Recently, the New York Times came out with their list of 100 Most Notable Books for 2014, and the literary world took notice.
I certainly will admit to taking notice. I immediately ran down the list and counted up how many of the books on the list I had read. I was pleased to see that it was an even dozen (well, full disclosure, I haven’t read all of the books I counted as “read” but I do have all of them physically in my possession – a few I have yet to read, such as Redeployment and The Laughing Monsters, both of which have just come to me this week from the library). One of the books on the list – the last one and #13 on my list – was actually on the NYT‘s list of notable “children’s” literature, but I threw it in here because I thought it was spectacular.
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
- Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
- The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
- The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami
- The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
- Redeployment by Phil Klay
- Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen
- 10:04 by Ben Lerner
- We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
I was pretty pleased at having read an even dozen on the NYT‘s list. My tastes tend to run a bit more fantasy/science fiction/speculative fiction than the folks in at the Times, but I like to think that I open myself up to a fair number of notable works, regardless of genre (although I will admit to an absolutely vociferous penchant for fiction – I had not read, nor have much of a desire to read, any of the books on the NYT‘s non-fiction half of their listing; nothing against non-fiction, it’s just not high in my wheelhouse of desirable recreational reading, for the most part).
I like that the NYT called their list “100 Notable Books” – not “The Top 100 Books”, or “The Best Books of 2014”, or even “Must Read Books of 2014”. Not even “The MOST Notable Books”. Any given person’s enjoyment of any given book is highly subjective; it’s really hard for me to understand how any organization (unless motivated by marketing, and then the skepticism is not misplaced but applied on a broader basis) can deem anything “best” or “top” or “must”. I myself have been partial to making my own lists – I probably will toward the end of the month, because I’m a sucker for End of the Year “Best of” Lists – but I hope I always couch mine towards “my favorites” rather than “the best”.
I certainly would have amended the Times‘ list if I had been the one proctoring it. A bit less esoterica and more speculation. I certainly would have included Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel on my list, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire. I would have added a couple of non-fiction (of the few I have read) such as What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe and Alan Cumming’s memoir Not My Father’s Son.
Of course others have also chimed in with what they would have added to the list; thankfully there have not been a lot of “what the heck is that book doing there?” aspersions being cast. Most responses are pretty darned cordial (as they should be). A few, though, not surprisingly, have been somewhat antagonistic. One author even went on a very public tirade via Twitter because her book was not on the list (“I never complain about this shit, but there are MANY books on that notable list with reviews that were NOWHERE near as good as mine.“) – a somewhat sordid way of getting publicity, I guess. (It worked.)
But the response that, for me, took the cake was from an independent book site putting out their “Un-Noted” list, bringing attention to books that hadn’t gotten as much notice as they should. Normally I appreciate this kind of effort for I believe there are lots of great books out there that fly under the radar and should be getting more attention, but if you as an organization are going to do this, you need to know something about the books you are touting. Placing both the 2014 National Book Award winners for non-fiction and young person’s literature in an “un-noted” category shows a real lack of awareness for a group touting a love of literature (adding insult to injury was their inclusion of the NBA young people’s literature winner, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, in the “adult” fiction category, even though they had a “young readers” category as well).
Ah, well. I guess that’s kind of snarky of me.
Goodreads came out with their “Best of” lists, too. Did you vote in that? I did! I enjoy seeing what other Goodreads members think, and I appreciate their categories (such as “Debut Goodreads Author” and “Graphic Novels & Comics”) and wow – over 3 million votes! That’s a lot of reading! But I think of the Goodreads honors more as a popularity contest than a literary award. It shouldn’t make it any less of an honor – I mean, if that many folks like your work, then it’s definitely “good” regardless of a highbrow critique! I can even see where an author would take it as more of an endorsement than the NYT listing. But somehow it just has a bit less, I dunno, gravitas. Being in the Goodreads Choice Awards, let alone winning, is quite the feather in a literary cap, but the criteria is not quite as stringent as other end of the year accolades.
But honestly, the heck with it, when it comes right down to validation, having anybody publically say, “This book is good!” is a wonderful thing, whether it be from the staid and venerable New York Times or the enthusiastic and energetic folks on Goodreads – or a lowly book reviewer on a small but dedicated literary site who absolutely loves sharing her love of reading with others. Ultimately, it all comes down to what YOU like, regardless of lists or awards or recommendations. As Haruki Murakami said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
Or perhaps better is the way that Neil Gaiman puts it: “A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.”
Happy dreaming, my friends!