What's Notable about the Notable Books?
Thinking way too much about the New York Times list of "notable" books.
I will admit up front that I invest far too much meaning in the New York Times Book Review and the New York Times reviews of books (these are actually two separate things). I have been conditioned to see the Times imprimatur as deeply meaningful, both in terms of what they choose to review and what is said about the books that are reviewed.
Rationally, I know this is silly. In terms of driving sales, while the Times may be the most influential newspaper, it falls well behind being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, or chosen for a celebrity book club, or being held in the hands of an Instagram influencer when a picture is taken. And as far as shaping the so-called critical conversation about a book, one would have to believe that the critical conversation about a book is something that really matters beyond a pretty narrow slice of book industry or book industry adjacent folks.
And yet, that annual list of 100 books feels important to me. Just about everyone has at least one thing that really matters to them despite them knowing that it doesn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. These small obsessions can be healthy, a chance to exercise and express your personal passions and even know yourself a bit better. From the outside, this can seem excessive - I’m a casual fan of the band Phish, and listen to their music, but you won’t find me in a heated debate about which live performance of “Tweezer” is the best - but we should all be entitled to chew over the stuff that sticks in our personal craws.
Deep down I’m an institutionalist and the Times is very much an institution, and I want the people in charge of the institution to take good care of it. Of course, me having strong opinions and an occasionally overblown self-righteous streak, means that I often conflate taking good care of the institution with what I think should be done. (This explains my recent ire over the Times recent choice of reviewers for a couple of books.)
Which brings me to some thoughts about the annual New York Times “100 Notable Books” list released this past week. In a season of “best” books lists, the Times chooses to call their list “notable,” a word which is open to a number of different interpretations. Does it mean “good?” “Important?” “Timely?” “Enduring?”
Could it be any or all of the above? Could any publication other than the New York Times get away with simply calling their list of 100 books “notable?”
When the list is released, I pour through it, noting little excitements like the fact that West Virginia University Press, which had such incredible success with Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, has scored another notable book with Ghosts of New York by Jim Lewis. Even though I pooh-poohed the influence on sales of the Times just above, review attention from the paper for a university press book really is the kind of thing that can change the trajectory of both the press and author.
I had a fresh flash of irritation at seeing John McWhorter’s Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, not because I think the book is built on a silly premise - though I do think that - but because McWhorter is an opinion contributor for The New York Times, and I object to that kind of conflict. I’m also convinced that a driving factor behind its conclusion is a desire by the Times editorial braintrust to signal that they are not “woke,” because see, alongside books like Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood and On Juneteenth, we also have the guy who thinks all that talk about structural racism is just too much fuss.
But for me, by far the most notable inclusion in the list of notable books was Bewilderment by Richard Powers, because the actual review of the book by New York Times book critic Dwight Garner, is one of the most savagely critical takedowns published in the paper in recent memory.
Check out the lede:
I mean…this is not just an attempt to ether a single book, but a move to inter a good portion of Powers’ oeuvre of the last 25 years. The review is clever, funny and cruel in equal measures and is intended to indict not just what Garner sees as Powers’ turn toward silly sentimentalism, but the audience who ingests the novels and feels good about themselves for doing so as well. Whatever Powers is up to, Garner wants nothing to do with it, and doesn’t want you to have anything to do with it either.
Interestingly, Powers is a punching bag that allows Garner to express his own obsessions.
The closing of the review is telling:
Very often reviews say as much or more about the reviewer as the book. This is an obvious case. Garner is not anti-sentiment, he’s simply sentimental for buzz-saw guitar. Garner’s savaging of Powers is rooted in the same fuel as my occasional ire at the Times book coverage. We can only be disappointed by that which we find meaningful. Garner is not necessarily upset that Powers is trying to rally sentiment around a shared purpose of saving the planet. He’s upset that Powers is not aggressive enough about it.
Maybe what makes this particular book notable is the strength of response it elicited.
Not a terrible criteria.
My Chicago Tribune column this week looks at Nick Offerman’s Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside, a work of practical philosophy that may sneak up on you.
Following my tribute to Graywolf Press last week, Kevin Brockmeier, a wonderful author of fiction and nonfiction, (including most recently The Ghost Variations: One Hundred Stories,) compiled his own list of favorite Graywolf books.
Who “invented” science fiction? How you answer depends a lot on what you mean by the question. Lincoln Michel weighs the possibilities.
The Washington Post is helping us out by recommending three audio books for holiday driving.
My friend Paul Bowers has a very interesting list of “weirdly specific” holiday gift book recommendations at his also very interesting Brutal South newsletter.
At Five Books, their deputy editor, Cal Flynn, provides us with the top 5 novels of 2021.
Even though I consider NPR’s massive annual list of “Books We Love” a direct competitor in the book recommending space, in the end, game must recognize game.
Total affiliate income for the year stands at $216.95. Remember, for every dollar up to $300 in affiliate income, I’ll match it with a donation of my own to Open Books.
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. Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin
2. Atonement by Ian McEwan
3. Cheat Day by Liv Stratman
4. A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020 by David Sedaris
5. Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Stuart P. - New York , NY
For Stuart, a novel by one of my favorite working novelists who does something new and surprising with every book, but is also always very recognizable from book to book: Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet.
1. The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth by Sam Quinones
2. Dune by Frank Herbert
3. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
4. It Never Ends by Tom Scharpling
5. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
Joel N. - Huron, SD
So this recommendation is inspired by It Never Ends, which is written by a comedian who is a friend of Marc Maron (podcaster/comedian). In my head it makes sense to recommend a book by another friend of Maron, the writer Sam Lipsyte, maybe on the theory that like attracts like, I don’t know. Sometimes you just go with your gut. The pick is Hark.
1. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
2. Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor
3. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
4. Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud
5. The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov
Dylan O-S. - Washington D.C.
There’s a handful of books that I feel like I have to recommend to at least one person in a given year. We’re getting on towards the end of the year and somehow haven’t recommended Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, and Dylan looks like someone who will connect with one of my favorite novels of all-time.
I hope everyone has had a wonderful holiday break.