Book Review: The Best American Non-Required Reading (2019)

I have this hope that somewhere, there is a high school or university class that uses the annual The Best American Non-Required Reading collections for its central text. And knowing that it is a group of high school students, connected through the 826 National organization, who choose, debate and curate all of the materials in the collection makes that dream even sweeter.

I hope it is so, but even if it is not, you need to get your hands on this collection each and every year. The 2019 edition of The Best American Non-Required ReadingĀ is another keeper, with a wide range of pieces that tackle important issues through fiction, commentary, comics, poetry and assorted other kinds of texts (such as the letter submitted by Holten Arms classmates of Christine Blasey Ford as public evidence in the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings).

The book’s collection has been guided by guest editor Edan Lepucki, but mostly, it has been the weekly gathering of high school students who have worked to find the pieces, debate the merits and determine which go into the collection. Their lens on the world is key to the diversity of the pieces. This all began with Dave Eggers at the helm (and his work in founding the 826 organization) but now different people help make the collection happen each year.

One of the more interesting choices is a pair of strange “Sound Translation” text interpretations of the Gettysburg Address by Keith Donnell Jr., which read like a prose poem in some alternative universe of Lincoln’s famous words, flowing with misheard phrases and rhymes and yet, finding a new but related center of the Address’s ideas in the concepts of “Who’ll weed our graves?” and “Force door of heaven” and so on.

Another powerful piece is a graphic interpretation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s On True War Stories (graphics by Matt Huynh) that puts picture to the story of immigration. And Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s powerful piece about black bears in New Hampshire (Barbearians at the Gate) transforms itself into a deep dive about people and nature, and about right wing survivalists transforming a small community.

And on and on.

Read this collection. Read last year’s collection. And the year before that. And hope the publishers keep supporting the young people’s voice in gathering and curating pieces that might otherwise get lost in the mix (I only recognize a few of the original journals where these were first published), but which rise here, among others, in a new light.

Peace (in the pages),

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