Vote for the Best Book
Act now, time is running out.
Regular readers will know that I normally distribute the newsletter on Sundays, but I’m sending a day early because I want your voice to be heard in one very important vote. (And one kind of important vote.)
The first vote is the best book of the last 125 years, a feature being conducted by the New York Times Book Review in honor of their - you guessed it - 125th anniversary. Earlier they solicited suggestions for the finalists, and now they’ve narrowed it down to the final 25, for which each individual can vote for three.
They’re calling it “the best book,” but in reality, it’s the best work of fiction, which is not as catchy, so I’ll silence my inner pedant this time. Time is of the essence because the voting closes this Sunday at Midnight.
The finalists include the classic (1984, The Great Gatsby, Gone with the Wind), and the contemporary, (All the Light You Cannot See, A Gentleman in Moscow). There are books for younger readers, (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Charlotte’s Web) and books that are more appropriate for adults only (Ulysses, Lolita).
(Both books were banned in America for a time.)
There are some inclusions I am scratching my head over (no comment) and too many exclusions to name, which is sort of the point of these exercises.
These things can be difficult to handicap because we’re talking about open popular voting, so you never know if a particular demographic or fan base is going to swamp the results. There was a time where, had a book of his been included, I would’ve bet heavy on John Green winning, but he both does not have a book on the list, and has scaled back his social media presence for the sake of his own equilibrium.
Before J.K. Rowling involved herself in the culture war, I would’ve figured her as a heavy favorite, and I still would put her near the top of possible contenders, but I have my doubts.
A 1998 list of “best novels” produced by the Modern Library showed the difference between a limited board of judges and popular sentiment. Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were the top three choices of the board.
The readers’ list had Ayn Rand claiming the top two spots (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead) with L. Ron Hubbard coming in third for Battlefield Earth. Rand and Hubbard are seven of the top ten and a guy named Charles de Lint had seven of the top one-hundred slots. Perhaps this obvious lack of voting integrity is why you have to look elsewhere than the Modern Library website for that list.
A pretty good gauge might be the results of PBS’s “Great American Read” from 2018, a series of programs on our most loved books in which To Kill a Mockingbird was named champion.
TKaM is a finalist in the Times competition as are two other runners-up in the PBS competition, (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Lord of the Rings). I don’t think anyone is taking genuine action on the winner, but if you want to put a prediction in the comments for posterity prior to the Times announcement, you may secure yourself some bragging rights.
So, it’s all in good fun, but let’s face it, this shit also matters because it’ll have an official stamp of approval thanks to the Times imprimatur. This is why it’s important that a worthy champion is crowned which means the people who have the obvious good taste to subscribe to this Substack should be heard on the question.
Because I don’t want to influence anyone’s opinion, I will discuss what I chose and why in a future post, but I encourage you to vote and then share your choices and rationale in the comments in an effort to sway anyone who has not yet voted.
The other important book-related voting that needs your attention is the “Zombie Poll” in the 2022 Tournament of Books, which recently announced the shortlist of competitors and the judges for the competition.
For those unfamiliar with the tournament now in its 18th year, it is a March Madness-style competition where 16 (or so) books face off in a series of one-on-one matchups adjudicated by a single judge. In addition to the judgments, my friend Kevin Guilfoile and I (along with a bunch of others) deliver color commentary about the day’s matchup, and the commentariat of readers weighs in with thoughts of their own. It fosters a spirit of open discussion about books and reading that I would love to be able to emulate here over time.
The Zombie Round is when two books eliminated earlier in the competition come back from the dead and get shots at the books that have marched through the bracket unscathed.
Capricious? Absolutely, and absolutely intentional, a statement on the nature of book awards. If you want to make sure a particular book from the shortlist rises from the dead should it be eliminated, make sure to vote in the Zombie Poll.
My Chicago Tribune column this week rounds up my favorite nonfiction books of the year.
Also at the Tribune, Christopher Borrelli looks at three “insider” books about popular TV shows (The Office, The Sopranos, 30 Rock).
The New York Times has announced their 10 Best Books of 2021. Two of the ten (the only two I read) will show up on one of my own best books lists.
Time Magazine has the 100 best books of which I’ve read 20, which is a much higher number than I expected, but I also read many more books this year than last year.
Looking for a “food and farming” gift book for the holidays? Civil Eats has you covered.
The Millions has a list of gifts for readers, only some of which are books. Use this for your own shopping, or send it to others so they know what to get you.
The most precious commodities for a career as a writer are time and space and very few writers are able to carve that out. Here’s a look at the financial realities of the life of a writer.
At Ms. Magazine, Karla J. Strand has “December 2021 Reads for the Rest of Us.”
We are in a race against time to get to $300 of affiliate income for the year because I pledged to match up to that amount if we meet it. Current tally is at $224.45. We’re running out of time, but count any book purchased in 2021 because there’s a lag between the purchase and the credit showing up in the tally. Make me give away my money!
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. Educated by Tara Westover
2. Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty by Kate Hennessy
3. Home is Mot a Country by Safia Elhillo
4. Fawkes by Nadine Brandes
5. Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Stephanie E. - Hilton, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa
Pretty sure this is my first recommendation for someone in South Africa. I should make a map with pins in it to see where everyone I’ve recommended a book to over the last 10 or so years lives. Anyway, I’m leaning into the hold Hollywood vibe of Dorothy Day and recommending Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.
1. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
2. Palace of the Drowned by Christine Mangan
3. Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby
4. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
5. You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico by Jennifer Otter-Bickerdike
Mark V. - Zurich, Switzerland
First South Africa, and now Switzerland? I almost feel like someone’s pulling my leg with this international action, but it’s awesome. I think Mark may enjoy something tense and a little spooky that also doesn’t skimp on the interior lives of the characters, which leads me to Leave the World Behind by Ruman Alaam.
1. American Spy by Laura Wilkinson
2. Deacon King Kong by James McBride
3. Florida by Lauren Groff
4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Mia B. - Baltimore, MD
William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer is a reissued classic that should be anyone’s reading list that includes a combo of books by James McBride, John Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky.
That’s if for this week. I’ll see you back on Sunday next week.
Read well, and don’t forget to vote!