Despite the much-ballyhoo’d defeat of books at the hands of electronic gadgets, and despite the much-ballyhoo’d sloth of the general reading public (one book a year? Come on, people! That’s not even trying!), 2010 saw the usual torrent of titles pour off the presses – books in an endless array, almost infinitely augmented by the burgeoning self-publishing market. Far, far more books than anybody can actually read, even me. But the key isn’t the reading, it’s the sorting, and trust me, I’m a very good book-sorter. When confronted with a vast, heaped-high canvas tub full of books – let’s sat that represents the publishing world’s output in English in 2010 – the first thing you need in order to make any headway is a finely-honed instinct for the noteworthy stuff, good or bad. But the next most important thing you need is a muscular, heartless, instantaneous capacity to sort, to plunge into that heaped tub and hurl books to the left of you and books to the right of you, to see, snap, and shovel, to allow an almost super-tactile sensitivity to guide you when discarding instantly about ninety-five percent of it all.

The ultimate litmus test is – has to be – boredom. If a book is only its table of contents, no table of contents can save it: for good or evil, the execution is everything. The explosion of self-published novels has removed even the slightest shred of merit in merely plotting a story, and the pervasiveness of Wikipedia has removed even the slightest shred of merit in merely assembling facts – now more than ever, only the writers who do more than that (regardless of how well or poorly they do it) are worth any attention at all. In the great, grinding, mechanical threshing and sorting of a tub full of books, it’s only those writers who are worth a pause and a second look.

I dove into that tub in 2010, as I try to do every year. To date in 2010 I’ve read 703 books (that total will likely exceed 215 by year’s end), almost a personal best for me. And in 2010 a greater percentage of those were new books than in any previous year (I did less of my beloved re-reading than ever in my life, because I simply didn’t have the spare time) – new and self-published works of fiction, history, biography, natural history, politics, sociology, literary criticism, science fiction, mystery, romance (Paul Marron-related and otherwise!), theology, and even a little philosophy and poetry. I read young adult novels, graphic novels, teen novels, experimental novels, ‘alternate’ histories, crackpot conspiracy theories, political diatribes – and I considered all of it when tabulating our annual Stevereads Gotterdamerung. The only things I’m excluding from contention among the things I read all year long are dissertations, manuscripts, and all works in languages other than English (fortunately, you’ve all got Scott Esposito to keep an eye on the foreign stuff!). In that way only is the following not actually representative: I read plenty of stuff in 2010 that I knew perfectly well would never be up for possible inclusion here – either positive or negative. Because I routinely fail my own litmus test: I read far more boring books than I should, even after I know they’re boring and should throw them at the nearest basset hound. My curiosity far too often gets the best of me.

As always, I put that curiosity – and the many excruciating reading hours it provoked – at your disposal at this time of year! I often call Stevereads the autobiography of my reading, but it’s also true that I usually leave my reviews of new and current books for Open Letters, concentrating instead here on all the miscellaneous old wonders of my various bookshelves. At this time of year I open Stevereads up to the publishers’ lists and tell you about some of the current reading I do (no Gerald of Wales in any of the upcoming lists!).

So I hope you enjoy. The playwright Aeschylus tells us we must suffer, suffer into truth, so we’ll have to slog our way through the bad to get to the good. We’ll start next time with the Worst Fiction of 2010!

  • basil papademos

    Mr. Donoghue,
    703 books and counting!? You are a far better man than I. My number is currently at 116. As a result, I have a difficult time distinguishing between characters, stories, titles and so on. As for the quality of the endless parade of books being published, self or otherwise, I’m reminded of a recent conversation with an editor I know. He said, “Too many of these new novels don’t have plots.”
    When I dismissed his complaint by replying “Plots are for soap operas”, he flew off the handle and accused me of being part of the problem, encouraging these “lazy *#!*holes to write plotless pieces of #!*!”
    Aside from wondering if some writer had plotlessly exposed a particularly embarrassing episode in his life, I went away wondering about an editor’s role nowadays. I believe they bear as much, if not more responsibility than authors for all the badly written books being churned out. The problem is not entirely due to all the self-publishing going on; editor’s and publisher’s standards seem to have dropped as well.
    However, there is a silver lining to all this. I have a friend who works as a reader for a few publishers. The back of her couch is held up by several piles of unsolicited manuscripts she had to slog through. (She prints them out for perusing since constant reading on the screen gives her a headache.) So, if a lot of truly awful books are seeing the light of day, we ought to be thankful that people like my friend prevent mountains of much worse stuff from getting any further than the proverbial back of her couch.

  • JC

    Huzzah! Stevereads BestOf and WorstOf are some of the highlights of my reading year!

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