The Best Nonrequired Reading

Why Reading Is Essential

The following is Walter Mosley's introduction to "Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013" [Mariner Books, $14.95].

When asked to write the introduction for "Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013," I was at first stumped and a little mystified. The potential palette for such a collection seemed so large, unwieldy, and subjective that I wondered how any specific presentation could do it justice; I mean, what is meant by the best, after all? When I talked to the managing editor, he told me that my relationship to reading was what the editorial staff, and readers in general, would find most interesting. This added request, requirement, or desire only served to increase my consternation. Reading is such a personal and private activity that, in some ways, it seemed impossible to talk about with any shared sense of truth, verity.

And so, before addressing the task at hand, I had to make sure that I had a workable definition of what reading, for me, actually is. This is what I came up with:

In the modern world reading is an essential activity like eating or loving, going to war or even surrendering to a truth that, because it is undeniable, is also inescapable. Reading, I believe, is one of the few activities that increases, deepens, and expands the capacity of the human mind; it is a process that is at once conscious and unconscious, personal and solitary but also interpersonal and even social. We read works by women and men long dead, by living writers that we can see and touch, and words that we ourselves have written just yesterday or maybe years ago in a forgotten journal or some letter that was never mailed. Shopping lists and love letters, angry declarations of separation and long explanations of acts we wished we had never taken are often the subjects of our writing. These words are meant to express very specific feelings and ideas but when they are read by others they go through miraculous transmogrifications. People interpret intentions and glean meanings that the writer may not have intended or might not have realized that he or she was saying. Even the original writer can find new meaning in words she wrote years ago.

The written word grows in meaning with every reading and rereading. No two people ever understand language in exactly the same way. Even simple one-word assertions like yes or no might have dozens of possible meanings.

Having come this far in my fractured, and necessarily incomplete, interpretation of the process of reading, it occurred to me what was most interesting about the BANR project: that is, the two processes of the young editors who gathered together the contents of this aspect of the Best American series.

First, it intrigued and impressed me that these readers could come together and agree on fragments, stories, and essays that they all saw somewhat differently. Maybe one editor thought that an idea presented was fascinating or important where another reader saw something exhilarating in the style of writing. A third contributor didn’t understand what was being said and a fourth had issues with the author’s implied opinions about gender. They all came together in a room in San Francisco and danced around and around the language and ideas celebrating, classifying, considering, and finally agreeing upon what would make the final cut and what would not.

This process alone I would find extremely daunting. A long time ago, in 1965, The Lovin’ Spoonful released a pop song called “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” It was a tune about a young man who, again and again, found that he was in love with two women but had to decide on one. I always felt that this was a central challenge in life and that I have never, or at least rarely, been up to the task. That is why I shy away from editing jobs: there’s just too much to love.

Never just the question of better or the best the outcome of editing is, rather, the ecstasy of being in tune with something and the heartbreak of turning away from other beauty.

But as much as I am impressed with the job of deciding, it is the other fundamental step in this process that arrests me. Reading is good enough but rereading is sublime. In the mad rush of our modern “scientistic” world people often tell me that they read some iconic piece of literature like Man’s Fate, Dead Souls, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have taken to asking the person making this claim to literacy how many times they read the document. Usually, I get a quizzical stare and then the claim, “One very close reading.”

But “Once is never enough,” to quote another pop song: “Do That to Me One More Time” by Captain and Tennille, this time from 1979.

You don’t propose marriage after one date. You don’t decide on a career after one article or class session. You don’t cast your vote based on one opinion of the candidate in question. Stories, essays, novels, and memoirs all deserve to be, indeed have to be read multiple times. Every writer worth his or her salt knows that writing is rewriting. Every reader should know the same thing about understanding text: that is, real reading is rereading.

The editors of this book by example and for the love of writing have shown us in the words represented here that they have read and reread and reread again the ocean of words that we are about to embark upon. They, the editors, will have gotten more from this process than most readers in the modern world. It is the work of editing, of going over every word and then discussing those words and then diving back in again that makes real readers.

So what is the best? A group of young scholars that has taken to heart the task of deepening their own minds in order to present to us a world that is at once known and hidden. They have examined and reexamined linguistic interpretations of the world we live in and so have become curators of our culture by the lovely example of making impossible choices.

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