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The Rest of the Best: On the Tyranny of the Year-End List

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Every year, with the insidious creep of snowfall, bitter cold and miscellaneous holiday brouhaha, comes the inescapable return of that familiar, opportunistic face that is the year-end best-of book lists.

I am not immune to the prevailing optimism that these lists represent. I have been known to click on, say, PW’s Best Books of 2015, purely out of professional curiosity, you understand. Then again, I also like to have a look at Indigo’s Favourite Reads of 2015, for a practical, commercial perspective, naturally. And yes, I did shamelessly share Buzzfeed’s tempting listicle, 34 of the Most Beautiful Book Covers of 2015, but only because I like to look at pretty things, and they’re book-related really, so there’s no shame to be had there.

The tone is so laudatory, so upbeat, it’s hard not to get caught up in the congratulatory spirit of these lists. Which is why, thought it’s not yet December, and we haven’t yet passed American Thanksgiving—the international dateline of “it’s now socially acceptable to take about the holidays”—I’ve already perused at least a half dozen best-of lists, and am likely to compulsively click-through to a half dozen more before the year is out.

And the word “compulsion” just about sums it up. Best YA, Best Poetry, Best Sex Scene, Best Book Featuring an Anthropomorphized Horse Wearing Pants and a Bowler Hat—so many lists, and even if I’m not necessarily interested in the topic, I’ll likely take a gander anyway, just in case. (Tell the truth. You would totally click on the horse one, wouldn’t you?) But why is it that we are so enamored with these many and varied best-of lists? What is it that makes them so irresistibly clickable?

I’m not too proud to admit that of the many attractions to these lists is their convenience. This is not to say that I’m lazy (though I absolutely am), but in a world adrift in a churning sea of new releases, every Tuesday without fail, how else could we hope to keep informed of the ever-changing tide of book publishing? Personal recommendations, websites, and yes, booklists, are some of the modern reader’s many tools categorize the new books vying for their attention—to navigate the muddy waters, so to speak.

And if the laziness doesn’t get you, the prestige just might. It is gratifying to read the latest “it” book and find that you suddenly have a wider-than-usual pool of victims interested fellow readers upon which to bestow your literary musings. Suddenly, you’re part of a small, new community bound together by the power of words and the force of its own opinions. It’s heady stuff, and so much easier to accomplish when your chosen organizing principle—the book—is on everyone’s radar.

But here’s the kicker. So many of us flock to these best-of lists with an unconscious expectation of objective greatness. “If such-and-such magazine liked it, it must be riveting,” well say, or, “If so-and-so gave it a favourable review, then I’m sure I’ll like it, too.”

When did we stop trusting ourselves to know what’s good?

So today, I say buyer beware. These lists, for good or ill, perform a legitimizing function for literature, which means that on the flip side, many deserving and though-provoking books fall by the wayside. In the quest to crown the best of the best, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that all art is subjective. Book lists are a tool, yes, but that doesn’t give us leave to become lazy or complacent, to put blinders on and mindlessly plod the course plotted for us. If we do that, we succumb wholeheartedly to the tyranny of the majority, leaving us with little room for variety in our reading habits, and less for curiosity.

Me? This year, I think I’ll try venturing beyond the list. Perhaps I’ll discover a literary light, shining quietly in obscurity. And perhaps I’ll keep it close to the chest (though maybe the author wouldn’t thank me for that particular favour). And perhaps I’ll love it all the more for the hunt, the chase, the modesty of it all.

 

portraitWant to join me in my obscure books search? Please do. I encourage you to look beyond the literary list for your next great read. BUT … the first rule about the Anti-Book List Club is that we don’t talk about the Anti-Book List Club. *wink*

Happy hunting,sig


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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.