Reading Not Required — Thank God for Small Favors
Review of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, edited by Dave Eggers.
Reading Dave Egger’s ingratiating and irritatingly self-flattering Foreword to this volume (why is it, even when he’s talking about others, that Dave Eggers is always talking about himself?), one hopes desperately that he is being ironic when he says that the pieces in the anthology were selected by a group of high-school students. Unfortunately, he appears to have been telling the truth. This is arguably the worst of the Best American Nonrequired Reading series, though the competition is pretty stiff. Maybe 2005 was just a lousy year for writing. Maybe we shouldn’t be expected to pay full price to read stories and essays that appealed to high-school students. Maybe Dave Eggers really can’t tell decent writing from drivel. Or maybe all three.
I would save exactly two pieces from this book: Aimee Bender’s “Tiger Mending” and Stephanie Dickinson’s “A Lynching in Stereoscope,” both of which are marvelous. The rest of the book ranges from decidedly not marvelous to aggravating, self-referential, and banal. When you get to the last four pieces (Jonathan Tel’s “The Myth of the Frequent Flier,” Douglas Trevor’s “Girls I Know,” William T. Vollman’s “They Came Out Like Ants,” and Lauren Weedman’s “Diary of a Journal Reader”), you realize you’re deep in the Swamp of Complacencies that is the province of graduate-writing programs and of writers like Eggers and the McSweeney crowd: too clever by half, damn impressed with themselves and, at base, utterly uninterested in readers. Writing, for them, is an essentially masturbatory act that precludes an other.
I’d put Beck’s Introduction, as superficial and trivial a piece of writing as you’ll ever find, into the same category. It is apparently included in BANR 2005 solely for the “cool factor” bona fides that someone like Beck could provide in 2005 and not because Beck has a single intelligent or interesting observation to make about writing. Plus, Beck was about to feature Eggers on his next album, so hey: One hand washes the other, high up there in the Hiposphere. And that seems to be Eggers all over: so doggone determined to be “alternative” that he becomes, numbingly, the same as everything else.