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Tom's Anti-List Rant

This is Tom Roberge’s contribution to our “Best Books of 2013” podcast. As you can see below, he’s calling bullshit on this whole “best books” thing.

Do we mind if I rant a bit? About lists and “Best of” things? I have a theory about “best of” lists, especially for things like books or movies, and even more especially for the ones we pointlessly share with each other over Facebook and whatnot, as though someone, somewhere were sitting out there thinking, “I wonder what X thinks are the most enduringly awesome books he’s read?”. My theory is that the list, the act of creating it, represents an attempt to possess that artistic endeavor, a consumable object that in reality has little to no bearing on our lives except in the most parasitic way imaginable (unless you count the money we give artists, and I suppose that’s a valid point). By compiling lists, we — or the media — are attempting to own a bit of that book or movie’s success in a small, exploitative way.

First there are the websites that endlessly publish lists. Best Books of 2013. Best Banned Books. Best Books Set in Orange County. Etc. etc. In the case of the media, the motivation is obvious: they’ve identified certain commodities that have drawing power, and want to somehow turn them into profits for themselves, and what better way to do that then to offer an opinion on said commodities, right? Well, that was what reviews were for, but now we’re too impatient to read reviews (also: bored), and at the same time the editors realized that mentioning more than one commodity in the same piece would create compounding interest. Then they took one step further and ranked these collections of name-droppings, and the need to quantify any opinions basically disappeared. Genius!

On a individual level, the motivation isn’t as slickly capitalistic. Obviously there’s simple, innocent fun in debating the best Jason Statham movie (it’s Blitz), but here, too, there’s a certain desire to “own” the commodity. But the end-goal is less monetary and more ego-driven: we want to wear our preferences like badges. Perhaps we want to show off our refined tastes, or perhaps — on the other hand — we merely want to fit in, be a member of that subculture that thinks Braveheart is the best movie ever. Facebook seems to exist for precisely these two reasons, after all, so it’s hardly a coincidence that lists predominate there and elsewhere.

I would also argue that rankings and lists, especially for artistic products, is inherently counterintuitive. Art is meant to be experienced (largely – I know this isn’t something easily defined) on the artist’s terms, NOT yours. And the mere notion of ranking a book against another that you’ve read takes that book and turns it into something you’ve experienced, not something the artist created. A crucial point, to my mind.



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