The Best Book(s)
Or is it the most "influential" book(s)?
I hope all (or at least many) of you had a chance to vote in the New York Times Book Review poll of the best books of the last 125 years.
I made sure my voice was heard, and I wish I could claim that I used some kind of bulletproof rationale for my choices, but I imagine my rationale is as subjective and arbitrary as anyone else’s. That said, I stand behind it 100%
First, I was only going to choose books that I loved. For example, I have read Ulysses (in graduate school), and thanks to the guidance of reading it for a course, I could understand and appreciate its importance to the broader literary firmament, but it’s not a reading experience that sits fondly in my memory.
At the same time, I wasn’t going to choose a book only because I loved it (or the author). I have a very fond spot in my heart for John Irving, and A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book I really liked, but it’s not even my favorite Irving novel (that would be The Water Method Man), nor is it the book I’d consider Irving’s greatest achievement (The World According to Garp). I also don’t know if it stands up to some of the other books on the list which have proved enduring.
I considered choosing Infinite Jest as a book that was once very important to me, and one that definitely left a stamp on the culture, but more and more I’m wondering how permanent that stamp is. I don’t think we will forget the novel, an in many ways its portrait of a consumer/entertainment culture taken to extremes of madness is depressingly prescient (and much less satirical than at the time of its publication), but when push came to shove, I couldn’t pull the lever for it.
Some books were non-starters because I hadn't read them: A Gentleman in Moscow, A Fine Balance, The Fellowship of the Ring. Yes, I’ve never read any of the Lord of the Rings books. I also fell asleep in the theater during all of the movies, waking only for the big battle scenes. I am immune to whatever pleasures others find in those books. Please don’t judge.
It is impossible not to recognize the massive cultural impact of Harry Potter, but I am too old to have had the book detonate in my consciousness in the way it did for those a generation younger.
If Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series had been included, it would’ve tempted me.
Since this has turned into true confessions time, I have always been meh on classics like Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. I mean, I get it, but for me, the perceived “importance” of the books has outstripped their actual quality. Maybe too much talking about them in school the way books are talked about in school ruined them for me.
Gone with the Wind? Ugh, no.
All the Light You Cannot See and A Little Life are both books I like quite a lot, but the clear recency bias of the final 25 put me off choosing a book published as late as the 2010s. We just don’t know what time holds for either of those books.
Does it seem like I’m delaying sharing my picks? I swear I’m not. I’m just trying to be transparent on why I chose what I chose.
So, in no particular order:
The book devastated me. So beautiful, so sad. It’s one of the books that woke me up to the power of storytelling, and it continues to work this magic on generation after generation.
It introduced an entire concept into the lexicon for the love of all that’s holy. It’s also the book that does more to illustrate the true nature of warfare than any other, perhaps rivaled only by Slaughterhouse 5, which could have and maybe should have been on the list. It’s a tour de force satire while still managing to deliver an emotional punch. Also, bonus points because it has proved unifilmable, despite multiple attempts. That tells you how unique the book is.
Toni Morrison is one of the greatest American artistic geniuses of all time, and Beloved is her greatest novel, a novel to which other novels will always be compared.
I love thinking about this stuff, and if you’re anything like me you might pop over to The Center for Fiction which engaged in an even more ambitious project to name the “200 Books That Have Shaped Fiction Over the Last 200 Years” to honor their 200th anniversary.
Their list is in-house selections combined with choices from a group of august contemporary authors, and it makes for a fascinating mix. I won’t do a detailed breakdown of my thoughts on this list, but it seems like some of the authors decided to choose personal favorites - some of them rather obscure - rather than the books that “shaped” fiction over the last 200 years.
But who cares? The variety in the way we answer these questions is really the reason why it’s even fun to do in the first place.
My Chicago Tribune column this week covers my five favorite biographies/memoirs of the year. It’s a varied bunch. Check it out.
It’s not too late to vote in The Morning News Tournament of Books Zombie Poll to see which books will return from elimination for a shot at the most fun book award around.
Laura Miller at Slate is probably the critic I trust more than any other, so you can bet I read her Top 10 books of the year with interest.
It’s possible that I already linked Vogue’s best books of the year list, but who can keep track of this stuff anymore.
Here’s a good one: GQ has compiled their list of the “50 Best Books of Literary Journalism of the 21st Century.” Hard to quibble with their No. 1, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. Someone could dedicate a year to this list and be a very happy reader.
Not sure how many writers are among the subscribers here, but for those of you who are, Book Riot has some recommendations for “Writing Podcasts for Storytellers and Authors.”
I’ve got not just one, but two takes on the best crime fiction of the year. One from CrimeReads, and the other from Sarah Weinman writing at the New York Times. Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Razorblade Tears by S.A. Crosby show up on both lists.
The New York Times also has the “Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2021,” including The Body Scout by one-time contributor to this very newsletter, Lincoln Michel.
I’ve had just about enough of these “best of lists” (except my own, which concludes with fiction next week), so let this be the final word, the Book Marks aggregation of the best reviewed: Essay Collections, Short Story Collections, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror, Memoir and Biography, and Audiobooks.
Just a stunningly good week for affiliate income with a $25 dollar jump all the way up to $250.65. Not to jinx it, but if all of the pending purchases get credited, that should be enough to push us over $300 for the year, meaning I’ll hit my maximum contribution match to Open Books. I’m so inspired that I’ve decided to up my maximum match to $400, so keep it going! Make me give away my money to a great cause!
If you’d like to see every book I’ve recommended in this space this year, check out my list of 2021 Recommendations at the Bookshop.org bookshop.
Recommendations are always open. Some will even be featured in the print edition of the Chicago Tribune.
1. Matrix by Lauren Groff
2. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
3. State of Terror by Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny
4. Under the Whispering Door by T.J. Klune
5. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Karen J. - Des Moines, IA
Some books here dealing with varieties of faith and meaning. How about a little Marilynne Robinson as an additional voice in that discussion? What Are We Doing Here? is the book.
1. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
2. The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab
3. Falling by T.J. Newman
4. Blindness by Jose Saramago
5. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Cindy A. - (Beautiful) Taos, NM
Okay, the conceit of this novel is a little tough to wrap your head around (it’s like a chain letter, only with people kidnapping other people’s children), but if you go with it, it’s a propulsive plot along the lines of Falling, up there in Cindy’s list. The novel is The Chain by Adrian McKinty, and yes, Taos is a beautiful place.
1. Travels by Michael Crichton
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
3. The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
4. Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion
5. My Body by Emily Ratajkowski
Courtney C. - Wilder, VT
Okay, a bit of a risk here, but this list suggests to me a reader who might be inclined to go deep on Haruki Murakami - presuming she hasn’t already. The specific recommendation is Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Have a wonderful end of this week, and grand start of the next one.