Sunday, July 21, 2024

Who are these big book lists for?

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This week, The New York Times is publishing a big list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. It’s a little strange to do this in 2024 instead of 2025 in a nice quarter of a century, but okay, maybe Trump will make reading anything but The art of the deal illegal next year anyway. The list is released piecemeal to build excitement. Each day this week, 20 more books are revealed. On Friday, the top 100 books will be released. At the time of publication, only 60 of the books have been announced. The books were chosen based on the top 10 lists submitted by “503 novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, critics and other book lovers, with a little help from the staff of The New York Times Book Review.” 503 seems like a lot to me, but what do I know?

There are many problems with the list, as there are with every list ever compiled. It is very Anglo-Saxon. So far, only a handful of books have been translated, and of these, two are by Elena Ferrante: Days of abandonment and The story of the lost child. I like Elena Ferrante, but I find it very unlikely that any The author is said to have written two of the 100 best books of the century. Almost no genre fiction is included yet, and neither is poetry. But as I read the list, there was something else that irritated me, something that was just under the surface.

It’s not a new or controversial attitude to dislike a ranked list of culture put together by a news organization. Every list is fake. Book lists, like their cousins’ album lists, are designed to generate engagement. People will click on the list. People will talk about the list. People will write blogs like this one about this list. If Jonathan Franzen Freedom It is crowned as the best book of the 21st century, women in dresses will tell you excitedly “have pockets!” as if it were a novel that will take over the Times building. This is the kind of response the paper wants. Commitment, after all, is money.

What is new is how blatantly The New York Times is making a play for that kind of engagement. The list features two checkbox options under each book: “I’ve read it” or “I want to read it.” These are the only options, since you have to want to read these universally beloved books! Once you’ve checked all your truths, at the end of the list it presents you with a beautiful shareable graphic that, by some algorithm, aggregates the covers of the books you’ve read.

This is what mine looked like on Tuesday:

Screenshot from the NYTimes of a graph that says "I've read 27... so far"
Gross! Screenshot: New York Times

It’s no secret that the revenue engine of the Times It’s Cooking and Games, and it seems the Books section, whether wisely or rudely, has learned a lesson from Wordle’s success: people like to brag about their score. Increasingly, on GoodReads, TikTok, and elsewhere, reading is understood as a quantifiable effort. The more books the better! Consumption is all that matters.

Also, in many ways, this is The New York Times classification New York Times Best Sellers That Have Been Reviewed In The New York Times. The interesting exception that somewhat confirms the rule is Torrey Peters Detransition, babya book I really enjoyed. While I was glad to see it on this list, there is something almost revisionist about its inclusion.

“I’m really grateful to all the readers over the years for making this happen. (Detransition, honey) “It came out when Pamela Paul was books director at the NYTimes, and D,B wasn’t even reviewed there initially (it later got a capsule review when it was nominated for the women’s prize). It’s heartening to see that a major corporation/institution can come to recognize a work of art, because of readers and care, even despite initial disinterest from institutions,” Peters wrote on Instagram.

Detransition, baby It was a very celebrated book. It sold well. It was nominated for awards. Of course it would be added to this list. It is good In my opinion. But what these lists completely erase is the reality that art can only be good subjectively. There is no such thing as objective good.

And yet, book culture wants to be there. Book culture in America right now, as it exists, wants everyone to read the same books, talk about the same books, and agree that these books are uniformly and undeniably good. And what that leads to is an abundance of lists and recommendations that are all identical and not at all interested in the goals of literature. It reminds me of this tweet I saw last week that I thought was very funny:

The list shows a similar problem to the book recommendation cards: all recommendations are now the same. So far there is not a single book on the top 100 list that I haven’t seen before on dozens of lists. So who is the audience for this list if not people who read a lot? What is its target?

Because it certainly seems that the goal is not to sell books or even to endorse great books, but to codify a kind of public opinion that already feels completely solidified.

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