This probably makes me something of an anomaly as a blogger, but I’ve never really cared for lists. Or rather, I don’t mind reading other people’s, but I don’t have any real drive to come up with my own—this being a literary blog, I guess I’m talking primarily about book lists. I like when folks put together odd shelves, like Kat Warren’s Antagonist Lit here or Bookforum’s excellently eclectic Syllabi, because there’s a theme, some kind of coherent story involved that I can follow. And I wouldn’t turn down a trip to the Louvre to see what Umberto Eco is up to.
But I’ve never quite managed to get into the spirit of rankings. Being somewhat of a belt-notcher, I usually go through and count up the books I’ve read on any given list, and then just to humble myself I’ll do another count of how many I haven’t read but own. I like the quantitative aspect well enough. But the qualitative? I don’t know. I have trouble thinking of books in terms of rank, even in groups. When I reflect on my own reading there are books I didn’t think were all that good, and books I loved, and a whole bunch that I liked quite a bit, but within all those categories usually comes some kind of qualification. There are too many variables for me to fit them into any order. That would be as hard as grading my best friends, or my favorite songs or movies. And the whole idea of awarding one primacy over the rest is even weirder. I don’t have a favorite book (although come to think of it, I do have a favorite movie) (and I’m monogamous, too, so there goes that line of reasoning). Rankings based on personal preference are more a form of information about the person who made the call than what’s being considered; rankings by committee are about the dynamics of deliberation.
On the other hand, the conversations surrounding lists are usually interesting. Earlier this fall, The Millions conducted two polls—one among their contributors and literary acquaintances, another of their readers on Facebook—to come up with the top 20 novels of the millennium thus far. It was a fun countdown, and while the results weren’t exactly earth-shattering the concept was ripe for projecting whatever you wanted onto it, and the surrounding conversations were definitely lively. Garth Risk Hallberg posted a nice wrap up that went on to take a look at the basic dilemma of the list:
We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. “Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like,” an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than “Best of the Millennium,” so we braced ourselves and went for it.
The resulting discussions were interesting and worth following. And I will say that all that dissection did inch me a bit further toward reading The Corrections (sorry, spoiler).
Another fun countdown—more of an agglomeration, really—was the National Book Foundation’s blog series of the National Book Awards fiction winners since 1950, which unfolded from last July through September. Now it’s that time of the year again, and the NBA announced its list of 2009 finalists last week. It’s an interesting batch, with the most controversial looking to be the inclusion of David Small’s graphic novel Stitches in the Young People’s Literature category. I think it’s a great choice, myself. I haven’t read any of the other YA books, but Stitches was affecting and beautifully done, and certainly not inappropriate for a middle- or high-schooler—although the kids whose parents don’t want them to read something like that are the ones who probably should.
The one fiction contender I hadn’t heard of is Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage. It’s got my underdog antenna all aquiver, being a) a short story collection b) from a university press c) by an offbeat, up-and-coming author who doesn’t live in Brooklyn d) with an elegant, scrappy cover. Are those enough reasons to add yet another book to the shelf? Because there is one list that I never get tired of tinkering around with, and that would be my Wish List.