The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 (The Best American Series ®)
Mariner Books, 2007
384 pp., $22.95
Reviewed by Kristen Scharold
Optional by Necessity
Dave Eggers revels in presumptuous and multilayered titles. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the book that put him on the literary map, Eggers' seemingly arrogant self-consciousness is quickly revealed to embody a painfully humble rawness. In the Nonrequired Reading series, with one brush of the title, Eggers divides "reading"—which for most people is always nonrequired—into "nonrequired" and "required," thereby redefining the terms and modulating the canon.
A first reading of Nonrequired Reading 2007 suggests that no one is more qualified than Eggers to compile an exceptional collection of writings, slap the term "nonrequired" onto them—thus slapping the literary canon (i.e., required reading) in the face—and in the end make a grand contribution to contemporary literature. With the help of eleven high school students from his San Francisco writing center, Eggers has made the nonrequired required by making it nonrequired. With his tongue in his cheek, he rolls around a set of short blurbs, short stories, and short thingamabobs, including new words, personals from the around the world, six-word memoirs, creationist explanations for the world's natural wonders, failed TV pilots, and a commencement speech by Conan O'Brien, not to mention several short stories and the best names of horses expected to have undistinguished careers. It is a profusion of brilliance under the alias of clutter.
Nonrequired 2007 defines the upcoming generation of America by being as indefinable as the culture it represents. It explains America's state of mind by attempting no explanation whatsoever. It is the perfect postmodern study of postmodernism because it haphazardly employs an eclectic symposium of wit, humor, social awareness, pain, creativity, and ______ (fill in the blank with whatever you want) to do nothing but entertain while accidentally arranging meaning. To be this essential to this age, it had to be optional.
Some readers will pick up this collection just for the introduction by acclaimed indie artist Sufjan Stevens. Those who do so will be rewarded. Entitled "How I Trumped Rudolph Steiner and Overcame the Tribulations of Illiteracy, One Snickers Bar at a Time," Stevens' short essay far exceeds the rather perfunctory gestures of the typical celebrity intro. Stevens recounts his passage from a textually challenged, finger-knitting second grader in the Waldorf system to a third grader deciphering Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall and the Roman Empire. How did he conquer Rudolph Steiner? He transferred from the nonrequired reading curriculum of the Waldorf system to the public schools, where literacy was forced upon him. As Stevens puts it, "I only needed the brash brainwashing of civilization, a crash course in modern society, capitalism, free enterprise, pop culture, Mickey Mouse, the Hardy Boys, Ronald McDonald. I needed the chlorinated conditioning of the modern world, with its pageantry of products, its multimedia of stimulation—television, TV guide, Little Debbie, Garfield, Peanuts, Cocoa Puffs."
When you put this book down, you will know that the literary canon has been broadened—not just beyond the standards of traditionalists, but every bit as much beyond the approved reading lists of socially conscious reformers. And you may be prompted to go out and find some nonrequired reading on your own.
Kristen Scharold is an assistant editor at Christianity Today International.
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