Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why Your Annual List of Best Books Doesn't Matter

This is the time of year when everyone involved in literary criticism, book reviewing, and/or simple book boosterism posts interminable lists of their favorite books of the year—and let's be honest, when you see another list of "best books" it's only just the list-maker's favorites. You rarely see someone post a book they hated on such lists, even if they have to acknowledge in other ways that it was an important book. (Along these lines, I think Jonathon Franzen's latest novel execrable; but I would list it as important because its publication instigated a lot of good discussion about the current health of the literary novel form. A few years ago, I would have listed Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road for the same reasons, as generating important discussions—although the novel itself was completely unoriginal, bullet-riddled with cliché, egregiously rude to the reader, and otherwise just not very good.)

This is the time of year when critics strive to make grand summations, to bring into coherent form their criteria for what constitutes great books (and thereby great writing). It's a time for Grand Pronouncements. It's a time for literary canon-making, which is what every Great Books list is really about. Summations are designed to bring order out of chaos, to construct a narrative of literary arcs that don't exist, and to promote a personal critical agenda. grand summations tend to be riddled with general theorizing, which in most critical hands is meant to be more prescriptive than descriptive. (This is how literature ought to be done!) We must look back over the past year in publishing, it seems, and try to bring the fray into some sort of coherent orderliness, in order for it to be understood. We must try to make sense out of meaningless, random existence.

And it gets even worse in the hands of some critics: The underlying tone, and hidden agenda, of many of the more snobbish "high-end" theory-driven literary-critical "best books" lists is that if you don't agree with the list-maker, you're an idiot. You really ought to agree with them, after all, since they're the experts and you're just an ordinary reader, too stupid to make up your own mind. That's pretty insulting, and i think a lot of ordinary readers can sense it—they're really far more perceptive than some in the critical elite like to think they are. Perhaps many "amateur" readers make their own best books lists in response to the hidden insult they perceive on some unconscious level. See, I can do a list just as well as you.

But what is ephemeral remains ephemeral. Little endures. Look back over best book lists of distant decades, and you'll find few recognizable names, titles and authors, that have stood the test of time. Short-term critical judgments, which is what "best book" lists are, very often get it hilariously wrong.

The process all seems rather expected. Maybe it's because review editors like to publish such annual summations; maybe it's because Top Ten lists are as easily absorbed to the busy mental palette as are soundbytes, which reduce genuine content to often misleading generalizations. The habit of best book lists has spread far beyond any compulsory editorial form it may once have been driven by, however. Online reviewers act like making a best books list is a year's-end requirement, a necessity to justify their extensive (often unpaid) time spent on reviews over the past year—not much different in compulsion in kind to all those New Year's Resolutions people make, too, this time of year. Well, I don't believe in those, either.

These lists of "best" books are precisely where objective criticism goes out the window. Justifications abound. Rationalizations get repeated. Sometimes books appear on everyone's best books lists simply because they're on everyone else's lists. A lot of reviewers read other lists before making their own, so they are further influenced towards de facto short-term consensus by the thoughtless application of literary favoritism. Those of us who prefer the sidelines to the center of the fray often find ourselves doing anti-best books lists, which is often just reactionary rather than carefully thought through.

And yet critics keep making these book lists every single year, at this time, as though it all mattered a very great deal, and this year's list will somehow make a difference, change the world, when last year's list was unable to.

A classic, very accurate definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again while expecting each time to generate an outcome different than last time. Yet 2 + 2 will always equal 100 (in Binary). The rigorous, cold equations keep balancing the same way each time, no matter how we wish for a miracle.

So keep your list of best books to yourself. No one cares. Well, maybe the publishers care, because it means more sales. There's nothing compulsory about compiling a "best books" list, not even for avid reviewers. (And don't mistake me: I think every writer ought to write the occasional book review; it teaches you a great deal. But I also think a lot of writers spend a lot more time on the reviewing project than they ought to. I'd rather read what they have to say about life and art then what they thought of a book I'll probably never really want to read.)

Far better, perhaps, to break the pattern, and to privately savor those books you read this past year that you treasured. Those of us on the sidelines, who could in fact present a list of the books we most enjoyed reading this past year, will likely keep our opinions to ourselves, where they belong. I could make up a list of books that have strongly affected me this past year, or strongly influenced my thinking and/or writing, or that meant a lot to me, that I greatly enjoyed—but it would be a personal, subjective list, which no one would ever care about but me. Nor would I expect them to.

I say, save yourself the effort of grand summations, of coherent narratives, or "best books" lists, and just keep reading. Keep reading, reading, and if you write, keep writing. If you want to share something that really got to you, do it as you go along. Post a review while the iron's still hot. Don't wait for the end of the year to put it on some list. Summations aren't necessary, and almost no one asks for them anyway.

Or, if after all this, you do feel moved to make a list, strive to make clear that it's a list of your favorite books of the year, not a list of the "best books" of the year. Make a list of Those Books I Enjoyed Reading this past year, even if they're older books. Be personal with your list. Be enthusiastic. Be outrageous. Have fun! Just avoid the critical pretensions of those who would dictate to you, gentle reader, what you're supposed to think is good, and what is not.

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Blogger Gwilym Williams said...

Art, If I see such a list I confess that I do give it a cursory glance - but invariably there's very little there to catch the eye let alone the mind. I suppose there's a sort of use for these lists. The illiterate who buy books for bookish friends or relatives believes he has chosen right if it's high on such a list. Consequently I have some abysmal poetry books which have arrived as Christmas gifts still unopened on my shelves.
Just between us two the best book I've read this year is the same best book I read last year and the year before: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (pub. 1987 by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, Pakistan.

3:20 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Whenever best of lists appear, be they at the end of the year or at any time, I’m always struck by how many of them I’ve never heard of especially the poets. I read about 50 books this year and I could easily give you a top five or ten but that wouldn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things because there’s so much that I’ve not read. And, as you say, so much of it is subjective which isn’t bad; it is what it is and at this time of year you expect a more casual approach to lists. Someone was asking for a book recommendation a few days ago and I did scroll through what I’d read this year just to see what jumped out. There wasn’t a lot. Bukowski’s poems are the ones that will stay with me the longest but they weren’t exactly written this year. They’ve already stood the test of time and will last a while yet. As good as some of the books I read were I’m not sure how many of the others will still be in print in even ten years. Love it or loathe it I think The Road will. Of the books that were published last year that I read I think Alberto Manguel’s All Men are Liars might have a chance and I’d like to say Elizabeth Baines’ The Birth Machine even though it’s strictly a reprint albeit a revised one. But who can tell? It’s hard enough to get a book in print in the first place and if we’re to believe the stats only 30% of them ever show a profit so how many of those will get second runs?

5:19 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Gwilym, I sometimes a few of those gift books, too. More often though I get gift CDs that I have no use for, because people know I love music; so I've gotten a few Xmas albums over the years that I loathed. I very politely thanked the person, however; then a few months later, quietly sold the CDs off. Thus it is that I have no more Mannheim Steamroller crap in my music library, for example.

I agree that some of the best books I read this past year were re-reads. That's actually often the case. I read a lot of new books every year, it's true, especially poetry that's new to me (albeit usually a few years past its first publishing date); but I am almost always re-reading something, too. I re-read all of Raymond Chandler every few years, for example. And this past year, I re-read a lot of Virginia Woolf. My sister was on a Woolf kick earlier in the year, and got me going on re-reading, too.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, that's my experience, too, that a lot of the poetry lists contain things I'd never heard of. Or maybe had heard of, but hadn't read.

I have no problem with entirely subjective lists, as I said. Actually, I think an enthusiastic list that is totally subjective can be quite interesting—because it's clear that someone really loved what they were reading.

Your point about "The Road" staying in print is interesting. But that also has something to do with it having been made into a movie now. Bestsellers that get made into movies, regardless of their literary quality, will stay in print a long, long time, because movie-goers will turn to the book, and vice versa. Thus, Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" isn't likely to go out of print anytime soon, either.

What makes a classic book sometimes is also a bootstrap effect. If "The Da Vinci Code" stays in print a long time, it will start to take on the mantle of a classic, simply by having been reprinted many times. Some classics from early last century had the same thing happen.

But will such books still endure for the long haul? Maybe not. It depends on if they continue to speak to people in a hundred years or so.

10:13 AM  

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