While the 'Best American' series of books has been around since 1915, showcasing the best in short stories, poetry, etc., the 'Nonrequired Reading' franchise edited by Dave Eggers is relatively new. The 2004 edition is only the third in this series that offers, according to its editor, '...good work of any kind - fiction, humor, essays, comics, journalism - in one place, for the English-reading consumer." Publishers Weekly had this to say about the book and its introduction, 'Mortensen's introduction, one of the strongest contributions, is a haunting lament for lost words, a 'painful sense of losing ideas,' after his backpack of journals and screenplays is stolen. The book is a zesty bouillabaisse of nonrequired reading that should be required, ...'
I SHARE WITH many people, especially men, the tendency to stubbornly resist being given directions or having to read any and all user guides or assembly manuals. I like to believe that at least some of my assiduous avoidance of preparatory instruction comes from a sincere and positive desire to get the word first - to get to it, to see and sound it out for myself in relative ignorance, to dive in with a minimum of preconception. Judgments will be formed almost instantly anyway, as rapidly and effortlessly as conjunctivitis jumped from my right eye to my left the day before yesterday. Usually, when I pick up a book, I turn to a first page and already, without consciously reading a single syllable, there are paper, ink, font, letter size, and any number of other factors about which I'll inevitably leap to conclusions. I don't need or want to be taken by the hand, don't want to be prepared for the written contents of any book, because this somehow makes the words that follow any introduction someone else's - claimed before I've had a chance to weigh and dissect their combinations myself. If I've liked reading a book, however, I'll sometimes subsequently read its introduction out of curiosity.
Therefore, I don't consciously refer to anything in this book, directly or indirectly, do not seek in the slightest way to prepare you for the selections made by others for The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004. I do not even recommend that you read any of this book, especially not a single additional word of mine beyond this one. Put the book down, if you like. Give it away, dump it, cut it into little pieces and eat it, burn it - apply any anarchic means or action you can invent to dispose of it, to put it out of you thoughts. Or, read on. Read some, read randomly, backwards, over a period of years, retain none of it, mock it, misapply it, write to the publisher about its defects in content and professional presentation - particularly this nonrequired introduction, if you wish - or about how your life was for the slightest instant disrupted or detoured for the better by reading this book. As far as I know, none of those sample reactions is illegal at this point. We are still free to read or not read (unless this book of nonrequired reading is required by someone you wish to obey), and still free to make up our own minds about what we have or have not read.
I value words. I am curious about the way words sound, how they draw pictures and provoke unexpected emotional reactions A single disconnected word or phrase can stop you cold, give you a new world to live in. I like reading unauthorized excerpts of the minutes of private meetings. I like reading photo album captions, want ads, my son's homework, Chinese AIDS-prevention pamphlets, laundry lists, foreign phone books, obituaries, awkward subtitles, road maps, lost-pet fliers fading on streetlight poles, old and forgettable books, instruction manuals I do not need but have found torn out of publications or removed from the packaging of the obsolete product concerned - useless information that I imagine having discovered or saved from extinction. I enjoy reading how people wrote in another time about what I do not understand. As a boy I would read under a blanket using a flashlight long after my parents, grandmother, or others thought I was asleep. Now I find the same secret enjoyment in reading whatever interests me, and still do so long after the lights should be out. There is no need to hide with a flashlight anymore, and the only one tricked is me - out of precious rest. To this day, I resist reading what others recommend and am attracted to reading what is unpromoted, unnoticed, discarded, perhaps unnecessary.
That's why "Nonrequired" is what stands out for me, what gets my attention in the title of this book. Not being required to understand or explain words appeals to me. It feels better not to be in a hurry to take ownership of or pervert the essence of words with a critical eye, but instead to trust inspiration in reading or writing to come as notions, impulses, or lives that already had shape and were waiting to be perceived long before I stumbled over them. Better to recognize than to decide what words mean to me personally. Write something down and it is dead; writers are murderers. Some writers do kill more gracefully, inflicting less pain than others. Nevertheless, any word written is dead. It can be revived only by being rewritten or reread, by being given successively different meanings.
People whose occupation it is to judge writing and recommend how it should or should not be read often seem to require a tidiness of language, a measurable consistency in the arrangement of words. There might be an understandable assumption involved in school instruction - an expectation of self-regulation of content and style on the part of the student - that takes for granted that certain rules and restrictions have always provided starting points or blueprints for writers and readers alike. A lot is to be said for learning rules and skills, born of practical experience and study, before dismissing them. Nonetheless, it seems worth remembering that words do exist - with or without academic pruning and judgment - as sounds or emotional reference points and will always invite spontaneous, subjective reactions.
Did you ever read or write a sentence without a thought for the origin or reason of any of the words from first to last, simply because you felt like doing so? Don't you snatch words impulsively or intuitively from road signs, songs, newspapers, magazines, television shows, Web sites, overheard sotto voce disagreements - from your own decaying, hodgepodge record of all that happens? Individual words and phrases can stand alone and satisfy a reader in even the longest story, regardless of context. When we read willingly, we can get lost in the beauty and rhythm of words before we look for any satisfaction in the significance of their ordering. Maybe we can understand or feel the "rightness," the tone of words, before we embrace or reject the story they might tell, before we concern ourselves with the logic of their sequence. Our expectation of coherence and, eventually, of resolution in any piece of writing does, of course, grow as we become familiar with the quality of its wordplay, when we begin to guess what line of thought or even which phrase might or ought to come next. Perhaps one of the toughest challenges a writer faces, aside from getting started, is how to remain personally interested in words to come, involved in where the story might go. If there are no surprises along the way for the writer, no happy chance of discovery regardless of how well planned or structured the work sets out to be, it is unlikely to be of memorable interest for the reader.
I recently had the unfortunate experience of losing practically everything I'd written during the last three years. As I was in the process of moving from one house to another, my car was loaded with boxes of books, clothes, kitchen utensils, and all the usual household appliances and sacks of hurriedly packed scraps of letters, papers, drawings, photos, soaps, music, hood ornaments, lucky sticks and stones, spurs, superfluous combs, and outdated to-do lists. While I was carrying some of this debris into the new house, someone broke into the passenger-side window of my car and grabbed the backpack containing several notebooks I'd filled, since early 2001, with handwritten stories and poems.
The backpack also contained a couple of journals, two screenplays, my passport, and two half-read books. The hardest losses were the stories and poems in the notebooks. I had been looking forward, in particular, to reviewing and fine-tuning hundreds of pages of, for me, uncharacteristically long and unguarded poetry that had been written during a series of very quiet nights spent in the Sahara Desert in late 2002. During that time, for various reasons, I had begun writing extended pieces using a lot of abstract imagery and fragmented recollections from my childhood, combined with the rush of sensory impressions I was receiving while living and working in Morocco. The thick white pages of the notebooks from that time were grimy, stained red from the dust near Ouarzazate, yellow from Erfoud and Merzouga, brown and gray from my hands and the ashes of campfires and cigarettes, dogeared, black with grease. They held sandstorms, camel gargles, vultures, Arabic songs, calls to prayer, prayer rugs, tea, coffee, tent flaps. They reeked of diesel, were alive with flies, fossils, heat waves, goats, soldiers, scorpions, unseen women, donkeys, date palms, doves, hawks, vipers, new or decaying gardens, graveyards, city walls, mosques, stables, wells, fortresses, and schools. This was the start of a long-overdue cataloging of buried memories of plants and their names, horses, car accidents, lightning, pet lizards, parts of arguments between my parents, ifinesses, sheep; of fish caught, lost, released, cleaned, cooked, spied in rivers, ponds, lakes, eaten, rotting, struggling, dying, or dead. In those notebooks could be found faces of teachers I've had, of policemen, children, and old people suffering, giggling, sleeping, or otherwise lingering in emergency rooms, bus stations, on street corners, walking or standing on traces of roads or tracks through harsh deserts, prairies, icescapes, or urban wastelands. Here were all the toy soldiers, ineffective windshield wipers, first tastes of chocolate, wine, asparagus, venison, trout, chalk, ants, a Big Mac, dirt, dandelion stem, unsweetened yerba maté, duck, beer, snow, blood...
As the world was girding itself for the obviously imminent mvasion of Iraq by the U.S.-led "coalition of the willing," a growing sense of urgency could be felt even out there in the idyllic stillness of the North African dunes under ridiculously starry skies. That, as well as the effects of working all day in the sun on horseback with Moroccan, Spanish, French, English, and American colleagues, probably put me in an unusual state of mind each night as I sat eagerly scribbling in relative silence and welcome isolation. I'm not trying to go into travel diary mode, just trying to briefly describe a place and time that I was lucky to be in and that provided me with a lot of energy and inspiration. Words were everywhere I looked, filling dreams, giving me names for everything. It was all I could do to keep up with them, catch a few as they drifted through me, fell now and then from clouds, from my eyes to the table, onto my lap or became tangled in horses' manes. Most of the words got away, as they usually will, but at night I regularly managed to gather them in bunches. The many handwritten poems that came out of that experience were what I most was looking forward to tackling in my new home back in California. That is why the backpack containing those notebooks was on the top of the carload of belongings, leaning against the passenger-side window, in plain view for any potential passing thief. Out of my sight for perhaps five minutes, and then gone forever.
I spent a lot of time and effort in the following weeks scouring my part of town, looking through trash cans and alleyways, offering no-questions-asked rewards, doing anything I could think of to find what was irreplaceable for me and probably completely useless to whoever had stolen it. Finally, I let most of it go, knowing I would never be able to recreate what had been written far from home in that exhausted but uniquely productive state of mind. It does not matter where any of it was written, or whether any of it was as valuable as I remember it being. What had taken its place was the painful sense of losing ideas, forgetting unlikely swervings, unexpected matings and applications of words. Just as I've recently had the scary but hopefully temporary experience of not being able to see very clearly - because of the conjunctivitis - I now was faced with the alarming reality that newly captured and arranged impressions were gone. Patches of recorded feeling vanished, irretrievable. There is no point in trying to remember and rebuild the word houses, word hills, word dams, or word skeletons like some sort of archeology project. There may be pieces I recall or inadvertently retell, but every word will be new, will go somewhere, will die no matter what I might do to tame or hold it. You have, for whatever reason, continued to read up to this point in spite of the clearly presented options to do something else with your time many words ago. This nonrequired introduction has no doubt become so predictable, so obviously overstated in its meandering, that it might as well be required. Before I get any more entangled in this trap, I'll leave you with the following from the writer Paul la Cour:
"Being a poet is not writing a poem, but finding a new way to live."