wrong with you? Are you retarded?” I shrugged and pointed at my heart, the light rhythm of hope, tapping its way out of any difficult situation. Mrs. Lubbers had the fresh face of a woman right out of a liberal arts college. She wore uneven dresses tied down with belts, and scarves dangled at every angle like those of a heavy-metal singer. She had bobbed hair and a birthmark on her neck in the shape of an infinity symbol. She wore metal bracelets and had a firm handshake that told you she wasn’t going to give up easily. At lunch, she pulled me into the teachers’ lounge, unpacked her lunch on the table, and made me identify each object: juice box, banana, salami sandwich, potato chips. Then she pointed out the obvious packaging. Everything was tagged with its name, in clear, concise advertising. She told me about the wonders of the industrial age, how every item of food is mass- produced, wrapped, packaged, labeled, and sold to the public with its nametag right on front: Hello. My name is________. She called the grocery store a public library, a literary adventure, a reader’s guide for the learning- disabled. “We are surrounded by words,” she said, as if reciting a psalm. “It’s impossible not to read in this day and age. Not with all the Bazooka Joe comics lying around!” Mrs. Lubbers had devised a theory: having been rescued from the liberal clutches of Rudolf Steiner, I was like a primate, an ignorant beast of nature, a wild stallion or Frankenstein’s monster. I only needed the brash brainwashing of civilization, a crash course in modern society, capitalism, free enterprise, pop culture, Mickey Mouse, theHardy Boys, Ronald McDonald. I needed the chlorinated conditioning of the modern world, with its pageantry of products, its multimedia of stimulation—television, TV Guide, GI Joe, Little Debbie, Garfield, Peanuts, Cocoa Puffs. I wasn’t dumb, she told me. I was just Old World, nineteenth century, understimulated. The glorious product placement of the advertising age would certainly inspire in me all kinds of wild literary exploits. Mrs. Lubbers assigned me a simple task: spend your free time at the pharmacy, the video store, or the grocery store, scanning aisles, browsing cereal boxes, examining coupons, prodding price tags and recipes for nouns, verbs, adjectives—the covert grammar of everyday objects, revealed only to the watchful eyes of the eager reader. In those quiet moments of clandestine reading I would slowly, irreversibly evolve into the acclaimed Nobel Prize–winning literary critic of tomorrow! “Read the label,” Mrs. Lubbers said, “and you will uncover the Guinness Book of World Records. Read the label and you will soon be channeling the noble intonation of Garrison Keillor, the eloquence of Vincent Price, and the brains of Salman Rushdie.” The next day was payday, shopping day. I told my father about Mrs. Lubbers’s homework assignment and begged him to take me to the local Super K, a commercial paradise, a library of information. He gave me a book of discount coupons to study in the car. When we got to the store, he pushed the cart from aisle to aisle and I kept my eyes open for the literature of the advertising world. Palmolive. Antibacterial. Tough on grease. I spelled out the words, shaped the vowel sounds, kept the rough edges of consonants on my tongue like a piece of hard candy. Downy fabric softener. Duracell batteries. Aspirin pain reliever. Scotch tape. These were mini-novels, micro- fiction, rousing in me the desire to read. I started with a book of matches, inspecting the small print: Close cover before striking—a mysterious line of haiku on which I meditated for hours. I sounded out the simple words on soup cans, toothpaste tubes, cracker boxes: Weight. Squeeze. Caution. Press. Warning. A simple glance at a box of Arm & Hammer baking soda beckoned the epic verse of warrior kings and rival siblings feuding for power with metal swords and battle-axes. My father gathered all the groceries like a shepherd rounding up his sheep, and I scrutinized every label with the exactness of a shearer. I read the disappointing news of the cereal box: Some settling may occur; the morbid gasps of a can of aerosol hairspray: Extremely flammable. Solvent abuse can kill instantly! A box of paper clips promised a smooth finish, much like a fine scotch. A box of business envelopes became a patriotic icon: Crafted with pride. Made in America. The standup comedy on the box of a laxative tea: Gently squeeze bag to release remaining extract. In the soap aisle, I memorized the seductive verbs on Alberto VO5’s “extra body” shampoo: wet, lather, rinse. I tried to parse the mysterious ingredients on the back of the bottle, an intimidating litany of chemical compounds that might have been the recipe for an atom bomb: acetate, panthenol, sodium chloride, water. I proofread a can of Barbasol shaving cream, an erotic tone poem: “Our rich, thick lather / moisturizes and lubricates / for a clean, close, comfortable shave.” I perused the short story of the lip balm: “If irritation occurs, discontinue use.” I marveled at the absence of verbs on the Vitamin C: one tablet, twice daily; and the captivating demands on the caps of bleach: push, turn, pull, pry. Later, at home, I moved on to other documents: junk mail, restaurant receipts, speeding tickets. In my father’s messy desk drawer I uncovered a jury summons from the county clerk’s office in the supreme court building, a business letter creased and folded in thirds, lying next to the hole puncher. The letter was dressed with the abrupt legalities of an administrative assistant: “Read carefully. No exceptions. Dress in a manner that shows respect. If your situation prevents you from coming in person, please call.” There were unpaid phone bills, the poetry of phone numbers, first names, last names, business calls, 800 numbers. There were solicitations for credit cards, key cards, business cards, a library of area codes and office addresses. I discovered, by the book shelf, the astute astrology of my father’s record collection, as gleaned from the liner notes of a 1968 recording by Aretha Franklin, born under the sign of Aries: “You are a natural leader and your pioneering strength expresses a sincere interest in the welfare of others.” Soon I was reading whole sentences, paragraphs, pages and pages of newspapers, National Geographics, the National Enquirer, the Detroit Free Press, the New York Times Magazine, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I took notes, made outlines, wrote thesis statements, introductory paragraphs, first drafts, revisions, ambitious dissertations on the flea circus, the shoe horn, the Sharpie, the morning-after pill, Roe v. Wade, the Interlake Steamship, the Erie Canal, the hooded sweatshirt, beeswax, the four-leaf clover, the recorder, the violin, dance theater, What I Did for Summer Vacation, Space Camp, Dance Camp, Recorder Camp, Super K, and how I heroically overcame the tribulations of illiteracy, one Snickers bar at a time. The next school day I felt like I had a hangover. I dragged myself to class with a head cold, a migraine, a fever, my right brain battling it out with my left brain, each lobe fat and fractured with all the jinglejangle of popular media. Bug-eyed, with drooping mouth, beaten but undefeated, I had triumphed over the educational armies of Rudolf Steiner and basked in the glories of commerce and capitalism, from which all knowledge thrives. I could finally read! I brought in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and read every word on the label, to prove it to the rest of the class: “In a four-quart pot combine one can of soup and one can of water. Simmer over low heat, stirring often. Serve. Enjoy.” Mrs. Lubbers gave me a proud look, a row of stars, an A+, and, with a shuffling of neck scarves and metal bracelets, she handed me my very first book: Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all six volumes, 3,568 pages. I took it home that night and read every single word.

Sufjan Stevens Introduction copyright © 2007 by Sufjan Stevens. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Introduction by Sufjan Stevens xi Q & A by Dave Eggers xix


Best American Names for Horses Expected to Have Undistinguished Careers 3 from Yankee Pot Roast, written by Mike Richardson-Bryan

Best American Beginnings of Ten Stories about Ponies 4 from Monkey Bicycle, written by Wendy Molyneux

Best American First Sentences of Novels Published in 2006 6

Best American New Words of 2006 8 from The Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, new edition

Best American New Band Names 11

Best American Six-Word Memoirs 12 from Smith

Best American Personals from Around the World 14 from Tin House

Best American Article Titles from the Best American Trade Magazines 17

Best American Creationist Explanations for the World's Natural Wonders 21 from Answers in Genesis

Best American New Animal Plagues 23 from Earthweek, written by Steve Newman

Best American Failed Television Pilots 25 from Channel 101

Best American Names of Television Programs Taken to Their Logical Conclusions 28 from Opium, written by Joe O'Neill

Best American Police Blotter Items 29 from Looptard


Jonathan Ames. Middle-American Gothic 33 from Spin

Alison Bechdel. A Happy Death 41 from Fun Home

D. Winston Brown. Ghost Children 70 from Creative Nonfiction

Scott Carrier. Rock the Junta 84 from Mother Jones

Joshua Clark. American 99 from New Orleans Review

Edge Foundation. What Is Your Dangerous Idea? 107

Jennifer Egan. Selling the General 131 from Five Chapters

Stephen Elliott. Where I Slept 153 from Tin House

Kevin A. González. Lotería 162 from Indiana Review

Miranda July. How to Tell Stories to Children 187 from Zoetrope: All-Story

Matthew Klam. Adina, Astrid, Chipewee, Jasmine 204 from The New Yorker

Lee Klein. All Aboard the Bloated Boat: Arguments in Favor of Barry Bonds 227 from Barrelhouse

Nam Le. Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice 237 from Zoetrope: All-Story

Jen Marlowe, Aisha Bain, and Adam Shapiro. Darfur Diaries 259

David J. Morris. The Big Suck: Notes from the Jarhead Underground 274 from The Virginia Quarterly Review

Conan O'Brien. Stuyvesant High School Commencement Speech 299

Mattox Roesch. Humpies 305 from Agni Online

Patrick Somerville. So Long, Anyway 317 from Epoch

Joy Williams. Literature Unnatured 330 from American Short Fiction

Contributors' Notes 341 The Best American Nonrequired Reading Committee 345 Notable Nonrequired Reading of 2006 349

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  • Posted November 3, 2008

    more from this reviewer


    These are perfect, bite-sized tidbits from all over that you won't find collected like this anywhere else. You can savor the Dave Eggers (editor) flavor in each piece. They range from humorous lists to deep ponderings on foreign affairs. Look for a new one each year! This is perfect for the picky reader; anyone can find something to suit his or her taste!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2008

    One of the most intriguing books ever!!

    The Best American Non-required Reading 2007 was one of the most intriguing books I have ever read. This book consisted of short stories written by high school to college age kids. The fact that as young as they are they can write as deep and mature as they do is truly remarkable. For instance the first story in the book Middle-American Gothic was about the idea and mindset of Goth it was incredible how the author was able to shed a new light on the term and make it a culture rather than something to be looked down upon. This was defiantly one of my favorite stories because it did not portray the kids to be ¿Punks¿ or mischievous but just people that like to express themselves. This book is definitely for the more advanced and mature reader because there are concepts that some readers might not pick up on and a lot of the time these concepts make or break the story. The editor Dave Eggers should also be given credit for the way that the stories are compiled. He does a phenomenal job at placing the stories in the order they are in one just flows smoothly into the next without the reader feeling like they are in a tornado spinning from idea to idea. Anyone who is looking for a good read this year look no further because The Best American Non-required Reading 2007 is a great book of stories and will definitely be enjoyed by the majority.

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