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December begins here in Boston as all other months now do, with bright sunlight, shirtsleeve weather, and not the smallest hint of wind or moisture – like Tempe, only with a Dunkin’ Donuts every 500 feet. But December of course has one distinctive feature: it signals the end of another year, the swift winding-down of 2014.

The Penny Press dines on such occasions, and the segment of the Penny Press that Gore Vidal referred to as ‘the book-chat world’ certainly does its share: year-end book-lists abound in every corner of the literary world. And in addition to those book-lists, 2014 has also seen a virulent new outbreak of the kind of aesthetic wishy-washiness that drives me nuts – a wavery readerly relativism that refuses to call anything ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather ventures only ‘good for me’ or ‘bad for me.’ I’ve been lopping the blossoms off this particular weed for a very long time, and the pruning never gets tiresome, but the increased need for it is thought-provoking.

stevereads cartoon1I blame two factors for 2014’s outbreak, and they’re deeply connected: the increased proliferation of fully-grown adults reading novels written for children (not just one or two such novels, but exclusively such novels), and the increased proliferation of book-blogging and, more to the point, book-tubing on YouTube. If you’re a shaving, beer-drinking, car-driving grown-up and you’ve allowed your reading habits to degenerate to the rhetorical equivalent of curling up in your jammies in bed with a teddy bear, you’re naturally going to be disinclined to take up the tools of critical, evaluative reading (even less so if you’ve got a viewing audience whose ‘likes’ you’d rather not lose). In fact, if you’ve backslid far enough to proclaim children’s book authors like Rainbow Rowell or John Green to be great literary figures, you’re most likely going to resort to the one line of argument that stands any chance of giving you shelter from the adults you’re embarrassing: the argument that there’s no such thing as objective, binding standards in the world of books and reading.

If you question any of the hundreds of 25-year-olds who film their BookTube posts standing proudly in front of walls of YA books, if you put any pressure on their decision to squander the only reading life they’re ever going to get by exclusively reading things like Divergent or Beautiful Creatures, the answer they’ll most likely bleat goes something like this: calling a book bad is just mean – you can say it didn’t work for you, but you can’t say it isn’t good.

This is nonsense, naturally. I think it ultimately derives from the fact that unlike virtually any other learned skill, reading is poisoned from grade school with a demographic delusion. If the most you do every day is walk to the subway and back, when you turn on your TV and watch sweating, exhausted marathon runners crossing the finish line, you absolutely don’t say: they’re not better runners than I am. The most you might say is: with a lot of time and a lot of training, in a lot of years, I might, just might, be able to do that. Same thing with that most appealingly democratic of all sports, soccer: all you need is a ball, a friend (or enemy), and a patch of ground – but even if you have all three of those things, you won’t conceivably look at a televised match between the greatest teams in the world and say, “I’m every bit as good as they are.” You won’t say it. You won’t think it. It would be nonsense.

But when it comes to reading, people are just naturally inclined to think everybody’s Christiano Ronaldo. The very idea that one person could be a better reader than another now strikes most people as an inherently personal insult … and, unbelievably, that kind of prickly idiocy has infiltrated even the ranks of allegedly serious book critics. The books editors of some of the most prominent literary journals in the world, if questioned at a symposium (for instance), will instantly say they’re not in the prescription business. “Don’t mistake me,” they say, “I’m not recommending any of the books I write up each month” – with ‘recommending’ sneered in just the same tone of voice you’d use for snake-handling. It’s disgraceful.

I read more books in 2014 than in any previous year in my life. This was true in 2013 as well, and this time last year, when I had my rough final tally for the year’s reading, I deliberately didn’t mention any numbers here at Stevereads, because I knew they’d look unbelievable. The same thing happened to an even greater extent in 2014, to the point where the two close friend of mine who actually know the numbers each told me, essentially, “I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t spent the whole year hearing you go on about all these things ad nauseam.” And I reviewed more books in 2014 than in any previous year of my life – a long string of reviews for Kirkus, The Historical Novel Review, The National, The Washington Post, and of course Open Letters Monthly (very much including my beloved Open Letters Weekly, which accounted for over 250 reviews all by itself).

I am, in other words, by any reasonable estimation an expert reader. I’m not an expert in what works for me – I’m an expert in what works and doesn’t work. I dive intostevereads picture 2 books avidly, hungrily, with an open mind and a pencil in hand (or the electronic equivalent, if I’m reading an e-book); I’m wide open to surprise and very willing to be convinced by an author’s talent or command or even vision. But I come to those new books with an extensive expertise in the act of reading itself – exactly the kind of expertise that so much of the Penny Press punditry (and virtually all of the blogosphere and vlogosphere) so hurriedly disowns in favor of some cockeyed egalitarianism that would draw no artistic difference between The Hunger Games and The Brothers Karamazov.

This annual Stevereads summing-up is therefore most emphatically not a judgement-free list of my favorites from the year that was. There’s nothing wrong with such lists – indeed, Open Letters itself is currently running a splendid one for the month of December – but this isn’t one of them. Only one of my categories this time around – a new one called “Guilty Pleasures” – exists as a sop to the kind of relativisim I’m deriding here, although even in that category, I could, if asked, lay out my case justifying why each book is on that list and no other list.

In any case, with some trepidation (derived from the fact that in order to provide this mega-list a little earlier this time around, I’m forced to close it out with still an entire month’s-worth of reading yet to come), I now launch into the eighth annual Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year. At this point in my life, the month I’ll be missing represents more new books read than most people read in a year, and the thought that some of those books will merit a place on these lists will haunt me over the next two weeks.

I’ll bear up under that sense of nagging incompletion – and as usual, I’ll look forward to your comments.

  • Robert

    This is by far the best opener for the Stevereads’ year-end extravaganza *ever*.

  • Jhunie

    I got banned from an online group of booksellers, with strong patronage from YA readers, because I had told one of them to read books for grown-ups. They said “books for grown-ups” was not politically correct, and that it’s wrong to draw distinctions between them. YA tribes! they like everything mass-consumed, are scared of reading anything that puts them in the minority and supplant deep reading with book signings wherein entrepreneurial authors get to say inane things like “Being an author is cool because you get to have hair like mine”. They pretend as if they can’t tell the difference between a fourth grader’s textbook from that of a college student.

  • Andrew Levkoff

    With your permission, I am going to read this entry to our book club meeting on Sunday. Bravo. But I must say in Tempe’s defense (or finger-licking condemnation), we offer Bosa donuts, open 24 hours, with a drive-thru no less.

  • Steve Donoghue

    By all means, read away! But be sure to do it in my famously sexy voice!

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  • Andrew Levkoff

    Well, Steve, the reaction was both loud and thoughtful. We agreed that where Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost failed, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena succeeded beautifully and poignantly.

    The volume rose when you pricked a few sacred cow balloons with your denigration of John Green. (I also shared with our group of 14 amateurs the paragraphs you wrote about Green in your favorites from the Penny Press, just to get a rise out of them. It worked.) Here is the objection these folk (some of them teachers) had to the fault you found in his stars: Green is to reading what marijuana is to heroin, i.e. a gateway author. Despicable analogy, but you see where they’re headed—if Green can get a complexion-challenged tween to open and enjoy a book, the experience might conceive a discerning reader of the future who would not otherwise have been born.

    I wondered aloud whether or not you would agree that a roomful of expert readers must often if not always come to the same conclusion when reviewing the same book. Not in the particulars, perhaps, but in the broad sense of whether or not a book either “works or doesn’t work”. Or does objectivity in literary criticism not also imply consensus? Well, we know it doesn’t, but if two critics are equally expert readers, shouldn’t it?

    We did unanimously agree that we would rather take advice from a literary guide who knows good from bad and refuses to pull a punch than from one of the “qualifiers”. We just have to accept that if we disagree with you, we’re wrong. (Wink.)

    It was a great meeting; thanks for taking part.

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue