The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005


Pulled once again from the hip to the mainstream, this collection of fiction, nonfiction, alternative comics, and "anything else that defies categorization"(USA Today)is as fresh and bold as ever. Compiled by Dave Eggers and students from his San Francisco writing center, it's a "bouillabaisse of non-required reading that should be required"(Publishers Weekly). Contributors include Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, William Langewiesche, Stephen Elliott, and others.
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Pulled once again from the hip to the mainstream, this collection of fiction, nonfiction, alternative comics, and "anything else that defies categorization"(USA Today)is as fresh and bold as ever. Compiled by Dave Eggers and students from his San Francisco writing center, it's a "bouillabaisse of non-required reading that should be required"(Publishers Weekly). Contributors include Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, William Langewiesche, Stephen Elliott, and others.
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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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618570485
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/28/2005
  • Series: Best American Nonrequired Reading Series
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 370
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.82 (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


Burly tomes bulge from shelves and barely know I’m there.
Someday I plan to read the classics. Someday I plan to traverse their pages and see for myself what raw weight they wield. Actually, I have read a handful of them—Dickens, Dostoevsky, Twain, Fitzgerald, Voltaire—but in a haphazard, zigzagging fashion. No chronology, historical context, or classroom guidance.
I dropped out of school early and started work at a young age, but I spent a lot of time hanging around LACC, an inner-city community college a few miles from my mother’s house. I made friends with some of the professors. One of them lived with the poet Wanda Coleman, and I was invited to hang out at their place behind the campus. I got to sit in and hear their discussions on writers and writing. That was where I first realized that there were myriad subtexts to a given piece of writing, and that writers seemed to be able to tap into the profundities of daily existence.
I kind of knew these themes and patterns were always there in books and stories, but these people seemed to have some key, some tool to unlock the densest texts or find some illuminating insight into a mundane occurrence. It was mysterious to me how they pulled these observations out of their hats. Was it education, experience, divination—an innate sense of the world?
I started picking up books from thrift stores and spent a lot of time hanging out at the library. The books I came upon were pretty random, a patchwork more than a definitive list. James Baldwin, H. G. Wells’s history of the world, Sam Shepard’s plays. The library became my other home. I didn’t have a bedroom in my mom’s house, so the library was one of the only places I could go and be alone. When that downtown library burned down, it was a big blow to me. I remember watching the five o’clock news—big black plumes billowing out of the windows, and all those books burning.
Later, I tried some of the smaller neighborhood libraries, but they were disappointing. A bunch of romance novels, ancient how-to intructionals, and some worn-out kids’ books.

I made friends with this kid from Laos who worked in a cool little bookshop in the then-uncool East Hollywood neighborhood of Los Feliz. Books were not always available and became somewhat of a commodity, so I’d go up there and we’d hang around, talk about writers, and he’d show me the new books they’d gotten in. He was into obscure stuff, like a German poet named Georg Trakl or St.- John Perse. We’d sit around on long summer afternoons reading magazines and bits from various books. In a way, it was kind of our own nonrequired reading. We were picking up various writings and mashing them up into some kind of piecemeal perspective. Not having any academic structure about us, everything we gravitated to probably had the weight of something discovered on one’s own, like we’d uncovered some secret thing nobody else knew. Which is kind of an adolescent thrill, or pomposity, but I’m still guilty of it.
There was an old art house movie theater next door. We were friendly with the assistant manager, and he would let us in for free. The Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire played for six or seven months and we must have seen it thirty times. We’d hang out in the projection booth sometimes, already having memorized all the scenes. I remember that it started out in a library, with an angel listening in on people’s thoughts. We knew there was something going on in this movie and we’d learned what that was from reading.
We were also listening to Sonic Youth’s Evol, Einstürzende Neubauten, and old Delta blues. It seemed like we’d found what was relevant to us. The required world seemed a little gray and uninspired maybe. We were digging into the nonrequired past (which I think was the thing to do at the time). I remember Georges Bataille being very cool at the time. Also an old hobo account from the 1930s by Jack Black (the hobo, not the movie star) called You Can’t Win had recently been rediscovered and reissued. Even quasi-sci-fi writers like Philip K. Dick were being reassessed and held in high regard. There wasn’t much talk of the classics. It was more about the stuff that had gotten missed in between the major “important” works. It was like there was a questioning and a mistrust that were manifested in this stream of curiosities forming a new forgotten canon. But trends change and perspective shifts. Works sometimes speak to a moment or fill a need at the time. And the classics still stand unmoved.

When I came upon this series a few years back, it immediately made sense to me. It was what I was always doing: reading things here and there in airports, in waiting rooms, and on tour busess. There are always those bits from some article—a weird fact, an anecdote, an image even—you pick up somewhere that become lodged in youuuuur brain, just as deeply as anything would from a great novel or film. Sometimes those things crop up outside of the great canon of literature and only breathe into our awareness for a minute. If literature moves slow and we live in dog years, this book may come in handy. I’ve found the mix-tape aesthetic works for me. The humor and the humane, the hugeness and the miniature. It coheres into some other kind of implied story or novel that we’re still living out. This is something we’re figuring out together and apart, like it or not.
And if you want some advice you’ll get only in this book: don’t fall asleep riding a bicycle like my friend Brian did. You might wake up bleeding in a rent-a-cop car.

Beck Los Angeles, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2005 by Beck. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Dave Eggers xi Introduction by Beck xxx

Joe Sayers. Passing Periods xii, xv from Passing Periods

Anders Nilsen. The Mediocrity Principle xiii–xiv from Blood Orange

Daniel Alarcón. Florida 1 from Swink

Jessica Anthony. The Death of Mustango Salvaje 15 from McSweeney’s

Aimee Bender. Tiger Mending 39 from BlackBook

Ryan Boudinot. Free Burgers for Life 48 from Monkeybicycle

Dan Chaon. Five Forgotten Instincts 68 from Other Voices

Amber Dermont. Lyndon 78 from Zoetrope

Stephanie Dickinson. A Lynching in Stereoscope 96 from African-American Review

Tish Durkin. Heavy Metal Mercenary 112 from Rolling Stone

Stephen Elliott. My Little Brother Ruined My Life 123 from Maisonneuve

Al Franken. Tearaway Burkas and Tinplate Menorahs 134 from Mother Jones

Jeff Gordinier. The Lost Boys 148 from Details

Kate Krautkramer. Roadkill 164 from Creative Nonfiction

Jhumpa Lahiri. Hell-Heaven 175 from The New Yorker

Rattawut Lapcharoensap. At the Café Lovely 196 from Zoetrope

Molly McNett. Catalogue Sales 217 from New England Review

George Saunders. Bohemians 237 from The New Yorker

George Saunders. Manifesto 247 from Slate

J. David Stevens. The Joke 250 from Mid-American Review

Jonathan Tel. The Myth of the Frequent Flier 257 from Open City

Douglas Trevor. Girls I Know 263 from Epoch

William T. Vollmann. They Came Out Like Ants! 281 from Harper’s Magazine

Lauren Weedman. Diary of a Journal Reader 313 from Swivel

Contributors’ Notes 319 Notable Nonrequired Reading of 2004 326

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