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.
The only thing more rare than a Three Percent post praising—or at least, gently supporting—NPR is one heaping accolades on a publisher’s website. But, well, this is proof that anything is possible.
NPR, the World’s Greatest Source of Middle-minded Hem-Haw Opinions, is actually doing something bad-ass this year—foregoing year-end book lists:
You love lists. We love lists. Everyone loves lists. And in the past five years, NPR has brought you more than 80 year-end book lists — the best book club books, the best cookbooks, the best gift books, the best guilty pleasures. We listed. You clicked. Everyone was happy.
But as the holidays loomed this year, we were all suffering from a little list fatigue, and we started imagining new ways to approach our year-end best books coverage. And though
Buzzfeedthe Internet may be determined to prove otherwise, we wholeheartedly believe that human beings are capable of absorbing new information in formats that are 1) not sequentially ordered and 2) wait … dammit! and 3) never mind.
Double props for the Buzzfeed insult! Because fuck Buzzfeed. And seriously, they have ruined the idea of lists for everyone.
Instead of NPR’s typical year-end lists, they’ve come up with this discovery tool, which lists a couple hundred books that can be sub-divided into a number of categories. But unlike the normal list, books show up under more than one rubric creating a site that is “more Venn diagram-y than list-y — a site that could help you seek out the best biographies that were also love stories, or the best mysteries that were also set in the past.”
Triple props for invoking Venn diagrams.
I have to admit, this momentary respect I’m feeling for NPR is making me uncomfortable. And maybe a bit mentally aroused.
Thankfully, their selections are pretty much run-of-the-mill. Sure, Ogawa’s Revenge is included along with the new Daniel Alarcon, but Eggers’s The Circle? And that Kite Runner dude’s new book? BORING.
Well, at least we now know that you can take the list out of the Middle Mind, but not the Middle Mind out of the
list Venn diagram. Or whatever.
Now that Cyber Monday is underway, it’s about time for the “Best of Everything!!!” lists to start coming out. (Or, as documented at Largehearted Boy, continue coming out.) Personally, I fricking love these sorts of lists, to find books/albums that I need to check out, and to serve as fodder for my anger . . . I’ll bet at least half of an upcoming podcast will be an escalation of complaints about some utterly predictable list of shit that most four-book-a-year readers will slobber over . . . And hopefully our year end lists (in books, movies, and music) will get some other cultural elitists all bent.
But for now, the only year end list I’ve checked out is this Kirkus one, which is definitely my favorite, since it includes TWO Open Letter titles: Children of Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith and My First Suicide by Jerzy Pilch (Kirkus LOVES the Pilch), translated from the Polish by David Frick.
There are a number of interesting books on this list—Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard, The Investigation by Philip Claudel, Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard, and Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye—but not many (any?) from small, nonprofit presses. YAY TO US FOR OVERACHIEVING!
However you get them, I hope you do. And I want to take a second to give a special shout-out to Lytton Smith and David Frick for translating these. Both books set forth their own unique difficulties, and both translators totally nailed it. Congrats to both of you!
Another good source for a year-end roundup is The Millions. As with the TLS and Guardian roundups we mentioned yesterday, The Millions will be posting personal recommendations throughout the month from authors, editors, etc.
They have six entries up there so far, the most recent by Mark Binelli, author of Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die! and numerous interesting Rolling Stone articles. I completely agree with his recommendation of Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, and I’m even more interested in reading The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu after Mark called it a “deranged, Terkel-esque Q&A’s with the bottom rungs of Chinese society.”
It’s worth checking in with The Millions every so often for more of these recommendations.
The NY Times just posted their Top 10 list for 2007, and the five fiction selections are actually pretty solid:
Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas. (Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic)
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Translated by Anne Born. (Graywolf Press)
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Translated by Natasha Wimmer. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. (Little, Brown & Company)
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
For those of you who are counting, translations make up 40% of this list . . .
As I mentioned before, I’m a big fan of end-of-the-year lists, even if they do tend to be fairly safe and uninteresting.
I prefer the Guardian list because it’s a collection of “best books of the year” as recommended by other writers and cultural figures. This approach seems to lead to more interesting books getting mentioned, such Echenoz’s Ravel.
The New York Times list of “100 Notable Titles” is a bit more conventional and conservative, but it does include a number of international works, including three Reading the World titles: The Collected Poems: 1956-1998 by Zbigniew Herbert, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, and Dancing to “Almendra” by Mayra Montero.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .