How are anthologists doing with the best of the best?

The Argument

The growing genre of annual compilations is a very mixed bag indeed

February 01, 2004|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

Only after reading an advertisement from the venerable publisher Houghton Mifflin did I start noticing the depth and breadth of a phenomenon in the book world. Visits to bookstores heightened my awareness. The full extent of the phenomenon dawned on me a few days later as I scanned my bookshelves at home, filled with titles I had never thought of as related.

The phenomenon is the proliferation of anthologies offering the "best of," as in The Best American Poetry 2003. Houghton Mifflin, the most expansive "best of" publisher, has registered the phrase "The Best American Series" as a trademark. Its series now consists of eight books, covering recipes, essays, short stories, mystery stories, sports writing, travel writing, science / nature writing and a vague category rendered as The Best American Nonrequired Reading.

Best-selling author Dave Eggers has noticed the phenomenon, too. In the foreword to the The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 (Houghton Mifflin, 368 pages, $27.50), Eggers, employing the ironic tone that infuses his writing, says, "The purpose of this book is to collect good work of any kind -- fiction, humor, essays, comics, journalism -- in one place for the English-reading consumer. The other books in the Best American series are limited by their categories, most particularly the popular but constraining Best American Catholic Badger Mystery Writing. This collection is not so limited, which is why, we think, it dominates all similar collections, making them whimper and cower in a way that is shameful."

What is going on here? Hard to say, but it probably has something to do with a desire for prepackaging in a hurried society. Prepackaged anthologies, in which a stranger decides "the best" for readers, could be considered akin to prepackaged dinners, in which a stranger decides the menu.

Prepackaged meals are generally inferior to home cooking. What about prepackaged anthologies? It depends. Each has at least some literary merit. Phrased another way, none is a total waste of money or time.

That stipulated, some "best of" anthologies are superior to others, based on the range of publications where the selections first appeared, the quality of the writing, the diversity of the authors represented, the value-added material included (if any) with each selection, the incisiveness of the foreword and / or introduction, the thoroughness of the back matter (if any), plus the hard-to-gauge but nonetheless meaningful knowledge and enthusiasm of the guest editor making the choices each year.

Given the world-is-my-oyster approach (fiction, humor, essays, comics, journalism) of Eggers' The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003, it ought to shine, and it does. In his 13-page foreword, Eggers not only explains the selection process, but also entertains and enlightens with paragraphs ranging in tone from Dave Barry to Anne Tyler. Eggers notes that, given the volume's original purpose upon its unveiling during 2002 to introduce high school and college students to "good writing from contemporary writers," he relies heavily on recommendations from -- guess who? -- high school and college students. He provides brief biographies for each of the students.

The 11-page introduction by novelist Zadie Smith is also a treasure. She expounds on six precepts for readers, selected from Samuel Johnson, Logan Pearsall Smith, Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Francis Bacon and Vladimir Nabokov.

As for the 25 selections, only nine are from widely available periodicals (two each from Esquire, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine; one each from Time, The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's). Also represented are what publishing insiders normally call "literary quarterlies" (although not all of them literally appear four times annually) such as Mississippi Review, Story Quarterly, Zoetrope, Tin House, Columbia Review and Alaska Quarterly Review (twice). Cartoon panels from Lynda Barry are included. There is a selection from an online-only magazine, The satiric tabloid The Onion is represented. So is Eggers' creation, McSweeney's, an occasional magazine sometimes published at book length between hard covers.

Despite my extensive periodicals consumption, I encountered publications unfamiliar to me -- Little Engines, 7x7, Modern Humorist, Shout and Pindeldyboz. (Unfortunately, Eggers provides no information about any of the represented publications. Fortunately, he provides useful information about each author.)

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