What Are the “Best Books of the Year”? Pt. 2

Last week I posted about the kinds of books that tend to make best-of-the-year lists and those that don’t, but there’s still more to be said about the construction of such lists. Compiling over 200 of them into a spreadsheet gives me a unique perspective.

When reading that “best-of-the-year” list, whether it be on a personal blog or from a big outlet like the New York Times or Amazon, consumers should keep in mind that in most cases they’re reading the perspective of one person, or at best, a small team of people. Those list makers start their task in a bit of a bind. Either they’re going to base the list off of their personal reading–in which case they will be vulnerable to the accusation that they haven’t read even a fraction of the books released in the year–or they will base the list off of educated suppositions about the reputation of the books and their writers–in which case the complaints will be that the lists cave in to advertising pressure, aren’t based on first-hand knowledge, or worst of all, reflect the biases of the list makers.

In my mind, this subjectivity does not make lists or other recommendations worthless. We have to accept up front that it’s impossible for any single list to truly reflect the absolute “best,” an impossible task anyway because reading is a subjective activity, a new dialog between the author and each reader that happens upon the book. Instead of reading one or two best-of-the-year lists from “reputable” sources, seek out as many lists as you can. Look for what resonates with your interests, for list makers that have tastes that seem to gel with your own, and for the books that make repeated appearances.

This is also good advice for book group selections, whether those choices are based on best-of-the-year lists or any other recommendation. Never make a choice based on one glowing review, even if it comes from a trusted source. The average rating at sites like GoodReads or Amazon can give you some idea of what the overall consensus in another group is likely to be, although even then, you’ll need to read different reviews to get a sense of which kinds of readers tend to like the book and what the turnoffs might be for those who don’t like it. And don’t forget to factor other elements like ease of availability, book length, and cost into the decision.

Kudos to those who make their selection process for awards or “best” lists more transparent by describing the methods used to create their lists. Hurrah for those who explain why they like the books they do instead of just listing the titles.  I like the growing trend, particularly on newspaper sites, to create best-of-the-year lists by asking a wide selection of authors, reviewers, and other public figures to identify one or two books that they found exceptional. Even then some selectors are, rather obviously, making political or personally biased selections based on something beyond the quality of the book. Despite this risk, such lists are more likely to identify works that readers found truly exceptional while still reflecting a broad base of opinion.

With the continuing advent of the Internet, media has become more participatory, so if you question the selection methods of a particular list, don’t be afraid to ask your question aloud. If a list claims to be all-encompassing but obviously ignores genre work or most nonfiction subjects, then say something about it. This will let the list makers know that their readers are interested in a wider scope of books and perhaps help make them more aware of their biases. A little healthy skepticism can go a long way toward making best-of-the-year lists or any other form of book journalism more valuable.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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