What is nonrequired reading?

I may be dumb not to think that the term Nonrequired Reading is something of an argument. I've been seeing The Best American Nonrequired Reading anthologies long ago at Booksale, and have purchased three in the past few years, and they're ingenious in churning out the best and the most inventive stories there is. I initially thought the anthology is for the "newness" of its technique--that it plays with its form, language, or simply put, it shatters the well-defined parameters of a short story. Suffice to say that my recent purchase, the anthology's first edition printed in 2002 (edited by--who else but Dave Eggers!), finally makes it clear in its introductory paragraph by Michael Cart:

The word reading, by itself, it describes one of the most pleasurable, stimulating, rewarding, exciting, even joyful acts we human beings are capable of. Yet put one single adjective -- required -- in front of it and you suck all the joy out of the process, turning it into drudgery.

Aside from the fact that the anthology didn't use other terms like postmodern, or anti-story, among other technical things (it must have been a lengthy introduction discussing postmodern, after all, with tens of footnotes), the term nonrequired is simple and exacting. For one, it's not pretentious and overwhelming. It appropriates itself to its audience, the youngsters, brandishing the anthology as nonrequired to placate the initial reaction of students when the word reading is written by a teacher on the blackboard. Worse, and almost always, the reading materials are a list, and there is a deadline.

It only makes sense, I think, when put into American context. The introduction is generous enough to put the current statistics: that the American youth's disposable income has increased, thereby allowing them to spend more money on things like books, which widened readership; the sheer growth in the numbers of younger Americans; their access to books; the "willingness of a generation of young editors to take creative risks" (again, a well put term, creative risks is probably the fact that most, if not all editors, have the same conventions and tastes regarding fiction).

The word nonrequired, after reading two or three collections prior to my purchase of the 2002 inaugural edition, never triggered the abovementioned explanation. I simply thought it's too esoteric of Dave Eggers and his cohorts to inscribe the word nonrequired alongside the hallmarks of the Best American Series released annually. What did I initially think when I first came across the anthology and was dumbfounded by the term nonrequired reading?

Honestly, I was thinking of another term: young adult, or Y.A. The term has already garnered a sour reputation, and the introduction explains the term's corrupted meaning:

Not long ago, publishers were publishing "young adult literature," an unfortunate phrase that always made the work sound like adult literature in training wheels. Even worse, in the 1930s and early 1940s there was a category patronizingly called "the junior novel." For too many years this "literature" for young adults bore about much resemblance to reality as the Cleaver family. Part of this may have been the result of a collective exercise in wishful thinking, and of an adult desire to "protect" young readers from the grittier realities of life.

The term young adult did raised eyebrows during writing workshops with my college organization--that's along with the term angst. Writers of the young adult infantilize their readers aged thirteen to eighteen: they try to keep them away from "the sophistication of their material and their creative ambition", which, to put it bluntly, refuses its writers "to respect their readers, their readers' abilities and inherent savvy."

Gone was the traditional insistence on a simplistic happy ending. Instead, writers for young people began to bring ambiguity and uncertainty to their work, to acknowledge the presence of darkness in human affairs as well as the persistence of light. Previously taboo subjects such as abuse and incest could now be addressed. Of equal importance, writers were permitted to flex their literary muscles, bringing to their work newly complex characterization, themes, and settings along with stylistic and structural innovation.

The Filipino literary scene is at a loss of this culture and identity of young adult fiction. Almost always these types of stories are printed in zines and churned out in literary folios of colleges and universities, but that's it: the audience is very limited. It's a disheartening fact that what we Filipinos typically think of young adult (or nonrequired reading, without the trappings of its American context) conjures a plethora of contradicting ideas: are they written by Murakami? are they Precious Hearts Romance books? Bob Ong? Youngblood columns in the Philippine Daily Inquirer?

When we have defined the term "young adult fiction" in the Philippines and successfully separated it from its tangle of other fiction--both good and not-so-good--maybe we can come up with a similar term, and hopefully, the anthology will be read and appreciated. Hopefully, the themes of love and romance will not be infantilized as well.