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, Nerve.com. 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.)
The most surprising unifying topic, maybe just short of Catholic Badger Mystery Writing, is recipes. The Best American Recipes 2003-2004 (Houghton Mifflin, 300 pages, $26) suggests an obvious question: How did editors Fran McCullough and Molly Stevens know where to look for extraordinary recipes? Did they sneak into residential kitchens while everybody slept to rifle through drawers and cabinets? No. It turns out they read lots of already published cookbooks, magazines and newspapers and checked Web sites as well. The result is nourishment for the brain as well as the palate.
When it comes to value-added, probably the top "best of" is Best Newspaper Writing 2003 (400 pages, $14.95), published by the Poynter Institute in conjunction with Bonus Books. The winners and runners-up in each of eight categories constitute the guts of the volume. The bonuses include interviews with winners and runners-up, extended biographical material about each author, and a bibliography of new books and articles about reporting and writing.
Using value-added as a standard, The Best American Magazine Writing 2003 (464 pages, $14.95) has almost nothing to offer. Compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by HarperCollins Perennial, each of the 17 nonfiction pieces and two fiction entries contains an introduction of a few sentences maximum.
Furthermore, almost all the selections appeared in easy-to-find, large-circulation national magazines. Any anthology collecting writing by the likes of Michael Paterniti, Tim Cahill, Gary Smith, Anne Fadiman, Ian Frazier, Katha Pollitt, Joyce Carol Oates and E.L. Doctorow is worth owning. But the overall effort seems uninspired, more a dutiful endeavor than a joyful one.
The Best American Poetry 2003 (288 pages, $16), published by Scribner, reprints selections from 45 periodicals, almost none of them widely circulated or well-known in any respect. For the most part, poetry in the United States -- despite a devoted following -- is absent from the mainstream media. The poems appeared in small journals such as Barrow Street, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest and Third Coast.
Each poem is presented unadorned -- no attempt at explication whatsoever. Because some of the poems are approachable and some are forbidding, the unadorned approach by guest editor Yusef Komunyakaa and series editor David Lehman is both the good news and the bad news.
Best New American Voices 2004 (Harvest, 324 pages, $14), published by Harcourt, contains no previously published pieces. Instead, the 17 short stories have been culled from the top writing programs in the United States, most of which are affiliated with universities. Mining the fiction of wannabe writers paying tuition seems like a stretch for a "best of" book. No doubt the editors could reply by saying that if Misha Angrist or Liza Ward (the first and last authors anthologized in this volume) ever becomes famous, you, dear reader, will have seen her name here first.
All in all, I would rather not quibble with the "best of" phenomenon or any of the entrants in the "best of" publishing sweepstakes. I am so busy with my own magazine writing, book authorship, reviewing, family members and leisure pursuits that I lack the time to keep up with every genre that interests me. So, publishers, keep those "best of" anthologies coming. I promise to look at them, and perhaps purchase some.
Steve Weinberg is a 35-year veteran of investigative reporting for newspapers, magazines and book publishers. His 1992 book about the craft of biography, Telling the Untold Story, is still in print from the University of Missouri Press. He browses so many periodicals that he carries around a master list to keep track of which issue he read most recently.