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The Best American Nonrequired Reading (2002)by Dave Eggers
The word reading: by itself, it describes one of the most pleasurable, stimulating, rewarding, exciting, even joyful acts we human beings are capable of. Yet put one single adjective — required — in front of it and you suck all the joy out of the process, turning it into drudgery.
Thats the reason that reading has always been too closely linked with schoolwork and the other stuff that life requires. In fact, in a recent national survey of people under twenty-five, conducted by SmartGirl.com and the American Library Association, more than 80 percent of respondents said the books they read are assigned for class.” Thats the bad news. The good news is that 65 percent also said that outside of class” they read books for pleasure.” Even more read magazines, newspapers, comics, graphic novels, and Web zines and a host of other on-line publications. Not only are they reading more than ever, the under-twenty-five population is now, according to the Wall Street Journal, actually buying books for leisure reading at three times the rate of the overall market.” Oh, sure, this book-buying is partly because of the fact that young people have more disposable income than ever before — teenagers spent an average of $104 a week in 2001, according to Teenage Research Unlimited — but its also because of the fact that more good stuff is available now than ever before. I mean, there is more reading material, regardless of format, that addresses — with authentic wit, lively style, unsparing realism, and urgent relevance — the real interests and real lives of real readers.
Sometimes this material is pulled from the headlines, but more often it is ripped from the heart of matters that have to do with the emotional, developmental, intellectual, and yes, even survival, skills of fifteen- to twenty- five-year-olds.
This was not always the case.
Not long ago, publishers were publishing young adult literature,” an unfortunate phrase that always made the work sound like adult literature in training wheels. Even worse, in the 1930s and early 1940s there was a category patronizingly called the junior novel.” For too many years this literature” for young adults bore about as much resemblance to reality as the Cleaver family. Part of this may have been the result of a collective exercise in wishful thinking, and of an adult desire to protect” young readers from the grittier realities of life.
No wonder that Chris Lynch, one of the most important younger writers for these readers (Gold Dust, Dog Eat Dog, Slot Machine), observed as recently as 1994 that when writers hear the term Young Adult, they get the feeling the the gloves are on.” The gloves finally came off sometime in the middle of the 1990s, and writers were at last permitted to match the sophistication of their readers with the sophistication of their material and their creative ambition. Or, to put it another way, writers were at last allowed to respect their readers, their readers abilities and inherent savvy. Gone was the traditional insistence on a simplistically happy ending. Instead, writers for young people began to bring ambiguity and uncertainty to their work, to acknowledge the presence of darkness in human affairs as well as the persistence of light. Previously taboo subjects such as abuse and incest could now be addressed. Of equal importance, writers were permitted to flex their literary muscles, bringing to their work newly complex characterization, themes, and settings along with stylistic and structural innovation.
Other reasons for this newfound freedom include the sheer growth in the numbers of younger Americans — there are now 34 million people under twenty in the United States — their media-driven sophistication and curiosity; their increasing access to books, thanks to the rise of superbookstores and virtual booksellers; the willingness of a generation of young editors to take creative risks; and more. Much more. Just as the demands of the increasingly vocal 1960s generation for more realistic fiction gave birth to the first authentic young adult novels, so similar demands today are giving rise to a gloves-off” literature that challenges readers to reexamine their lives and the world in which they live.
As for young adults” — if they were once defined as twelve- to eighteen-year-olds, that too is no longer the case. Such labeling, though convenient for publishers and librarians, cant do justice to the complexity of a new literature that has intrinsic appeal to a cross-generational readership as young as fifteen and as (relatively) old as twenty-five.
The gloves are off, so read on.
But first a few words about how this inaugural edition of The Best American Nonnrequired Reading was put together. As the series editor, I examined, surveyed, combed, and read nearly 140 magazines, newspapers, and zineeeees that publish material either for or of interest to readers ages fifteen to twenty-five. I found approximately 125 stories and articles that, in my opinion, could be described as the best.” These I sent to the guest editor, Dave Eggers, who added even more pieces to the best” pile, based on a process he describes in his introduction, and who chose the twenty-three selections that are published in this book. Our collaboration was, I think, a creative one that has resulted in an outstanding inaugural collection, which will set a very high standard for the volumes to follow in succeeding years.
We are now asking editors to submit what they consider to be the best nonrequired reading” for The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003. These submissions may be fiction or nonfiction but must be published in the United States during the year 2002. Reprints and excerpts from published books are not accepted. Each submission must include the authors name, the date of publication, and the publications name and must be submitted as tearsheets, a copy of the whole publication, or a clean, clear photocopy of the piece as it originally appeared.
All submissions must be received by February 3, 2003. Publications wishing to be sure that their contributions will be considered should include this anthology on their subscription list. Submissions or subscriptions should be sent to Dave Eggers, c/o Editor, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003, Houghton Mifflin Company, 222 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA 02116.
I want to thank Deanne Urmy and Melissa Grella of Houghton Mifflin for their insights, enthusiasm, and support, which made this anthology possible. They were a joy to work with. And thanks too to the writers whose work is represented here, who have so artfully demonstrated the joy of nonrequired reading.
Instead of an introduction I give you this:
The pool lights were never on but always there was other light, from streetlamps or from the moon, round and toilet-tank white and licking itself felinely, and the light, whatever its source, would allow us to see the pools edges and each other. This was high school and it was humid. In the pools someone would always float as if he were dead. Someone would lurk like a squid in the deep end and yank your legs from below. Then you would yelp or someone would scream or giggle or trip over a sprinkler and someone else would whisper-yell Quiet! and wed have to get out and get any clothes wed taken off and then jump the fence or the hedge or the wall and get back to the car before the pool owners awoke or the cops came. The convertible wed borrowed was wet and cool, and we sank down into the seats, six of us squirming together for warmth, Drew starting the car and going, keeping the headlights off for a block, the wind cooler now. Lying on top of each other while horizontal in the back seat, watching the tops of trees as we passed underneath, the car so quiet, so quiet — I dont know why it should have been so quiet, such a big car and so full of people, but I remember no noise in that car, from pool to pool to pool.
By the end of the night we would be swimming naked. Jumping the fence and then pushing our clothes down our bodies and onto the ground, and then a brief look around to catch what we could of our friends naked bodies, and then into the pool. Water so cool down there. No matter the temperature of the water, always that river down there was cooler, was maybe not a river but a cool hand grabbing around there, forward and back as I swam, the grip of the hand shifting slightly, as anemones shift in the winds under water. Some water was warm, the pools heated during the day, but those were rare and strange anyway, the water hotter than the warm humid July air — it hardly felt like swimming at all, felt like the move from sauna to hot tub, which was lung-squeezing and seemed like too much work or like dying. Some pools were too cold, so cold, not heated but cooled, seemingly — we could never figure out why some pools were so cold but we would jump in; we were not allowed, did not allow ourselves, to feel the water first — and as I would run toward the edge ready to jump someone ahead would already be in with his head popped out and gasping and exhaling Jesus in disbelief and it would be too late to stop; Id be in the air, doing my nice dive, seeing their big wide eyes as I would break through the water and freeze up everywhere immediately, the cold not on my skin but in my heart, always a seizing first of my heart.
But most of the water was the same, was pool water in July, a coolness to it that was . . . when you were in this water you knew you were in water but were not suffering or tired. It made your arms move and you would push your hair from your face and smooth it in back, then let your chin drop into it so the water would come into your mouth and you could spit it out slowly down your neck and you might picture the microbes in that stream of water, sliding down your chin, that they were either having fun doing this, as one would on a waterslide, or that this was for them a tidal wave, terror, the end of the world.
My friend Hand had this convertible only that summer — it was our first summer driving, and at the end of August he would try to cross a swollen creek with it, down near school, and it would flood and soon enough be abandoned. The car could fit eight of us, all small people at that point, and we would go three in the front and four in the back, Hand driving, insisting we call him Captain.
Then the car would go again, smooth and wide. It was so hot that summer, the humidity like breathing through mittens. We would meet at Annies house, in her older brothers room, Hand and me and Dean dunking on and almost always breaking the cheap Nerf hoop attached to his door, the ball moist from the mouth of Tiger, their dog, now exiled, scratching from the doors other side.
Ritual dictated the stopping first at Hands aunts pool, for good luck, even though there was no risk factor — she knew we would come and didnt mind — and so we would jump the fence and run quickly through her yard, jump the hose, dive in, swim across and sling ourselves out in one motion, and continue, around the side of the house, the grass cool and itchy, over the wood log fence into the neighbors and then through their side garden and to the street and into the boatcar again. If it all went off hitchless, no cuts or loud sounds, we would know the nights luck would be good.
We were all horny little people and looking to make mistakes. Hand and Jennifer were together so the variables were Dean and the rest, really, because I wasnt someone they were interested in. Sometimes Frankie came out too, and thats why the girls even bothered, to get a shot at either of them, Dean or Frankie, or to get a look at Hands dick, which was supposed to be huge but wasnt really, or maybe it was — Im the wrong one to ask, I guess. I still have no idea how it all worked, who decided on whom and how. I was always ready for anything, for any of the girls, who were all out of my league, and I was supposed to know this but kept forgetting.
Diving boards were as much curse as blessing — they made us loud and lazy and loose, and thats how we got caught. We stopped at a nice pool that night, by the unincorporated land, the water clean and arctic blue, only our second one that night. The house looked empty; no cars in the driveway, no lights on except one in front but no one in that room so we figured we had time. Hand was doing his serious diving, and Dean was doing his Dean Martin thing where he pretended to fall off with a drink in his hand, and everyone was shrieking, which is a stupid thing to do.
Soon the yard lights came on; a silhouette in the porch door. We were quick. Dean was over the fence and Hand right behind him but Ellen and I were smack in the middle of the mans pool still and he was right there, now by the edge, in a polo shirt and khakis and holding a tumbler full of something tinkly. He crouched down slowly and looked in his water.
Are one of you Shannon?” I know now that he was tipsy and nearsighted and thought that his niece, who went to our school, had come to use the pool, but I didnt know these things at the time and Ellen didnt say anything, so I said, We all are.” I didnt know yet that there were only two of us left. But I figured we were caught anyway and so we might as well have fun. I went on: Who are you? Thats the real question.” There was a long pause. The trees everywhere were black.
Who am I? I am the owner of this pool!” Honking was coming from the street. Everyone was in the car and waiting. We should have just run for it.
Property is theft,” offered Ellen.
The man said nothing. He stood up again and now was looking into the woods. It was strange.
No one was talking. I thought maybe he would shoot us. I dropped under the surface and sank, cross-legged, until I was sitting on the bottom, hoping by the time I came up everything would be settled — either wed be free to go or he was calling the cops. I sank to the bottom. My leg was rubbed by a white tube attached to a kind of sentient floor-cleaner, moving slowly along the pools sandpapery bottom, of its own accord. I tried to ride it but it stopped when I stood on it. I ran out of air. I came up under a raft. Ellen, now in a towel, was sitting with the man at the patio table. I couldnt hear what they were saying.
They saw me under the raft.
Get out — its okay,” Ellen said. I did, and put on my shorts. Ellen watched me. The man pointed to a towel on a chair.
He wasnt mad. Ellen had told him we were classmates of Shannons. I sat down, warm in the thick soft towel, and told him I had Shannon in Trig and she was cool. The man liked that.
You kids want some pop or something?” Sure,” Ellen said.
No thanks,” I said, staring at her. I wanted to be gone.
I want some,” she said, louder.
We followed the man through his kitchen and into his living room. He didnt say anything about us being wet so we forged ahead, dripping on his tile, on his clean rugs. He went to a bar area, fancy with crystal decanters and everything like Dynasty, and poured us something from a carafe. I smelled it. Pepsi. The TV was on. We sipped our Pepsi and watched a dog bite a babys face, an audience laughing.
The man sat on his coffee table and sighed.
So where did the others go? It sounded like there were about ten of you.” They had to go study,” I said.
Hmm.” He sipped his drink. Then he looked at us — Ellen, then me. You kids do drugs?” I froze. Uh-oh, he was going to offer us drugs. Just like the lady the football players went to, the one they called Big Joan, who gave them beer and pot and ran card games. Did every town have one of these people, so lonely that he let teenagers do things like that in his home?
No thanks,” I said. Not tonight.” The man looked confused.
We watched the TV a little more. The man was wearing athletic socks under his sandals. I was about to announce our departure when the man said, Well, Im going to go to bed. Leave the TV on when you go.” He went upstairs.
Should we go?” I asked.
Lets stay,” Ellen said.
We waited until the car stopped honking and they figured we were caught and we settled in, in our bathing suits, on the couch of Shannon Whartons uncle, and after watching the news we kissed.
It didnt go far and never happened again. Ellen with her coal eyes and perfectly tanning arms.
What this has to do with this collection I will never know.
About this collection:
1. Its not scientific.
These collections, the Best Americans, usually comprise work that first appeared in American periodicals in a given year. In this case, two of the pieces — by Adrian Tomine and Zoe Trope — didnt technically appear in any magazine but were instead published on their own, by small presses.
Also, we didnt look at every last thing published in every last periodical in 2001. The idea for this collection came about late in the year, and we scrambled to get it done in time and get the mix right, even if it meant bending some rules.
Rodney Rothmans My Fake Job” has two qualification problems. First, it was actually first published at the tail end of 2000. Second, when it was published, labeled as nonfiction in The New Yorker, it subsequently turned out that there were fictional elements to the story. The author describes getting a massage from a masseuse — I wont give anything else away — and this massage never, in fact, happened. This is the primary offending portion, and while we dont for a second condone adding fictional elements to something called journalism — and The New Yorker, which has the most exacting factual standards, justifiably disowned the piece — we feel the story is a valuable and extremely funny one, with a lot to say about the dot-com boom, and maybe even why it went bust. Read Rothmans story as a piece of fiction, though one based extremely closely on real life.
2. The order is alphabetical.
The Best American collections are almost always printed in alphabetical order, by the authors last name. This is the easiest way to do it, of course, and the most elegant, but it means that stories shouldnt necessarily be read in order. In the first half of this collection, you get a good deal of hard journalism, primarily about war and refugees, from Afghanistan to the Sudan, followed immediately by a number of less serious pieces, about malls and Marilyn Manson. We didnt group anything by theme, and wont be offended if you skip around.
3. We had a lot of help with this.
Out here in San Francisco, we recently opened 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring lab for young students in the Mission district. We offer drop-in tutoring, in-class workshops, free classes and vocational training, and scholarships. We work a lot with another group, Youth Speaks, which helps students interested in spoken-word poetry, among other things. When I was asked to edit this collection, I immediately asked the students of Youth Speaks and 826 Valencia — all of them high school age — to help find and judge the work we were sifting through.
They did an amazing job. We had stacks all over the office, three and four feet high, and the job of the student readers was to read the pieces, talk about them, vote on them, and let us know what they thought would be good in the collection. They spent countless hours at our Valencia Street space and at home reading the work wed found, and when we felt we were still short of things we felt strongly about, they did research of their own. They took their task very seriously, and we took their opinions very seriously.
Id like to thank Nico Cary, Rafael Casal, Katri Foster, Irene Garcia, Chinaka Hodge, Adam Tapia-Grassi, Janet Yukhtman, and my brother Chris for their honesty — their brutal honesty — and for their consistently hard work in making The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002 what it is. Also, a few dozen of the tutors of 826 Valencia spent long hours sifting and reading, and their work was essential. Extra thanks go to Kiara Brinkman, Janelle Brown, James Daly, Arne Johnson, Matthew Ness, Jenny Traig, and especially Jason Roberts and Kate Kudirka.
This collection: its a strange and potent mix of stuff, always frank, never shrinking, all over the world and back — a collection were really proud of. I hope you find something here that removes your head and flies away, or gets inside you and lights you up.
Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company Introduction copyright © 2002 by Dave Eggers Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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