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.
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .