The Best American Non-Required Reading 2009

You read that correctly. I just finished an anthology from two years ago. Better late than never, eh?

I picked up this volume for one reason: My old roommate Jeremy was carrying it around one day and decided to recite select childrens’ letters to Obama to me, and I basically lost it. I hadn’t heard anything that hilarious in quite some time, so I figured that I needed to buy this book to bring myself even more of that joy.

The first part of the book is full of sections like that, real letters from kids to Obama, obscure Craigslist postings, stupid band names, that sort of stuff. Dave Eggers, the editor, has as much of an eye for compilation as he does a knack for writing. And all this stuff translates really well to that kind of situation where the conversation is lulling, so you pull out the book and start reading from it and everyone cracks up. I’ve done this at least three times already, prompted by someone else at the table who sees the book and asks about it, and it’s been a hit each time. It’s the damn Craigslist postings.

But the book isn’t all hilarity. It’s a pretty random, high-quality assortment of factual and fictional essays. Standouts included Jonathan Franzen’s tribute to David Foster Wallace, David Grann’s “The Chameleon,” and Rebecca Makkai’s “The Briefcase.” A few have to deal with identity crises, which leads me to think that maybe all of them have some semblance of an identity crisis theme that I just didn’t pick up on, but that’s not as important, anyway. What’s important is that books like this give authors a chance to be published, and short-form voices to be heard. It’s hard to get into an essay because it doesn’t last very long, which might be why the essay (and the essayist) are a dying breed. Bloggers (like me! Shit.) are taking over. Here’s hoping those essayists convert to blogging so they can save themselves and give the rest of us some more good stuff to read.

The 2009 edition of this book has subsequently, possibly, hooked me into buying more of them. I guess I’ll just be two years behind from now on, but that’s okay. It’s worth the wait.