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Off the Syllabus: "The Best American Non-Required Reading" is a Pleasure 

Wednesday, Nov 30 2011
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By far the best thing you could have on an airplane this winter, including an upgrade or an exit-row aisle seat, the latest edition of the anthology series The Best American Non-Required Reading makes a persuasive argument for high school kids being a touch smarter than the rest of us. Sure, you, the grown-up, may feel obliged to tackle Rosamund Bartlett's new Tolstoy biography (it's illuminating!), but you the eager reader deserve the reportage and fiction here, selected by students who seem to prize absorption above all else. These are pages you dash through.

Which isn't to say that BANR is lacking in revelations. In his marvelous profile of Roger Ebert, the man who introduced several generations to the idea that the culture is worth arguing about, Chris Jones demonstrates how not having a voice can't keep a person from unleashing a howl of despair. "Solitude and Leadership," a speech William Deresiewicz gave to a freshman (plebe!) class at West Point, offers about two searing truths per page — and, the book's title notwithstanding, should be assigned in every American comp class, stat.

Highlights abound: Gary Shteyngart's profile of M.I.A.; Michael Paterniti's encounter with a man who patrols the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge for suicides; and much front-of-the-book squirreliness of the sort Dave Eggers (this volume's editor) and company perfected at Might, like "Best American WiFi Network Names," where "icanhearyouhavingsex" is rejoined by a neighbor's "idonthearyouhavingsexatall."

In short, Eggers and his coterie of youthful 826 Valencia (and Ann Arbor, Mich.-area) volunteers have assembled a collection that's all highlights. It's a gift-giving no-brainer: If someone you bestow it upon doesn't get sucked into something here, that person has probably been lying about being able to read. Try Anjali Sachdeva's "Pleiades," in which an adolescent septuplet's funeral is picketed by anti-geneticists, or J. Robert Lennon's "Weber's Head," a comedy that ramps smoothly from real-life weirdness to dizzying absurdities, or Henrietta Rose-Innes' stirring "Homing," about a fancy hotel thrown up in an old suburban neighborhood — "The greatest affront was the size and fleshy color of the thing." This throws off both the neighbors and a local brood of homing pigeons.

Perhaps most the memorable fiction — and the piece most likely to have you cowering — comes from Joyce Carol Oates, that warhorse chronicler of humanity in extremis. Her "A Hole in the Head" is so wrenching, ghoulish, and thrilling that I'm happy to forgive its overheatedness. (An exclamation point and em-dash follow its first word.) This medical horror story concerns a plastic surgeon approached by patients eager to try a mad treatment called "trepanning," to release impurities through holes bored in the skull. Oates trots out her terrors like Spielberg pacing the revelation of his dinosaurs: First Botox burning beneath the face; then, in a residency flashback, a "flurry of bloodied shavings"; then face-lifts, "as grisly as a sadist's fantasy."

It's all in the horrific mode that led Geoffrey Wolff to dismiss her in his 1971 New York Times review, "Miss Oates Loves to Splash Blood on Us." She does, and she's great at it. Kudos to 826's high school tastemakers for valuing the power of storytelling over the reputation of the storyteller. The book itself resembles Oates's story: It will drill into you, and good luck getting up again.

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Alan Scherstuhl

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