Sampling the Year’s Best American Short Writings

Book review: The Best American Series: 16 Short Stories and Essays

This is a literary series definitely worth knowing. I’m a big anthology fan – blame it on my Creative Writing degree, our professors were always assigning anthologies and I loved discovering new stuff I’d never have come across on my own. But even if you’re not, this series is great for getting more exposure into genres of interest. Also a great Christmas gift idea. I love giving people presents that say, “I think you need to read more” or “Educate yourself.” But seriously, if you’re not already on board with anthologies, get into them.

Each year, the Best American team chooses editors well-established in their genres to pull from the year’s magazines, journals, articles and websites, selecting the “best of” to be showcased in an anthology. Each volume is genre-specific, but this special edition is a cross-genre mix, providing a sampling of two selections from each available anthology. For nonfiction, these are general essays, “nonrequired” reading, science and nature writing, sports, and travel writing.

Nonrequired reading is probably my favorite, it’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction. Interestingly, these pieces are chosen by high school students at schools in California and Michigan, via the nonprofit 826National. Dave Eggers introduced the series initially, and in the past few years various other guest editors have overseen its selections. Just a very cool idea all around, and it makes me happy to see high schoolers involved in something like this. Plus, get a load of the cover art for this year’s edition:


Cats and short writings: a world of yes. Cover illustration by Jillian Tamaki.

The cover art on these isn’t usually thrilling, as a visual person I have to admit they’re very bland and disappointing. Nonrequired gets special treatment for some reason, and illustrated reading cats are always the way to go. This section of the book held the most powerful piece for me, one of the most affecting things I’ve read in some time, actually: editors Mateo Hoke and Cate Malek’s “Oral History of Abdelrahman Al-Ahmar” from their collection Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation. Impossible to read and not be moved. 

The book makes excellent quick reading, for times when you don’t have the focus to see a whole book through. Personally, I’ve struggled in the past post-election week to concentrate on much, and this was the perfect distraction (it’s partly due to sinusitis, but I’m certain election depression is a culprit too.) This type of collection is also ideal if you aren’t sure you’re interested enough in a subject to read a book-length exploration of it.  Maybe the piece that was my favorite in this collection – “About Face” by Patricia Marx, originally published in the New Yorker, would fall under this designation for many people. Marx examines the massive popularity of cosmetic plastic surgery in South Korea, even accompanying a translator as they get collect recommendations from prolific surgeons on what work their own faces could use. It’s such a bizarre cultural phenomenon, I was fascinated by the story.

If you’re not having trouble concentrating or experiencing fickle interests, the Best American series is just plain ideal airplane/travel/subway/commuter reading. Easy to pick up and put down, easy to change gears. The quality of the selections usually depends on the editor doing the picking, so you can sometimes tell whether or not you’ll like the tone of an edition based on who’s in charge. For example, Jonathan Franzen edited this year’s Best American Essays and said that his main criterion was “risk”, interpreted in various ways. Not necessarily my cup of tea, but I see the appeal.

I have to admit I didn’t read the fiction stories, only what was categorized as nonfiction. Maybe someday I’ll return to reading fiction, besides revisiting favorites, but at the moment (a moment lasting about six years now) I can’t get into it. For the fiction reader, this includes pieces from the year’s best mystery stories, science fiction and fantasy, and general short stories. And fine, I skipped the sports section too. There’s only so many hours in a day!

I think this book might actually be free for Kindle – it looks like it from the Amazon page at least.

Free books are the best! Take advantage of them always!

The Best American Series: 16 Short Stories and Essays
Various editors and authors
published October 18, 2016 by Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

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