Tuesday, December 15, 2020

End of the year lists, revisited

My frustration with "Best of Books of [x]" lists is not new. In fact, it's one of few topics from my early days of blogging that I still generally agree with. I still think that there's value in waiting to see how books actually impact readers (and the market!) before determining whether they're really the most influential or "best". I still think there's messiness in how individual readers might look back on reading years or decades (and goodness, I've been blogging long enough that I've seen two decade summaries go by, eep) especially in, say, a pandemic year, and I still very much feel that reading eras are typically separate from official years. And all of these fail to mention other observations I've made over the years: The power of individual publishers (whether large or simply very media-savvy indies) can make a huge impact in terms of the perceived "best" books simply because those are the ones the reviewers are offered and subsequently read, genre limitations and definitions often box out titles that don't quite fit in, and that at the end of the day these lists create a sort of driving force for marketing more than anything else.

I have a large-scale discomfort with these lists. Major media outlets almost always showcase the same books and cite the same reasons for highlighting these books, some of which seem understandable and some of which less. Diverse as the individual selections may be (and sometimes they are!), there is a homogeneity in terms of which books are even allowed this coveted spotlight. International literature (and literature in translation more specifically) is almost always absent from these sorts of lists, which reside in comfortably Anglo-centric worlds. Industry favorites dominate, with only the rare independently-published work getting due. Academic publishing is equally rare. Non-genre-specific lists will almost always be dominated by fiction works. The lists will usually end up mostly unsurprising to anyone who has followed literary news. Perhaps this is where I'm being unfair. Perhaps these lists aren't meant for me. But if they're meant for readers who are less in-tune with the literary landscape, these flaws are all the more damning. Readers deserve more, no?

But the truth is, I have grown exhausted with the idea that we constantly need to be reading new books. We don't.

If I were to compile a "Best Books of 2020" list, it would overwhelmingly be comprised of books not originally published in 2020. Many are from 2019, it's true, but that delay is important in terms of why I ultimately chose the read the books and when (or, in one case, how long it took me). Meanwhile, many of the others are just... older. Because I only discovered the book this year. Because it took a long time for the book to be translated into a language I read in. For whatever reason, there was a delay. And to be clear: I too am increasingly becoming more contemporary in my reading due in part to pervasive public pressure! I'm reading fewer and fewer of my backlog titles and not buying nearly as many when compared to shiny new books. But I feel like this makes me a poorer reader.

In general, I've never been one for pressure in reading. I don't read on a schedule and I'm notoriously terrible at reviewing books at the "expected" timeframe (which is one reason I avoid requesting books for review). Not having the space to process books matters, especially given how much we shape each other's impressions and guide each other's reading. That question of time feels so present in properly assessing my favorite/"best" reads of any given year or era. I often feel as though looking back on older lists showcases how many of them flared brightly at a given moment and then faded from the public view. Does that mean they're not worthy books? Hardly! But some have not stood the test of time. Others may be recontextualized by a changing culture. And some may have simply been good books that were the products of effective marketing, but not much more... Ultimately, I am not a professional reviewer whose job it is to promote newly released books. I'm a reader! I'm someone who's trying to find books that are new and interesting to me. There is a lot to learn from older texts, whether as classics or just books that I missed the first time around. And there's a lot to learn in reading books without external pressure to interpret them a certain way. Maybe this is why I'm constantly finding myself at odds with most reviewers?

2020 is almost over. It was (for many of us...) a remarkably difficult and painful year. I cannot claim it to have been especially conducive for reading, in large part because I frequently found myself outside the right headspace for certain works. Trying to summarize such a year feels like it would miss out on so much, so I'm not going to. And I hope to spend 2021 taking a step back from immediacy and away from all the "best of" or "most anticipated" lists. While there are quite a few new releases I'm looking forward to reading, I want to take the time to explore writers I've left on the wayside for too long and take that step back. Reading isn't a competition or a performance; I'd like to simply read

1 comment:

  1. Agreed! Reading a brand-new book is pretty rare for me; even if I get it new, my TBR is a huge pile. And I like to read old books. Fx, this year I read the first novel published in the Yoruba language, which told me a lot about the other old (but not as old as that) books I'd read that had been in dialogue with it. How am I going to even start to understand something about modern literature if I don't know anything about what came before?


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