Author: Dave Eggers (series editor), Matt Groening (introduction)
Type: Fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays, comics, humor (anthology)
I read it: April 2015
This issue was apparently the first to feature the now-deceased front section. Well its inception here is strong, with an exchange between Stewart and Colbert from The Daily Show, transcipts from a Pennsylvania court trial in which creationism was shot down, and selections from the Edge Foundation’s What We Believe But Cannot Prove. This last includes someone writing a short piece on “I believe that the radiation emitted by mobile phones is harmless.” He must feel vindicated by now! The Best American New Band Names makes its debut, and it’s fun to look back at names like Arctic Monkeys, Band of Horses, and The Raconteurs. Immediately following is something that hasn’t aged well: Best American Names to Know about Chuck Norris. I’m not sure how this got crystallized in our modern texts. But things are made right by John Hodgman’s Best American Things to Know about Hoboes which includes his list of 700 hobo names. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the names of the ancient and unspeakable ones from That Is All, but it still amuses (and there’s a neat connection due to the hobo name of Cthulhu Carl).
In the bulk of the book, I found the memorable pieces to be almost all non-fiction. There’s a neat story about the Body Worlds art/anatomy exhibit, and another about a Canadian trying to become an American citizen. George Saunders has a brilliant GQ essay called “The New Mecca” about Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The closing trio is a powerful lineup, including Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God?” which still ranks high as a doubter’s introduction to losing religion (“It’s like I had to go change the wallpaper of my mind.”), Kurt Vonnegut’s “Here is a Lesson in Creative Writing,” and David Foster Wallace’s no-b.s. “Kenyon Commencement Speech.” That’s a lot of quality in one anthology.
This year for Nonrequired Reading was a big one for war stories, due to the U.S. being in full swing with overseas occupations. The front section has a devastating excerpt from a military blog, and Tom Downey writes a fair and complex portrait of a terrorist in “The Insurgent’s Tale.” There is an eye-opening selection from the Lincoln Group, a defense contractor that the Pentagon hired to plant fake articles in Iraqi newspapers in order to sway public opinion. The full text of this one entitled “Are Iraqis Optimistic?” is written as if by an Iraqi to his or her people. Of course it lays out how attitudes are turning in favor of the U.S., and contains such phenomenal lines as “Under Saddam, public opinion wasn’t something anyone in power wanted to know about, so no polls were conducted … Even that was more of a propaganda tool than a scientific instrument.” Um. The. Huh.
All the selections that touch on Iraq makes this book a nice time capsule of liberal writing about wartime. The only thing that seems overdone was the inclusion of the Iraqi Constitution, originally printed in The Washington Post. It’s a document that obviously has value as a historical achievement, but I couldn’t bring myself to read 25 pages of its details. It seems the editors were trying to make a point or show off their worldliness; at the very least they could have just stopped after The Preamble or some of the Fundamental Principles. Even in these couple pages that I read, I have a hard time seeing how it stands out as “best reading” under any gauge. A governing document written in 2005 that retains lines like “Acknowledging God’s right over us” and “Islam is the official religion of the State and it is a fundamental source of legislation” is not nearly secular enough for someone like me to appreciate.
Overall, I flew through this book and I think it’d be a great entry point for someone curious about the Nonrequired Reading world.
Copyeditor’s corner: This book has some curious throwback style items like “Web site,” “in-box,” “e-mail,” and italicizing then-uncommon foreign words like “sharia.” A lot can change in a decade of internet usage I suppose. See how I lower-cased “internet” there? It’s evolution, baby.