Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Listing Dangerously

'Tis the season to make lists of "bests." Best this of 2006. Best that.

Best books.

There are lots of places offering such lists, most notably the New York Times, the paper we bloggers all love to hate. Critical Mass posted the NYT's lists, then opened the forum for comments. Mouthy lot that we are, many of us (myself included) weighed in in various states of indignitude.

Then I got to thinking about the notion of listing books. It's specious, really. Personal taste cannot be quantified. I respect Liesl Schillinger and Francine Prose. That doesn't mean I share their every opinion. But they are well-known, well-compensated reviewers who arguably hold some power over public reading choices. (Let's not even talk about Kakutani.) Does this mean their favorites are the end-all? Only if you are a nervous person contemplating Christmas shopping for the bookworm in your life, and if you are, buy the bookworm a gift certificate to the local bookstore. Please. We vastly prefer that to some random book you chose because Oprah liked it. Or because you saw it on some "best" list.

"Best" lists also lack depth. Serious readers may start with a new release, but often that book makes reference to another, so we leapfrog. Andrea Lee's Lost Hearts in Italy led me to her first book, the travelogue Russian Journal. Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer led me to Paula Fox's Desperate Characters. These books, previously published, won't be making any best of '06 lists. Nor will the dozens of other books I read this year that were not new. (Yup, we're talking backlist again.)

Utlimately we could argue that "best" lists are unnecessary, catering only to our need to categorize. Barring that, our need to categorize, then argue vociferously about it.

I am not suggesting the listers cease listing. They won't. And in itself listing is relatively harmless ... unlike, say, ignoring the Kyoto Protocol or invading middle eastern countries. Instead, let us take the long view, and remind ourselves that great literature will prevail. Suite Francaise, for example, grievously ignored by the NYT best list , will be read in fifty years' time. It will lose none of its beauty, nor its horror. Special Topics in Calamity Physics?

I think you get my drift.

1 Comments:

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November 14, 2009 3:09 PM  

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