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.
That’s 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.” That’s 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 it’s 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, can’t 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 author’s name, the date of publication, and the publication’s 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 pool’s 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 we’d have to get out and get any clothes we’d 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 c...