Friday, March 20, 2009

The Best American Nonrequired Reading

This was my first experience with best nonrequired reading - a collection chosen by Dave Egger and selected San Francisco high school students. It's a compilation of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, comics and other bits of humour. Among these bits is a list of Best American Facebook Groups such as 'I beat George W. Bush on the SATs'; 'Captain Planet taught me to recycle'; 'I wish Morgan Freeman narrated my life'.

While the fiction shorts were pretty good and include pieces by Andrew Sean Greer and Stephen King, my favourite reads were of non-fiction. One of them was an essay by George Saunders who joined Bill Clinton on a trip to four African countries to observe Clinton Foundation projects related to AIDS, malaria and poverty:

"The irony is not lost on us Press: we're traveling like royalty through some of the poorest places on earth, wherepeople are truly suffering, to write about some people nobly working to alleviate that suffering, although we aren't in a position to see much of that suffering ourselves."

Saunders also offers insights into being a journalist having dinner with this former President:

"...when Bill Clinton's at your table, you don't really want anyone else talking, and that includes you. When you do talk, you feel stupid. I mean, you are stupid. You are suddenly short of facts and full of intuition. You lack the conversational zing that comes with having once been leader of the free world. Have your previous dinner partners included Gorbachev, Mandela, Bono, Liz
Hurley, Stephen Jay Gould?"

Another essay I particular enjoyed was originally published in The Washington Post. The paper arranged for violinist Joshua Bell to play in cognito in Washington DC during rush hour.

"Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?"

Over a thousand people rushed past Bell on their way to work. Only a handful stopped to listen. And for Joshua Bell, it is a new sensation:

"'It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah...'
The word doesn't come easily.
'...ignoring me.'"
PS. Looks like this article is available online.


Anonymous said...

I loved that essay too - Pearls Before Breakfast. Not sure if you've read this, but it's a great follow-up piece. Wonderfully uncanny -


olduvai said...

Oh that's a great link, thanks!