Those “Notable Books Lists”? They’re Useless

by Michelle Dean

Those end of the year book lists are lumbering around the internet right now, coming soon to a friend’s Facebook wall near you. NPR’s list of 2014 Great Reads numbers 250; the New York Times Book Review offers the slightly more conservative 100 Notable Books of 2014. The hugeness of these lists betrays something: their uselessness. My eyes always cross at lists that number above, say, 25. It certainly doesn’t narrow down the Christmas shopping list much.

Plus, these lists get to be disquieting documents of the Way We Publish Now. I would love to believe that we live in a publishing environment where we were producing at least a hundred well-edited, well-considered books a year. Unfortunately, as Ursula K. Le Guin recently put it to the shocked horror of most at the National Book Awards ceremony, writers instead work in an industry controlled by “commodity profiteers [who] sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.” It’s not an amazing environment for the production of literature. Mostly, publishers are throwing all sorts of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. I find it overwhelming and kind of sad to receive as many bad galleys as I do, often bought by a publisher for a great deal of money, but landing on my doorstep with the undignified plop of thawed turkey.

Listing so many books as “notable,” given that context, smacks of desperation.

It’s certainly always been the case that publishers churn out tons of books a year that flame out and die in the remainder piles. But even the largest pinch of salt, 2014 has seemed particularly bad. Precisely three newly published books have managed to take up permanent residence in my head this year: Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, and Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. And while other people might compose their lists differently, or count in their own findings five, ten, or even fifteen notable books, listing a hundred or more just feels… careless. It feels like the work of marketers, not of people who care about identifying good books.

If you are looking for new book recommendations, you’ll find yourself much better off consulting The Millions’ Year in Reading columns. There recommendations do not have to meet some insane artificial round number. No one is constrained by what happens to be on the publishers’ lists. In fact if anything the books they recommend tend to skew old. Michael Schaub, for example, wants you to read some Galway Kinnell. Jayne Anne Phillips has been re-reading Stephen Crane. Tana French got around to Strangers on a Train.

If someone asked me, for example, I would have told them that Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, is the book that changed my life this year. I had to consult it for some book research and then never stopped quoting it. I’ve become quite annoying on the subject and am desperate for someone else to talk about it with. Isn’t that what you want to hear, anyway, from someone recommending a book to you, rather than two tossed-off lines of plot summary in a sea of 99 other books?