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.
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .