Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How to pick best books

"Is it the right thing to gerrymander your list in order to counteract real, long-standing cultural biases, even if that means lying to your readers? What is a 10-best list, after all, if not a record of the books we enjoyed most over the past 12 months? If you insist on a list that's ideally representative of gender, race, class, nationality (i.e., including at least one translation), publisher size (small as well as large), fame, length (short story collections as well as novels), region, genre and so on, you can easily wind up with, say, a list of nine books you kinda like and maybe one you truly love. That's a tepid dish to serve up to readers, and not likely to inspire much enthusiasm, either."
- Laura Miller at

I think the first time I ran into this was sophomore year in high school when I was in an experimental (and amazingly fantastic) honors English class where students were able to suggest books for the class.  I wanted everyone to read my favorite books, and I was trying to decide between Ender's Game and The Warrior's Apprentice (the only Bujold book I had discovered at that time), but then my friend in the class had us read Foundation by Asimov.

If you haven't read it, Foundation is an old, smart, respected, award-winning, classic, epic science fiction novel.  I felt like I should suggest something other than sci-fi, so I suggested The Outsiders, a book the teacher had never read, subsequently loved, and still uses in his other sophomore English classes to this day.

"On the other hand, few things are more subjective than judgments about how "great" any given book is. Those real, long-standing cultural biases mentioned above live in the heart of every critic to one degree or another, and we'd be shirking our duty if we didn't try to account for them. Writing off such qualms as mere "political correctness" is, in its own way, just as dishonest as exaggerating your admiration for a book simply because its author is female, or dark-skinned, or from a far-off nation."
- Laura Miller at

Please take a look at the rest of the article, and do weigh in on what you see as the place of the critical top X lists published at the end of a year or decade.  Is the subjective opinion/personality of the list more important, or is balance more important?  Or something else?  What should the criteria include and exclude?

1 comment:

  1. What an awful spot to be in! I can see making a list of good books representing a variety of sources, or a list of my favorites, but the two aren't likely to coincide. I think this is one area where I really feel like the art-appreciation-has-nothing-to-do-with-the-author theory actually has something going for it. If someone can make a case for a book that has been slighted due to gender-bias, they should do so, but I'm not really sure what harm there is if it turns out that a list is dominated by one gender. Do aspiring female authors get depressed and quit because of top ten lists? And how much good can this kind of list-manipulating do, when female authors are already using gender-neutral or opposite-gender pen names?

    (I can certainly see the point of trying to do justice to authors of both sexes where such recognition is concerned, but practically speaking, it's gotta be a mess.)