I’m working on my 2017 year-end list. (Above list is from September, so no spoilers.) 3 years ago I got up on a high horse about how ridiculous it is for readers who aren’t professional critics (or affiliate bloggers) to make their year-end lists before the actual end of the year. (Do none of these people read books in December?) It’s a dumb thing to make a big deal about. People love year-end lists before the year’s end (including me, honestly) because they can see what they missed, argue, add to their Christmas lists, buy and write-off their taxes while they still can. It’s mostly harmless, so who cares?
I’ve been keeping a list of my favorite books for over a decade now, and the question on my mind is whether I should bother making a year-end list at all. I mean, I love sharing books I think deserve an audience — it’s the best part of putting out my weekly newsletter — but I’ve begun to weary of ranking books. (My favorite year-end list features no ranking at all: Steven Soderbergh’s media diary.) Reading is such a unique, personal experience, created by the author’s text, the quality of the printing (or e-device), the setting, and the mind (and mood) of the reader. Ranking books in any way, even by gathering up a top ten list, seems, at best, arbitrary, at worst, harmful to the spirit of what makes reading so awesome.
Still, I love a good list, and I love looking back on the year and making a list. I’ve always thought the best lists are more like a diary or a snapshot of a moment in somebody’s life, like John Porcellino’s Top 40 he’ll put in the back of King-Cat:
Reading JP’s lists give you another glimpse into who he is, beyond his comics. (For the past 3 years, I’ve ripped him off with my year-end top 100 lists.)
So I’ll keep on, but I’m going to try, as best as I can, to acknowledge that each of these lists is just a moment in time, just a snapshot of how I feel when I make them. I love the idea of the year-end list as an “interchangeable set of favorites” in the words of Stephanie Zacharek, who wrote of her year-end list: “If I’d eaten something different for breakfast on the day of making up the list, my number 2 might have been number 1, or vice-versa.”
One other thing: I’d like to go back occasionally, revisit my lists, see how they hold up. I’ll usually make a top 10 list of books, and then add on another list of 10 more good books. Often it’s this second list of books that contains the most interesting stuff. To quote Zacharek again:
[T]he end of a critic’s, or a moviegoer’s, list is where the oddball magic really happens. The movies here are the stragglers, the drifters, the hobos that not all of society loves. These are movies that may have been kicked off the list, put back on and kicked off again – they don’t ask for easy membership in any club. These are movies that may have reached us in ways we can’t quite parse, even after we’ve spent hours or days thinking and/or writing about them. If all top-10 lists are subjective (and all are, no matter how pompous some critics may be in presenting their choices), the tail end of the average list is truly the untamed wilderness, the place for inexplicable passions, for wooliness, for massive quantities of “What the f—itude?”
So, let’s have a little fun at the end of this post, and revisit a few years:
2016. It’s hard to believe John Cage’s Silence, Calvin Tomkins’ Duchamp: A Biography, and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own didn’t make the top 10. Jeez.
2015. Great year. No complaints!
2014. I messed this one up. I mean, seriously? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son didn’t make the top 10? I’m an idiot.
2013. Another good year. I’d bump up Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life and Ellen Ullman’s Close To The Machine.
2011. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is way better than some of the books on the top 10.
2006-2010. Too painful to think about!
Stay tuned for 2017.