It’s the time of year for lists. Wish lists, of course but also Best Of lists. Specifically, best BOOKS OF lists. Goodreads Choice Awards. Huffington Post Best Books of 2013. Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2013. Barnes & Noble Best Books of 2013. And those lists will go on and on, as we start counting down toward ALA in January, when the medals and awards are handed out.
To be honest–I never know what to make of these lists. Meaning, I don’t know if, as a reader, I can trust them 100%. Who makes these lists, after all? Do they really include the best books, or just the ones that were most visible? Who gets to decide? If a book shows up on multiple lists, does that mean it really is that good, or does it just mean it got sent out to all the right people? Does “best” mean “most beloved by the masses,” or “most well-written”? Because, in my opinion, there is often a really big difference.
Not that I completely discount these lists, either. (Anything that has George Saunders’ Tenth of December on it for 2013 I will trust, because that book is literary genius boiled down to its purest, sparkliest form.) It’s just that the past has made me a little skeptical. (And I’m not just talking about the year “Slumdog Millionaire” won a thousand Oscars.) For example, I have a friend who, every December, polls other people for the most essential album of the year. As someone who usually just listens to compilations made by her friends, and who buys perhaps two new albums a year, I am woefully behind on what’s being released, so when the poll comes around, I usually offer up something pathetic like, “Well I heard this really nice girl named Mozella on NPR . . .” Every once in awhile, I’ll find something new that really grabs me, and feels ESSENTIAL. I’ll get excited about having something to submit to the poll. And then I’ll find out it came out in 2009.
There are lots of other people who participate in this list, however, and they have their fingers on the music pulse. When first invited to participate, I was thrilled, not just to be involved, but because I thought, “Now here‘s a group that will help me find really interesting new music.” Which was, in a way, true. I did discover a lot of new things, thanks to this poll. After a couple of years, however, (because I was paying more attention, thanks to this poll), I started feeling as though 80% of the winners list reflected what I’d already seen at the Virgin Megastore’s (back when there was a Virgin Megastore) Top Indie Picks, or Rolling Stone’s Alternative Best of the Year. Rather than being a list injected with unique personality and distinction, this felt, largely, fueled by marketing. And it’s when I started to get suspicious.
Not that all lists are the same, of course. There are several out there that will lead you to the unexpected (and, I think, high-quality, though I haven’t read near enough books on them to tell). Flavorwire’s 50 Books that Define The Past 5 Years in Literature has made me curious, due both to the number of books I’ve never heard of on it, plus the ones I have, and Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2013 list has got some uncommonly good gems, even if there are also several of the predictables there. PW’s list is intriguing, to me, and the Children’s Book Council 2014 Teen Choice Book of the Year nominee list has some surprising inclusions too.
I’m not trying to say that reading what everyone else is reading is a bad thing, either. There’s something wonderful about participating in a community of readers, all talking about a book they love. (It’s why I lead two book clubs, and am a member of two others. It’s part of what makes my job at Little Shop of Stories so great.) It’s just that I wonder, sometimes, if we all really love these books, or if what we love is being in a group of people saying we love it? And if we’re all reading the same things, all the time, and those things are the ones mainly put in front of us thanks to good marketing (read: corporations) . . . well, that’s what starts to give me the heebejeebies.
Perhaps what I need among all these BEST OF lists is the “Hey I Read This and Thought it was Amazing, and You Will Probably Not Come Across it Another Way so Here You Go” lists. The underdog list. The What-You’d-Find-Randomly-Grabbing-in-A-Used-Bookstore list. Which is why I’m grateful for Slate, and their “Overlooked and Underrated Books of 2013” list. Not all of them may be THE BEST, but at least they’ll help round out my library.
Of course, I know as well as you know, that all these lists are primarily like pirate code: a guide. They are other people’s opinions. Sometimes lots and lots of other people’s opinions, but still, just that.
And the only true way to decide what’s the best and what isn’t is, of course, to read and think for yourself.