This essay is excerpted from QWF Writes.
By Genny Zimantas
I am a big believer in lists. Grocery lists. To-do lists. Lists on phones and bits of envelopes and bills. Lists are satisfying to write, and even more satisfying to work through. But best-of lists, the kind of lists which flood journals and newspapers towards the end of each year, summarising “The 10 Best Books of 2019” or “The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century”—even though we’re only a fifth of the way through that century—are a pet peeve of mine.
It’s no secret that yearly best-of lists are a marketing tool: for specific books, and publishers, and the journals or newspapers in which they appear. Few journalists, after all, can boast of having read every book they enumerate come December, let alone the thousands of other titles published in English and translated into English each year. The “best” books are usually chosen from an already shallow pool of previously successful titles, titles already supported by big marketing machines.
That best-of lists so often equate financial success with literary value can be deflating, but my problem with best-of lists isn’t the “best” books themselves. It isn’t even whatever methods the list-makers use to arrive at their final selections. Instead, my issue with year-end best-of lists is how they dominate mainstream readerly conversation and keep us so focused on the immediate past—on the latest publishing triumph or controversy. To be clear: at this point in history, more books have been published than any of us could feasibly read in a dozen lifetimes. So why restrict our focus to the last year, or even fifty? Best-of lists help solve the problem of picking a next title out of overwhelming choice, but they distort perceptions of how we can (and do) read.
Photo credit: Lewis Weinberger