The Best of “The Best Of”

Cafenewyearseve Changing your mind is how you know it’s open, right? So this year I’ve decided that, after many seasons of sniffy pronouncements to the contrary, I DO in fact like all those year-end best book lists. I like them very much indeed. With qualifications, of course. But still.

The old argument as to whether book blogs will eventually replace paper review sections looks like it will be up in the air for a while yet. But there are places where the bloggers have won hands down already, and this is one of them. Here is an instance where the lines between the establishment and the upstarts show through clearly. Not in terms of what’s wrong with the newsprint reviewers, since they’re giving us exactly what they’ve been giving all along, and doing a perfectly fine job of it—I too have A Gate at the Stairs, Nocturnes, Spooner, and Brooklyn on the shelves and I’m so pleased that I stand a good chance of enjoying them.

But there’s also something slightly deadening about seeing the same 50 books championed over and over. I’ve been reading the reviews all year, and that’s why I’ve got them in the first place. To go over all that again because we’re inching up to New Year’s Eve… it doesn’t move me. As Julia Keller, the Chicago Tribune’s cultural critic, says, “‘Best of’ lists function as little engines of consensus”:

When I go into year-end list-making mode, many of the aspects of reading that make it such a special, even spiritual, adventure for me—the play of language, the splash of new facts, the forking path of a beautifully controlled and steadily unfolding narrative—go right out the window…. I become a hedger too. And a waffler. I grow overly cautious. I find myself a lot more worried about balance and diversity than about naming the books that really moved me, instructed me, surprised me, infuriated me, shook me up and turned me round—even though, invariably, the books that actually do all of those things end up being a naturally diverse, effortlessly inclusive lot.

Social media, on the other hand, implies friends, or at least a wide enough circle of acquaintances to all pile into the cheerful little clown car of opinions. It’s those collaborative Best Of posts that make the category fun. Whether bloggers are noting the best books published in 2009 or just those picked up and read since last January, there’s a good energy in these collected picks, a bit of a party vibe.

The Millions throws a great party with their A Year in Reading series, as does HTMLGIANT’s A Million Little Top 3′s. Conversational Reading’s list covers a hundred-plus years of publishing, but it’s a good honest sprawl of what people who don’t review books for a living might read in a year. And though I mentioned it in an earlier, more commercial context, the Emerging Writers Network ran a Holiday Gift Suggestions series that was less of a What I Read in 2009 list than What You Really Should Read in 2010, which is kind of the point.

In the end, it’s all geeking out on how well you can present your version of what you think is cool. It’s about flaunting your taste, but also championing the unhip; I saw at least one good-natured pick for The Lost Symbol made with no snark at all. Whether or not it’s true that we like lists because we don’t want to die—in which case that would definitely include me—this particular kind of list seems to work better when they’re more conversation than lecture. And if the end of the year is the best excuse we can come up with for having these conversations, I’m all for it. Let the party continue! And yes, yes, I promise to read Stoner, universally beloved Prom King of all 2009 books. I’m not immune to a little suggestion either.

(And all my faithful Like Fire friends and contributors should probably start thinking about their picks for 2010, because in another year I might just be asking.)

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3 Comments to The Best of “The Best Of”

  1. December 29, 2009 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    “Stoner” is numbah 8, but “Augustus” is numbah 6 on my list!

  2. Sean Long's Gravatar Sean Long
    December 30, 2009 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I’ve been pimping Stoner (and don’t missread that as “a pimping stoner”) for years, but to no avail. It’s THE book that people always say they need to get around to reading. It took me two years after a friend raved about it to me shortly after it was released by the NYRoBs.

  3. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    December 31, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Is there a character limit for Comments?

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