The year's best in reading, not in publishing

Like D.G. Myers, I don’t find much interest in “year’s best” lists and the like. Most of them are, as he says, boring; maybe that has something to do with the nature of the list and the arbitrary divisions that we use to mark milestones in our lives.

That being said, I read a lot, and I’d prefer to write about what’s new to me, rather than what happens to be published in a particular 12 month period. Last year I wrote about “pointless listmaking,” and I’m reminded of a comment from Rob, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, when he’s at a party given by an ex-girlfriend:

The difference between these people and me is that they finished college and I didn’t… as a consequence, they have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they are self-confident and I am incontinent, they do not smoke and I do, they have opinions and I have lists.

(Emphasis added. The novel’s first sentence involves a list: “My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order: 1. Alison Ashworth…”)

Umberto Eco likes lists, or at least studies them. As previously mentioned, he said that “The list is the origin of culture.” Being the origin, however, is very different from being the destination, or the evolution, of culture, and so in that light the list might be a primitive device that is still nonetheless useful to consider. As such, after a great deal of meta commentary regarding the nature of the activity in which I’m about to engage, I’m going to give a non-numbered, non-ordered list of books I happened to read in the previous 12-month period that are books I now recommend to others, found moving, or otherwise think deserve special attention.

* Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game, which I keep meaning to write about and then not doing. If one were writing an ad for the novel, it could say, accurately, “Did you love The Shadow of the Wind? Then you’ll love The Angel’s Game!” The two novels are written in the same half-mocking Gothic style, are both set in Barcelona, and both deal with murder, love, and literature.

* Max Jamison, Wilifred Sheed’s improbably hilarious novel about an unhappy theater critic.

* The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s take on what magic school might seem like to those who are already aware of magic school and fantasy conventions. As with real school, nobility takes front seat to sex and power, which occupy the back. I also read (and haven’t written about) Donna Tart’s The Secret History, which features school and murder in a surprisingly pleasant literary package.

* Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness ought to be required reading for those who are alive.

* John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.

One nice part about reading is that books are effectively inexhaustible: given constraints on time, no one can read everything worthwhile (although Harold Bloom is apparently trying). Therefore we need developed opinions, yes, but we also need pointers to books that are worth having developed opinions about, and to my mind the handful of books above meet that criterion. Apologies to those of you who have read this far and just wanted a couple books to read, and to those of you who think the whole idea of lists so noxious and boring that, even with the aforementioned meta commentary, you don’t know how you managed to get this far into the post.

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