It’s that time of the year again. Lists of the best books are emerging thick and fast, each one a reminder of how many new volumes have been published and how many one intends to read. (Hope springs eternal.) This year, there are also lists of the best books of the decade, never mind the debate over when the decade is actually ending.
David Gutowski, who blogs at Large Hearted Boy, has been compiling year-end lists of year-end lists for ages. At the time of writing, his site featured close to 800 lists for 2019, with more to come. From general fiction and non-fiction, to favourite children’s books, to art instruction books, to psychological thrillers, to
Chowhound’s best cookbooks for carnivores, he’s got it covered. One doesn’t know whether to be heartened by or daunted at the sheer number.
What is a “best book”, anyway? When it comes to fiction, elements of plot, style, and character are notoriously subjective. One reader’s gripping tale is another’s cliched potboiler. The uniqueness of style or subject is certainly a factor, as well as that intangible quality called resonance. Every book reviewer will define that in his or her own manner. We’re back in subjective territory once again.
In non-fiction, topicality plays a part. That explains why so many of this year’s lists feature books to do with online shenanigans, inequality, discrimination, and women’s issues, to mention a few. (Doesn’t say much about the times we’re living in.) Sometimes, specific genres have a moment: Witness the number of essay collections on lists this year.
Then again, books that have won awards in the course of the year almost inevitably show up again on year-end lists. The right reason for this is that the award juries know what they’re doing. Another reason is that these titles have been so much in the public eye that it’s assumed that they’re good, and it would be an oversight to leave them out.
In some cases, subjectivity is the point of the list. Thus, Bill Gates recently pointed us to his five best reads of the year; Barak Obama earlier made public the books he was reading in summer; and Oprah’s Book Club highlighted “scintillating short stories, and enthralling novels”.
Some publications make a virtue of this by asking authors and contributors to name their own best books of the year. This is a regular feature with the
Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and the Financial Times, among others. Such lists have the reassuring merit of in-your-face expertise; hey, these guys are known writers, so they can recognise a good book when they see one. It’s also always pleasing to find out more about a favourite author’s tastes and explore them for oneself.
At other times, publications outdo themselves in the sheer number of books they recommend. This year,
National Public Radio had a list of more than 350 titles chosen by staffers and critics, and Publishers Weekly, apart from a Top 10, had editors' picks for the 100 best adult titles and 50 for children and teens. “They’re all fantastic,” the magazine helpfully explained.
To cut through the clutter, LitHub, the online literary site, collated lists from 37 sources, tracking 749 books to find out which titles were most often included. (In case you were wondering, Ocean Vuong’s
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys appeared the maximum number of times.)
Such a surfeit of lists and titles quickly becomes meaningless. At best they are aide-memoires from which one plucks a title or three. Sometimes there are minor kerfuffles, primarily on social media, to do with favourite titles being ignored on a list. These soon crop up on other lists and sentiments are soothed.
Within this cornucopia, the ones that I’ve started to find the most interesting are those that deal with specific themes.
World Literature Today’s 75 notable translations of 2019, for example, is extremely helpful in discovering writing from around the world. Also absorbing is BBC History Magazine’s picks of the best works of history and historical fiction, nominated by a panel of historians. These are books I wouldn’t normally come across -- the equivalent, you might say, of serendipitous discoveries in a bookshop.
It never ends, though. I’d barely begun to check on the availability of some of the above titles when my eye was caught by another list. This one excitedly proclaimed: Here are the books of 2020 we’re most looking forward to.
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Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer. here.