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.
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .