I hate to always seemingly get my book-related news stories from a single source, but it’s hard to ignore the power of the New York Times Book Review and their various lists. Every year, they produce what they have annointed as the Ten Best Books published for the year – I can’t count how many customers I’ve met over the years who either wanted select titles from the top ten or would only purchase books with the little “New York Times Notable Book” sticker on them or were carrying the actual torn-out list itself in their sweaty little grip with the hope of purchasing the whole dectet. Today the Times’ Ten Best Books for 2008 list was announced – 5 fiction and 5 nonfiction, selected from their 100 Notable Books List. The fiction are: Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser, A Mercy by Toni Morrison, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. The nonfiction are: The Dark Side by Jane Mayer, The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes, This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, The World Is What It Is by Patrick French.
Great. I don’t agree with the list as a whole (I’ve only read one of them), but I can respect their selections, based on the presumed merit of the works themselves. Lists are always opinionated. And I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth – there’s no denying the power behind this list as it’s certain to help bookstore sales everywhere. I’m sure that the editors of the Times know what they’re doing, right? Yes. As a matter of fact, they do.
The problem actually stems from where these books all originated – nine of the ten were published by pub-behemoth Random House. Nine. Bolano’s book was the lone holdout as a Farrar, Straus, & Giroux title. And that one was pretty much a no brainer anyway – a super-hyped, literary tome by a dead Chilean? I mean, come on. But I’m supposed to buy the story that Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus supposedly sifted through all the books written this year, by every publisher out there, and decided that 9 of the 10 best came from one single source? Somewhat suspicious, at best. The written word is entirely subjective, of course, and every reader is entitled to draw their own conclusions regarding the value of the books they read. But as an educated, well-read person, with a certain basic level of knowledge of the book industry, what conclusion am I supposed to draw from Tanenhaus’s selections, other than that he is firmly in the pocket of someone over at Random House? The whole thing just stinks.
I’m being uncharacteristicly polite over this, I know, and it’s because Ed Champion has gone there already on his Reluctant Habits blog. How can I top his beautifully pornographic hate rant?