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For young readers and young writers, here are half a dozen commonplaces concerning the act of reading, required or otherwise:
1. Dr. Johnson: “A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.” In principle I agree with this — but I’m not quite this sort of reader. Not confident enough to be this reader. “Inclination” is all very well if you are born into taste or are in full possession of your own, but for those of us born into families who were not quite sure what was required and what was not — well, we fear our inclinations. For myself, I grew up believing in the Western literary canon in a depressing, absolutist way: I placed all my faith in its hierarchies, its innate quality and requiredness. The lower-middleclass, aspirational reader is a very strong part of me, and the only books I wanted to read as a teenager were those sanctified by my elders and betters. I was certainly curious about the nonrequired reading of the day (back then, in London, these were young, edgy men like Mr. Self and Mr. Kureishi and Mr. Amis), but I didn’t dare read them until my required reading was done. I didn’t realize then that required reading is never done.
My adult reading has continued along this fiercely traditional and cautiously autodidactic path. To this day, if I am in a bookshop, browsing the new fiction, and Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities happens to catch my eye from across the room, I am shamed out of the store and must go home to try to read that monster again before I can allow myself to read new books by young people. Of course, the required nature of The Faerie Queene, books 3 through 10 of Paradise Lost, or the Phaedrus exists mostly in my head, a rigid idea planted by a very English education. An education of that kind has many advantages for the aspiring writer, but in my case it also played straight and true to the creeping conservatism in my soul. Requiredness lingers over me. When deciding which book of a significant author to read, I pick the one that appears on reading lists across the country. When flicking through a poetry anthology, I begin with the verse that got repeated in the .lm that took the Oscar. I met an Englishwoman recently, also lower middle class, who believed she was required to read a book by every single Nobel laureate, and when I asked her how that was working out for her, she told me it was the most bloody miserable reading experience she’d ever had in her life. Then she smiled and explained that she had no intention of stopping. I am not that bad, but I’m pretty bad. It is only recently, and in America, that the hold required reading has had on me has loosened a little.
Tradition is a formative and immense part of a writer’s world, of the creation of the individual talent — but experiment is essential. I have been very slow to realize this. Reading this collection made me feel the literary equivalent of “Zadie, honey, you need to get out more”; I began to see that interesting things are going on, more and more things, and that I can’t keep up with them, and that many of them cause revolt in the required-reading part of my brain (I get very concerned by the disappearance of some of the more expressive punctuations: the semicolon, the difference between long and short dashes, the potential comic artfulness of the parentheses), and yet, I so enjoyed myself that even if what I have read in this book is the clarion call of my own obsolescence, it seems essential to defend experiment and nonrequiredness from those who would attack it.
Thing is, the very young and very talented are not beholden. Nor are the readers who would approach them. The great joy of nonrequiredness seems to me that as a young reader, you have this opportunity to hold opinions that are not weighed down by the opinions that came before. It is up to you to measure the worth of the writers in your hand, for you are young and they are young and actually I am still young and we are all in this thing together. And I feel pride when I see that, collectively, we are not only writing and reading weird stories, but also writing and reading serious journalistic nonfiction and comics and satire and histories, and we are doing all these things with the sort of rigor and attention that no one expected of us, and we are managing this rigor and attention in a style entirely different from our predecessors’. We are so good, in fact, that we cannot hope to stay nonrequired very long. We, too, will soon become required, which comes with its own set of problems.
2. Logan Pearsall Smith: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” How important is the “touch of the real”? Should the young man hankering after a literary life read through his massive dictionaries or stand upon a pile of thhhhhem to reach the high shelf where the whiskey is kept? When I was in my teens, making a few stabs at writing, I had a very low opinion of experience. It did not seem to me that trekking to the cobwebbed corners of the world for six months and returning with a pair of ethnic trousers made anybody a more interesting fellow than when they left. Weary, stale, .at, and unprofitable were all the uses of the world to me — which meant, of course, that I was not much good at anything and had no friends. No matter what anybody says, it is a mixture of perversity and stomach-sadness that makes a young person fashion a cocoon of other people’s words. If the sun was out, I stayed in; if there was a barbecue, I was in the library; while the rest of my generation embraced the sociality of Ecstasy, I was encased in marijuana, the drug of the solitary. It was suggested to me by a teacher that I might “write about what you know, where you live, people you see,” and in response I wrote straight pastiche: Agatha Christie stories, Wodehouse vignettes, Plath poems — all signed by their putative authors and kept in a drawer. I spent my last free summer before college reading, among other things, Journal of the Plague Year, Middlemarch, and the Old Testament. By the time I arrived at college I had been in no countries, had no jobs, participated in no political groups, had no lovers, and put myself in no physical danger apart from an entirely accidental incident whereupon I fell fifty feet from my bedroom window while trying to reach for a cigarette I’d dropped in the guttering. In short, I was perfectly equipped to go on to write the kind of fiction I did write: saturated by other books; touched by the world, but only very vicariously. Welcome to the house that books built: my large rooms wallpapered with other people’s words, through which one moves like a tourist through an English country manor — somewhat impressed, but uncertain whether anyone really lives there.
These days, given the choice between a week in the Caribbean and a week reading A High Wind in Jamaica, I would probably still choose the book and the sofa. But this is no longer a proud rejection, only a stiffened habit. To read many of the pieces in this collection is to discover the uses of the world, of experience, is to be shown how life can indeed be the thing, if only you let it. I am impressed by this strong, noble, journalistic trend in American writing, to be found in this very book, dispassionately exercising itself over Saddam’s daily existence, or what it is like to live in South Central L.A. I had never met with this kind of journalism until I came to America. It has since been explained to me that most Americans read In Cold Blood when they are fifteen, but I read it only two years ago, and not since Journal of the Plague Year had I felt writing like that, and I mean felt it; writing that gets up inside you, physically, giving you back the meaning of the word unnerve. When you read too many novels, and then when you happen to write them as well, you develop a sort of hypersensitivity to the self- consciously “literary” as it manifests itself in fictional prose — it’s a totally irrational, violent, and self-defeating sensitivity, and you know that, but still, every time you see it, including in your own stuff, it makes you want to scream. So to read what purports to be the truth — no matter how decorated — feels to me like the palate-cleansing green tea that follows a busy meal of monosodium glutamate.
The point is, my mind has changed about experience. I thought I didn’t like memoirs, I thought I didn’t like travelogues, I thought I didn’t like autobiographical books written by people under forty, but the past three years of American writing have proved me wrong on all these counts. It is never too late to change your mind about what you require. I see now that I am required, and more than this, that I require, I need, to do something else with my life than solely to read fiction and write it. I’ve got to get out there, abroad and up close; I’ve got to smell things, eat them, throw them across a park, sail them, dig them up, and see how long I can survive without them, or with them.
As I write this, I am at a college with a novelist younger than me, and at a recent lunch he put before me a hypothetical choice. Should a young man stay the university distance for those four long years? Or should he drop out and seek the experiences that are owed him? Which decision makes the better writer? I argued the case for college, listing the writers on my side of the Atlantic who stayed the course even while indulging in such various activities as storing a bear in their room (Byron), ditching class to walk up hills (Wordsworth), spending most of the time having suits made (Wilde), stopping soccer balls at the goal’s mouth (Nabokov), or scribbling obscenities in library books (Larkin). He naturally countered with all the Americans who quit while they were ahead, or earlier (Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Jack London). He won the argument because I had no experience with which to argue against it. By definition Emersonian experience cannot be rejected without any experience of it; it must be passed through and felt and only then compared to the Miltonic experience: the dark room, a book, the smell of the lamp. I’m not qualified to make the judgment, no, not yet — although I intend to be. I want to travel properly next year. See some stuff. In the meantime, maybe we should heed the advice of the Web site www.education- reform.net/dropouts.htm and Shaun Kerry, M.D. (diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology), who comes down firmly on the side of life:
Ultimately, what distinguishes the aforementioned individuals from the rest of us is their passion for learning that transcends the structured environment of the classroom. Instead of limiting their education to formal schooling, they were curious about the world around them. With their fearless spirit of exploration and their desire to experiment, these individuals discovered their true passions and strengths, which they built upon to achieve success later in life.
Imagine what a loss for the world it would have been if Walt Disney had confined his learning to the requirements of his school’s curriculum, and followed only the guidance of his teachers, rather than his own internal motivation. His extraordinary animated features may have never been created.
3. Laurence Sterne: “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; they are the life, the soul of reading.” Yet, somehow, digressions have gone and got themselves a bad name. The name might be indulgence. Digressions, supposedly, are for writers who cannot control themselves, or else writers who seek to waste the hard-earned time of the no-bullshit reader who has little patience for frippery. The attitude: Writer, do not take me down this strange alley when I mean to get from A to B, and don’t think that, just because I am from the Midwest or Surrey, I’ll allow some New York or London wiseass to take me on an unnecessary, circuitous journey and charge me too much while they’re at it. And less of the chat — I don’t need a tour guide — Christ, I know this city like the back of my hand. And please note that I’m man enough to use honest language like “back of my hand,” which is more than you can say for these namby-pamby writers.
And then on the other side of the street, you’ve got your folks who care only for digression. They don’t feel they’ve got their money’s worth unless, while trying to get from Williamsburg to the Upper East Side, the writer takes them by way of Nairobi, a grandparent’s first romance, the Guadeloupean independence struggle of the 1970s, through the stink of the Moscow sewer system and up through the bud-mouth of an unborn child. But these folks are few.
Among the majority, digression has fallen from favor, along with many of the great digressors, of which Sterne was the mighty progenitor. Maybe “digression” has been confused and twinned with “complexity,” but if that’s so, then someone should explain that a path off a main road needn’t be busy or populated — it can be plain, flat, straight, almost silent. But for all digressions to be of this kind would seem to me a shame. To be so strict about it, I mean. I do like a sunny, busy lane. And I like a memory-saturated, melancholic one as well. I think of W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, that ode to digression, structured like a labyrinth of lanes leading away from a historical monument that is itself too painful to be looked at directly. This might be a model. Things are so painful again just now.
Maybe I worry too much about these things, but like a silent minority of transvestite schoolboys and wannabe drag kings, I imagine a whole generation of not-yet-here writers who feel great shame when contemplating their closet full of adjectival phrases, cone-shaped flashbacks, multiple voices, scraps of many media, syzygy, footnotes, pantoums. I worry that they will never wear them out for fear of looking the fool.
Look: Wear your black some days, and wear your purple others. There is no other rule besides pulling it off. If you can pull off, for example, blocks of red and yellow in horizontal stripes, feathers, tassels, lace, toweling, or all-over suede, then for God’s sake, girl, wear it.
Here is a beautiful digression from a master digressor. He is meant to be discussing his sixteen-year-old cousin, Yuri:
He was boiling with anger over Tolstoy’s dismissal of the art of war, and burning with admiration for Prince Andrey Bolkonski — for he had just discovered War and Peace which I had read for the first time when I was eleven (in Berlin, on a Turkish sofa, in our somberly rococo Privatstrasse flat giving on a dark, damp back garden with larches and gnomes that have remained in that book, like an old postcard, forever).
4. James Joyce: “That ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia” The ideal reader cannot sleep when holding the writer he was meant to be with.
Sometimes you meet someone who is the ideal reader for a writer they have not yet heard of. I met a boy from Tennessee at a college dinner who wore badly chipped black nail polish and a lip ring, had perfect manners, and ended any disagreement or confusion with the sentence “Well, I’m from Tennessee.” He was the ideal reader for J. T. Leroy and did not know it, having never heard of him. This was a very frustrating experience. Multiple recommendations did not seem sufficient — I wanted to take him at that moment, in the middle of the dinner, to the bookstore so he might meet the two novels he was going to spend the rest of his life with.
A cult book, of course, is one that induces the feeling of “being chosen as ideal” in every one of its readers. This is a rare, mysterious quality. The difference between, for example, a fine book like Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and a cult book like J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is that no one is in any doubt that Roth’s book was written for the general reader, whereas a Salinger reader must fight the irrational sensation that the book was written for her alone. It happens more often in music: Prince fans thought Prince their own private mirage; all the boys who liked Morrissey thought he sang for each of them; I had the same feeling with the initial album of Marshall Mathers, and also the .rst time I heard Mozart’s Requiem. It is all of it delusional, probably, like simultaneous orgasm, but to think of oneself as the perfect receptacle for an artwork is one of the few wholly benign human vanities.
Ideal reading is aspirational, like dating. It happens that I am E. M. Forster’s ideal reader, but I would much prefer to be Gustave Flaubert’s or William Gaddis’s or Franz Kafka’s or Borges’s. But early on Forster and I saw how we suited, how we fit, how we felt comfortable (too much so?) in each other’s company. I am Forster’s ideal reader because, I think, nothing that he left on the page escapes me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel I get all his jokes and appreciate his nuances, that I am as hurt by his flaws as I am by my own, and as pleased when he is great as I would be if I did something great. I know Morgan. I know what he is going to say before he says it, as if we had been married thirty years. But at the same time, I am never bored by him. You might know three or four writers like this in your life, and likely as not, you will meet them when you are very young. Understand: They are not the writers you most respect, most envy, or even most enjoy. They are the ones you know. So my advice is, choose them carefully so that people don’t roll their eyes at you at parties (this happens to me a lot).
The definition of a genius might be the reader who is ideal for multiple writers, each of them as dazzling and distant from each other as religions.
Maybe you are the ideal reader for a writer in this collection.
5. Sir Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” I’ve tried to deal a little with how full reading can make you, and how empty also. “Conference” we can file alongside “experience” — it is the main portion of experience. Otherwise known as the necessary habit of rubbing up against people in the world, other people and their variousness. The central significance of such rubbing, or frotting, being that it plays a key part in forming the kind of human being who might one day write a book that isn’t utterly phony and doesn’t make you feel sick when you read it.
“If fiction isn’t people it is nothing, and so any fiction writer is obligated to be to some degree a lover of his fellowmen, though he may, like the Mormon preacher, love some of them a damn sight better than others.” Wallace Stegner said that, and though Wallace Stegner is not the reason I wake up in the morning, if you don’t believe that sentence in some small part then you have no business writing fiction at all. You don’t know what it is. And you’re probably right, the medium is beneath you, it is dying, it is intellectually defunct — so why don’t you just leave it alone, go on, move along now. It’s a silly business — leave it to fools.
But if you are going to continue with it, then meet some people, won’t you? Care for them, conference with them. It will make you ready. Nobody contains within themselves multitudes, no, not Shakespeare, not Dickens, not Tom Wolfe, not nobody. You need to get some conference. Ready — this is absolutely the right word. I am not ready. Are you?
On Sir Francis’s last point: It is a commonplace to say that writing is a kind of exactitude, and it feels natural enough (to the writer) to speak of writing as the act of striving for precision, of making the artwork on the page a replica of the ideal artwork in one’s mind. Particularly if the writer is on a festival panel and cornered suddenly by a question regarding “process,” then she will most likely answer along these broadly Platonic lines, while retaining a guilty sense that the truth is more ambivalent, and too liquid to grasp in your hand and throw to the questioner with the microphone at the back of the hall.
When I write, the kind of exactitude that most concerns me is a bit tricky to explain. I’ll try, quickly. So you know the rhythm and speed of reading? Okay, keep that in mind. Now remember the rhythm and speed of writing — the jaggedy, retentive, tortured, unnatural lack of flow. Okay. Now to me, the mystery of exactitude lies in finding the perfect fit between what you know it is to write and what you know it is to read. If you are writing, and have forgotten the rhythm and speed and, actually, the texture, of what it is to read, you’re in trouble. But at the same time, to keep the idea of reading in mind too strongly while you’re writing is to grow fearful at the keyboard, dreading all that you might write that would be complex, awkward, resistant (to the ear, to the brain), intimate, and seemingly unshareable.
Mr. Stegner called writing the “dramatization of belief.” I find it useful to think of that phrase as pertinent not simply to what appears on the page in terms of narrative content but to the relation between two opposite, but umbilically connected, acts: reading and writing. To me, each writer’s prose style dramatizes their belief regarding what reading may demand of writing and vice versa. Hemingway, for example, believed in the primacy of reading; he thought that there should be no artificial interruption in its natural smoothness and speed. He subjugated the vanities of writing to the realities of reading. Nabokov, on the other hand, thought Hemingway was a Philistine. Nabokov thought reading should equal the performative act of writing, that it should be a reenaction of the act of writing (although no reader, except possibly his wife, proved equal, in Nabokov’s mind, to the task).
Somewhere between the writing that has forgotten entirely what reading is and the writing that is a slave to what reading is — that’s where I try to be.
(N.B. I guess you know how Sir Francis Bacon died.)
6. Vladimir Nabokov: “A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me.” Role models — individuals endowed with wide-ranging sociosymbolic significance — have no place in fiction. Role models are bullshit. People who move through the world playing roles, attending to roles, aspiring to roles, looking for models to help them find new roles — these people are not partaking fully in this whole existence-thing, which is about doing it for real. We would rather not read that way (leaning over a pond, waiting for the water to settle, and all so our own mirrored faces might rise toward us like Plath’s “terrible fish”), no, nor write that way either. To this some folks will object. Oh, I see. So you’re not political. No! Don’t believe it! You are political! You are the most political fucking person in the world because when you read, when you write, you won’t let a single human being be obscured behind the dread symbolic bulk of somebody or something else. Every time you open a novel or put pen to paper you dramatize your belief in the miraculous, incommensurable existence of a society of six billion individuals. One of whom died three hundred and seventy-seven years ago while attempting to freeze a chicken.
Copyright © 2003 by Houghton Mifﬂin Company. Introduction copyright © 2003 by Zadie Smith. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Editor's Note xi
Introduction David Sedaris xv
Best American Woman Comedy Piece Written by a Woman: From therumpus.net Wendy Molyneux 3
Best American Sentences on Page 50 of Books Published in 2009 5
Best American Magazine Letters Section: From Newsweek Stephen Colbert 8
Best American Fast-Food-Related Crimes 10
Best American Gun Magazine Headlines 11
Best American Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak: From Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak 13
Best American New Patents: From United States Patent and Trademark Office 14
Best American Tweets: From twitter.com 16
Best American Letter to the Editor: From Bidoun 17
Best American Overqualified Cover Letters: From Overqualified Joey Comeau 18
Best American Fictional Character Names 22
Best American 350-Word Story: From Orion Barry Lopez 23
Best American Farm Names 24
Best American First Lines of Poems Published in 2009 26
Best American Journal Article Titles Published in 2009 28
Best American Illustrated Missed Connections: From missedconnectionsny.blogspot.com Sophie Blackall 29
Best American New Band Names 37
Best American Lawsuits 38
Best American Poems Written in the Last Decade or So by Soldiers and Citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan 40
War Dances: From War Dances Sherman Alexie 49
Like I Was Jesus: From Harper's Magazine Rachel Aviv 75
Burying Jeremy Green: From Shenandoah Nora Bonner 95
The Carnival: From Mome Lilli Carré 104
Capital Gains: From Granta Rana Dasgupta 137
The Encirclement: From Granta Tamas Dobozy 165
Man of Steel: From Ninth Letter Bryan Furuness 180
Half Beat: From The Greensboro Review Elizabeth Gonzalez 198
Gentlemen, Start Your Engines: From San Francisco Panorama Andrew Sean Greer 213
Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier. The Photographer: From The Photographer, translated from French by Alexis Siegel Emmanuel Guibert 238
What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish?: From Tin House, translated from Hebrew by Nathan Englander Etgar Keret 262
Fed to The Streets: From L.A. Weekly Courtney Moreno 268
The Tiger's Wife: From The New Yorker Téa Obreht 287
Breakdown: From Mome T. Ott 308
Ideas: From The Paris Review, translated from Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem Patricio Pron 316
Vanish: From Wired Evan Ratliff 323
Seven Months, Ten Days in Captivity: From New York Times David Rohde 345
Tent City, U. S. A.: From GQ George Saunders 395
The Nice Little People: From Zoetrope: All-Story Kurt Vonnegut 431
Freedom: From Boston Review Amy Waldman 439
Contributors' Notes 456
The Best American Nonrequired Reading Committee 463
Notable Nonrequired Reading of 2009 472
About 826 National 479
Posted November 3, 2008
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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Posted May 14, 2008
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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Posted December 24, 2008
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Posted September 21, 2009
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