A Life of Non-Required Reading

Since my childhood, I have made scores of trips to the library. Ideas permeate the air and books whisper secrets, passing down tales different from my life yet completely relatable. I struggled through adolescence alongside Callie in Eugenides' "Middlesex" and I found love next to Elizabeth Benet in Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." I love to read because it simultaneously makes me feel relaxed and adventurous — my world shifts, my perspective broadens, my understanding deepens, but I also feel comfort. I feel comfort from the knowledge that ignorance can be overcome by reading.

Ignorance is one of my greatest fears. I am from a small town, where the joys of a tightly knit community come at the cost of isolation. I have walked the same streets to school each morning and seen the same people each day, feeling as though the world has shrunk to a couple miles of sidewalk, a general store, and a bank. I am afraid of being locked into a narrow perspective limited by a continual cycle of repeated experiences.

The summer following tenth grade, I ventured into San Francisco to participate in a week-long writing workshop at 826 Valencia, a writing lab founded by Dave Eggers in 2002. Nerves fluttering, I rode up the escalator after taking the train into San Francisco's Mission District. I remember the awe I felt as the city unfolded above me. Thrift stores, coffee shops, and bustling activity, the Mission could not have been more different from the sleepy suburban streets of my hometown. At 826 Valencia, amidst constant new experience, words flowed onto my page — a short story of a family trip revealed the need for loved ones and a poem attacked the spitefulness of high school judgment. After a week of personal discovery, each participant submitted a writing sample which was compiled into a book for sale in 826 Valencia's store. With freedom to explore the city and my own writing, I was finding a new home.

Following the workshop, I applied for a paid internship at McSweeney's, an independent publishing house across the street from 826 Valencia. I became a part of a committee of high school students that read, discuss, and select published works to be collected in the "Best American Non-Required Reading" (BANR) anthology. In a group of eighteen students with Dave Eggers and Daniel Handler as our mentors, we read over one hundred essays, short stories, and articles, discussing everything from the current cultural and economic situation in Berlin to the pragmatisms and disadvantages of illegal downloading through the internet.

On my first night of BANR, sitting in the same room with Dave Eggers was surreal; I was meeting a character from a book. Other than a beaten up baseball cap and a five o'clock shadow, he bore little resemblance to the Dave Eggers I had known in "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." With Dave and my fellow readers, I joined a group of literary enthusiasts. We collaborated together for ten months to produce the book. I searched for works to add to the collection, perusing the likes of "The Paris Review" and "The Atlantic." I discovered the courage to stand up for my own opinion, arguing for what I believed should be in the collection. I felt my perspective change as others contributed their own ideas. Published by Houghton Mifflin, the book was a product of our ideas and discussions. When we came together, the horizon of larger thinking was endless.

Our biographies, tucked in the final pages of the book, highlighted what brought each of us to BANR. Coming together through our mutual love of reading, we each brought our own perspective to create a work of literature. Through 826 Valencia and BANR, I have pushed my boundaries, becoming a part of a literary community and finding my way from reader, to writer, to editor.