Author: Daniel Handler (series editor), Lemony Snicket (introduction)
Type: Fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays, comics, poetry (anthology)
I read it: February 2015
The times they have a-changed for The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. Dave Eggers has stepped down as captain, and Daniel Handler is filling his shoes. It was a bit of a cheap trick to have Handler’s alter ego write the introduction, but I suppose they had plenty of newness to deal with this year, so I give it a pass.
First, the one notable downside that occurred with this shift: the death of the front section. Throughout all the volumes I had read, the front section was a creative mishmash of anything that couldn’t comfortably fit into a distinguishable genre of written work. Speeches, snippets, emails, collected quotes, best first (or last) lines of books, Craiglist ads, weird flyers, newspaper clippings, you name it. One of my favorite parts, The Best American New Band Names, had already been excised from the front section a couple years ago. And now the whole thing is gone.
This would have stuck with me as a major concern if under the new leadership the group didn’t end up filling that extra space with superb writing picks. But rest assured that they have done it. In fact, the first seven or so entries are a rush of exceptional pieces, kicked off by Matthew Schultz’s “On the Study of Physics in Preschool” (a must-read for teachers) and Dan Keane’s equally creative “AP Style” (a must-read for editors). A couple non-fiction selections that show up in the early pages include a portrait of a man who infiltrates and saves people from cults, an insightful look at the way humans interact with pets, and a lively interview with a female Egyptian political activist.
The rest of the anthology includes:
- A couple of breezy comic excerpts.
- Several poems and flash fiction plays.
- An intriguing history of comedian Dave Chappelle, by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah.
- A transcript of an episode from a podcast called Welcome to Night Vale, which I’m now tempted to check out.
- Engaging accounts of the friend of a terrorist (V.V. Ganeshananthan’s “K Becomes K”) and the life of a soldier returning from modern war (Cole Becher’s “Charybdis”), which I can’t tell whether or not are fiction or non-fiction.
- True accounts of reporters in third world countries, which are always eye-opening and hard to read for the obvious reasons, and which seem to be requirements in compilations like these. I can see why they have value, but my narrow first world mind has a hard time distinguishing these sometimes.
- Two parallel stories, one short and one long, that channel first-hand experience of the illness of a loved one. These are “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky and “Nirvana” by Adam Johnson.
- A deceptively straightforward yet aching piece, Gabriel Heller’s “After Work.”
- A fantastic essay on the topic of “Joy” by Zadie Smith.
So yes, the Nonrequired series remains in fine form. Hopefully Handler can confidently steer the ship for a while and continue to let the young anthologizers show us the good stuff. Happy reading.