On Best-of Lists and How We Actually Read—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.

In what I like to think of as defiance of market-driven, “of the moment” reading, booklovers around the world have come up with inspiring and invigorating criteria for deciding what to read next. UK-based reader and author Ann Morgan launched a project called “A Year of Reading the World” in 2012, embarking on a mission to read one book from each of the “196 independent countries—plus one extra territory chosen by blog visitors.” Making a similar readerly commitment the year he turned 25, Jerome Blanco decided to “stop reading white people,” in the process discovering more about himself, reorienting what he thought of as “real” literature, and revaluing his own work as a writer, too.

These selection methods are, of course, restrictive in their own ways, and both readers relinquished complete adherence to their own rules after the periods in question. Both also maintained, however, that their reading habits were more open and varied after their readerly experiments than they had been before. Other bibliophiles set themselves more pointed challenges, like reading all of Proust during lockdown or responding to each of Emily Dickinson’s 1789 poems (from the Franklin variorum edition) online. Perhaps the most prominent rebellion against “best-of” reading, though, comes in the form of the counter list.

Claiming to present “The Best Overlooked Books of 2019” or “The 13 Most Underrated Books of All Time,” counter lists seek to redress the presumed authority of yearly best-of lists and to expand our horizons beyond the already popular. They are, however, comparable to their more mainstream analogues in several key ways. Like year-end lists, they select and elevate specific titles. Also like year-end lists, they make an authoritative claim for quality, privileging not just books they identify as great, but books they claim are better than all the other great books. Counter lists thus fall into the same myopic trap: they claim objectivity and project a knowable universe of reading, where neither objectivity nor comprehensive knowledge exists.

I’m not trying to suggest that best-of lists should be discarded, or even that we should shift our focus away from popular contemporary authors. We owe a certain responsibility, I think, to read work that is being produced now, to engage with our world and support living writers—especially writers from continually underrepresented backgrounds and marginalized groups. Best-of lists do, of course, bring attention to deserving new titles, and so have an important role to play. But a list, any list, is first and foremost a way to collect and categorize information, to make that information seem manageable, finite, knowable, known. Fortunately, if overwhelmingly, that just isn’t how the catalogue of 21st-century reading works.

So, this year, I’ve started making my own lists, of books I want to read but also of new routes to discovery: talking to independent bookstore owners, and librarians, and friends; reading non-list articles; consulting catalogues from local small presses; seeking out books written in languages I’ve never read in translation before. I’ll be looking for books I can share with hundreds of thousands of other readers around the world, but also books few other people have read, books from two thousand years ago and books written this year, but from perspectives unlike my own. Best-of lists are fine, of course, but books are just so much cooler than “best.”

Genevieve Zimantas is a writer and educator from Montreal whose poems and essays have appeared in journals across North America. She holds degrees from McGill University, Dalhousie University, and the University of Cambridge. In 2018, she was pleased to have been selected as the QWF’s poetry mentee and had the privilege of working with poet Peter Richardson. She now lives and reads in the United Kingdom.

Photo credit: Lewis Weinberger

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