10 ‘Nonrequired’ Reading Recommendations from Us to You

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Ten years ago, Dave Eggers published the inaugural volume of his Best American Nonrequired Reading series, which has since attracted a devoted following of outside-the-box readers of all ages. It’s hard to believe the series that anthologized so many of our favorite pieces is already celebrating its tenth anniversary this month, but hey, time flies when you’re reading. Once again, Eggers and his team of student volunteers have outdone themselves, bringing together a compilation of irreverent lists, timely journalism, top short fiction, and graphic pieces representing the best of the year, kicking off with a love letter to the art of reading by Ray Bradbury, completed just weeks before his passing.

To celebrate ten years of the beloved anthology, we picked ten additional “nonrequired” reading selections that stood out to us in 2011 and beyond, all available for you to read online. While we didn’t envy Eggers and his team the task of choosing their twenty best, we embraced their idiosyncratic spirit by choosing the pieces that excited us most. This is in no way a comprehensive list, so be sure to share your favorite pieces that didn’t appear on any college syllabi or required reading lists in our comments section, and then check out The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012 when it hits bookstores this Tuesday.

“The Sound of All Girls Screaming” by Shani Boianjiu (Vice)

Shani Boianjiu’s novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid has been one of the most explosive debuts in recent memory, but we first fell in love with the young Israeli talent after her first short story ran in Vice (now included as a chapter in the novel). “The army wanted our blood,” Boianjiu writes. “Two liters, but you got strawberry Kool-Aid and white bread while the needle was inside you.” An unforgettable story set in an IDF boot camp, “The Sound of All Girls Screaming” introduced us to a new and distinctive literary voice.

“Apocalypse” by Junot Díaz (Boston Review)

Chances are you’ve already finished Junot Díaz’s second collection of stories This Is How You Lose Her and are eagerly awaiting his next installment. While you take a break from Yunior, we recommend Díaz’s ambitious essay on recent worldwide catastrophes and what they tell us about the world. At the forefront of his essay are Haiti, New Orleans, and Japan, whose catastrophes he describes as “social disasters.” We found his revelatory essay to be as powerful as anything he’s written.

Image credit: Venus Zine

“The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill (The New Yorker)

Mary Gaitskill is one of our greatest living writers, the mastermind behind the groundbreaking stories that make up Bad Behavior and the National Book Award nominated novel Veronica . So to say that we were floored by her short story “The Other Place” is no faint praise. We wouldn’t dare spoil any of the surprises in this rich story about a violent-minded father and his thirteen-year-old son, but we’ll say that “The Other Place” instantly adds another classic to Gaitskill’s impressive body of work.

“OIF” by Phil Klay (Granta)

At first glance, Phil Klay’s very short story looks like a crash course on military acronyms. “EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money.” But a closer read brings you right inside the head of a Marine deployed in Iraq. A former Marine himself, Klay’s collection of Iraq themed stories is due out in 2013. In the meantime, be sure to check out his story “Redeployment” in this year’s Best American Nonrequired Reading.

Image credit: Refinery29

“Fake Blood” by Alexandra Kleeman (Zoetrope: All-Story)

We could have easily listed every story that ran in Zoetrope’s Horror Issue, which featured incredible pieces by heavyweights Jim Shepard, Ryu Murakami, and Karen Russell, but it was newcomer Alexandra Kleeman’s dreamlike horror tale that terrified us most. Set in a claustrophobic banquet hall, “Fake Blood” features costumes, axed bodies, and a murder mystery.

Image credit: Avenue Magazine

“The Story of a Suicide” by Ian Parker (The New Yorker)

Ian Parker’s essay on Tyler Clementi’s high-profile suicide and the legal aftereffects reads a lot like the basis for a Hollywood script (cue in a Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross soundtrack). Parker clears up the facts in his essay, but his piece stands out for the way he constructs a story out of text messages and e-mail exchanges. What results is a modern narrative without heroes or villains, one which will have even the most outraged readers sympathizing with every player involved.

Image credit: Dossier Journal

“Teenage Dream” by Emma Straub (Tin House)

Emma Straub had us laughing out loud with this hilarious essay about attending a Joey McIntyre concert, which first appeared in Tin House’s Ecstatic Issue. The self-proclaimed Blockhead writes, “A few years ago, God gave me a birthday present. Joey McIntyre was coming to Madison, Wisconsin, four days before my twenty-seventh birthday.” Straub published her debut novel and a collection of stories this year, but we think she showcases her talents as a humorist in this delightful personal essay (think David Sedaris meets Lorrie Moore).

Image credit: Drawn and Quarterly

“Scenes From an Impending Marriage” by Adrian Tomine (Drawn and Quarterly)

Adrian Tomine has been a Nonrequired Reading regular since its inception, and he has long been one of our favorite graphic novelists. The outtakes in “Scenes From an Impending Marriage” began as party favors to hand out at Tomine’s wedding, chronicling the months preceding the big day. The result is charming and often absurd, and will appeal to anyone who has gone through the process of planning a wedding.

Image credit: Wyoming Arts Council

“Dog Run Moon” by Callan Wink (The New Yorker)

Montana writer Callan Wink opens his short story “Dog Run Moon” with a naked man running alongside a dog, as two characters named Montana Bob and Charlie Chaplin pursue him on an ATV. “Sid was a nude sleeper,” begins Wink. “Had been ever since he was a little kid. To him, wearing clothes to bed seemed strangely redundant, like wearing underwear inside your underwear or something.” What follows is some of the most gorgeous prose written in any magazine last year.

Image credit: Fashion for Writers

“There Was No Creek and I’m Still Alive” by Jenny Zhang (Rookie)

Jenny Zhang, author of the book of poems, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, deserves a much larger audience. We’ve been following Zhang in publications such as The Iowa Review and Glimmer Train in recent years, but her dark family story “There Was No Creek and I’m Still Alive” had many of us reaching for tissues. The Brooklyn fashion blogger, poet, and performer never ceases to enchant us, and we’ll be looking out for more from Zhang in the years to come.