The best 100 books of the decade: Stupidity exemplified
Is Dan Brown better than Philip Roth? Khaled Hosseini better than Abraham Verghese? J.K. Rowling better than Hilary Mantel? Of course not, but that’s what an imbecilic new list from the London Times would have us believe.
Americans love to make lists ranking cultural items — books, movies, records — and so apparently do the Brits. It is an unfortunate impulse.
Lists betray the mission and function of criticism. By making summary judgments, a list-maker conceals personal bias. It obscures the aesthetic basis of judgment. A review is, at least, an essay that argues a critic’s position. You can understand the assessment, even if you disagree. Lists reduce criticism to a shouting match.
The Times list, however, is so wretchedly arbitrary and dumb, it doesn’t even serve as a decent goad to conversation and debate.
By calling this the “100 Best Books of the Decade,” the Times implies a qualitative criteria. Some smart person or committee of proven taste and expertise has considered the million or so commercially published books of the past 10 years, and here’s the best of the lot.
Riiight. Then I sincerely hope someone with a plummy accent will call and tell me how Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight makes the list at No. 90, just below Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence(89), but far ahead of Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao (97). Twilight was an important book, a pop-culture phenomenon, but that’s not what the Times has promised to tell us.
On the other hand, if cultural impact is a prime criteria, then what is Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War doing at No. 83? It may well be a brilliant rethinking of its subject, a lasting contribution, beautifully written and all that. But, you know, the Civil War is so 1865.
Except for some usual suspects (Orhan Pamuk, Gunter Grass, Haruki Murakami), the list is heavily weighted toward British and American writers, and writers from former British territories like South Africa, India, Australia and Canada. Aha! Cultural colonialism!
A few personal cavils: I thought highly of Simon Armitage’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but No 40? For the whole decade? When Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf is nowhere to be found? No. And Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated at 32?!? C’mon, I enjoyed this book, but it’s really only half a novel. The historic parts set in a shtetl before and during the Holocaust read like they’re cribbed from better, older writers.
I could make other objections (The Kite Runner at No. 30? The Da Vinci Code at No. 10?! The Tipping Point at No. 6?!!), but instead, I’ll just give the Big Reveal: The Times’ No. 1 book of the decade is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
In the end, though, the Times performs a valuable public service by exemplifying the inanity of list-making. This is one of the worst I’ve seen. It should have been titled: The 100 Best Books of the Decade Reviewed in the London Times as Selected By a Web Content Intern.
This is a blow to my anglophilia. Could it be the British just sound smarter?