“The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014,” edited by Daniel Handler (Mariner, 393 pages, $14.95)
Despite my best efforts, I can’t keep track of everything I want to read. Aside from the obvious weekly and monthly literary magazines and journals, there are others I see inconsistently, but approach with the fervor of a high school sweetheart – like The Baffler or ZYZZYVA.
Sometimes, though, with so much to read, some sorting device is necessary. Fortunately, that’s where a selection committee of 14 San Francisco high school students, with an assist from their Ann Arbor, Mich., colleagues (all part of the 826 network of writing and tutoring centers), came to my rescue with their annual “The Best American Nonrequired Reading.”
The grown-up in charge of previous endeavors was writer and activist Dave Eggers, who founded the 826 network, as well as ScholarMatch and McSweeneys. This year Daniel Handler, who writes as Lemony Snicket, of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” fame, edits it.
In his introduction, Handler notes the fate of so many literary selection teams. The writing that inspires the most passion ends up cut in favor of less controversial, safer and ultimately dull work. He writes: “Observe the balance of famed and unknown authors, the straightforward and askew, the dramatic and the subtle, the hilarious and the weepy. Dull, mandatory anthologies, my foot!”
This anthology includes a few pieces by well-known writers like Zadie Smith in well-known publications like The New York Review of Books. Mostly, though, it led me into different intellectual neighborhoods. While Egyptian-American journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy has become a powerful media presence and is a prominent voice explaining Egypt to the West, I hadn’t heard her engaged as a radical feminist Muslim woman. This volume includes a thoughtful conversation with Eltahawy led by Yasmine El Rashidi, reprinted from the quarterly Bidoun.
In one of my favorite stories in the volume, “The Chinese Barracks,” from the triannual ZYZZYVA, a very new voice for me, Rebecca Rukeyser brilliantly tells the story of young people working the salmon cannery season in Alaska, enduring long hours in dangerous conditions, until the season ends.