Let's Talk about Lists

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few months, you’ve probably come across one rant or another about listicles and lists in general. Aside from the ones on the ROC in Your Mouth blog I think most of these things are pretty stupid.

Actually, let me refine that a bit: “Best of” lists can serve as really useful guides for narrowing down the seemingly endless choices available to us today. The other day there was a guy reading as part of the Rochester Writers Series whose last book was number 3,027,054 on Amazon. I see these numbers all the time (I think my book is at 1,113,000), but only rarely does it really hit home that there are three million books that have sold more copies on Amazon than that one. Three million. Just paring down which TV shows to watch in a given week can be hard enough, and no one wants to invest $15 and a dozen hours in some books that sucks. Theoretically, these lists can help guide you away from the bad and toward the good.

My main problem is that a lot of the sites that rely heavily on these tend to present them as some objective evaluation while positioning themselves as a sort of tastemaker. “These are obviously the best albums of the year, because they were praised by such sure-fire review sources as Pitchfork.”—a line from basically every Pitchfork year-end list ever.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have The Year in Reading lists on The Millions. I’m not sure if they’re done with the 2015 iteration of this yet or not, but at current count there are around 450 different authors and cultural critics recommending 3-10 different books they read this year and liked a lot. I know this is one of the most well-trafficked “year-end” book events out there, and I do poke around a bit on it myself, but it’s too enormous for me to process and so very subjective. I like being able to click on the authors I like to see what they’ve been reading, but I’m not sure what that means in the end.

There is a sort of compulsion to make these sorts of lists though. If you’re in this game—blogging, reviewing, bookselling, promoting, whatever—you want to make your opinion known. Given the fact that I read 90+ books this year, I’m sure some of the booksellers and critics have read upwards of 200 or even 250 different titles. After you’ve read so much, you have to process that knowledge and share it with people.

Boiling this all down, I feel like all of these lists say more about the source than about the books themselves. Without looking, I already have a feel for what’s on the New York Times Books of 2015 list. (Lauren Groff, Ferrante, other examples of conventional, well-crafted narratives.) I can guess what type of books are on Scott Esposito’s year in review. And I’m sure a lot of people could guess what I’d list as my five favorites of 2015. Nevertheless, I want to share something, put my own thoughts into this “best of” game . . . or, more importantly, give readers some sort of guidance when it comes to works in translation that came out this past year.

So what I decided is that I’m going to make as many year-end lists as I can think of. These won’t be terribly long (4-6 books), but will represent a variety of different categories so that you can find some suggestions depending on what it is you want to read/find out about. I’ll try and do one of these a day for the next week or so. Like “6 Days of Random Lists” or something.

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