Tuesday, December 01, 2009

List #21: 8 Thoughts on a Best Books List

One of my favorite sites on the World Wide Web is The Onion AV Club. The Onion is a fake-news newspaper that satirizes actual news. But, the AV Club is very real. It is a site dedicated to pop-culture commentary. The AV Club writers are some of the most discriminating and merciless reviewers I’ve ever encountered. If a movie, album, TV show, book, or video game gets a good review, it has definitely earned it.

The Onion AV Club is one of the main influences for my list-making project. Their weekly feature, “The Inventory,” is pure list-making brilliance and is now available in book form. Each year I look forward to the annual “best of” and “worst of” lists. To my delight, the AV Club is in the midst of publishing a series of best of the decade lists. Two of their recent lists are typical AV Club fare. Consider their list of the 50 best albums of the '00s. I actually own 10 of those albums; 11 albums are by bands that I have never heard of. Or consider their list of the 20 best acting performances in the '00s. (They’ve not yet published their list of best films.) I’ve seen only 3 of the 19 films mentioned. I was completely unaware that one-third of the films existed.

However, I found their list of the best books of the '00s worthy of comment. Their list includes the ten best non-fiction books and the twenty best works of fiction. I’ve read 20% of their selections and about 20% of their selections were books that I have never heard of. Here is a list of 8 thoughts I had while perusing the best books list.

1) I have no idea how one would go about ranking non-fiction books. I think every work of non-fiction has to stand on its own merits. It is easy to label any specific book excellent, good, mediocre, or awful. Yet, I have no idea how you would argue that an excellent book about the story of a rock band, for example, is better or worse than an excellent history of a politician’s term in office. It is no wonder that five of the ten non-fiction books selected are very broad treatments of extremely large subjects. Their list lacks a proper biography and avoids contemporary politics entirely.

2) I read Freakonomics (and apparently everyone else did, too) and while I didn’t hate it, I don’t see the use of putting it on any “best-of” list except for a list of bestsellers. In fact, I would argue that Freakonomics is the opposite of memorable and significant. It isn’t really a book about anything. It has a catchy title that signifies nothing. I have had probably 20 conversations in which this book has come up and each time the conversation becomes a black hole. The book does not imply anything and it is impossible to apply to anything.

3) I was delighted to see Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (a graduate of Reed College) on the list. The “comments” section documents an intense argument about the presence of this book on the list. That argument demonstrates what a lightning rod the topic of socio-economic class is. This is a part of the book’s value.

4) I feel a tingling of remorse that I’ve only read 3 of the 20 most memorable novels of the last decade. I will never read all the books I want to read. Seven of those books are currently sitting on my bookshelves waiting to be read.

5) The members of the Shawnee Mission UU Church fiction book group are a bunch of reading superstars! I know that they’ve read at least half of the books on this list. Probably more than half.

6) I was happy (and a little surprised) to see Marilynne Robinson’s amazing book Gilead on this list. Even though the book has been a commercial and critical success I am always a little bit surprised that it has found an audience among the “unchurched.” And, yes, I’m making the blanket assumption that the AV Club authors are unchurched.

7) Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a cute little book. However, it has absolutely no place whatsoever on this list.

8) Here are a few works of fiction I would have not minded seeing on the list:

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
What is the What by Dave Eggers
The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian
How to be Good by Nick Hornby