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The best 100 books of the decade: Stupidity exemplified

November 18, 2009

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?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie permalink
    November 18, 2009 1:44 pm

    If they put The Kite Runner at 30, they definitely are not smarter.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 18, 2009 4:42 pm

      I met Mr. Hosseini at the Night of Literary Feasts in Fort Lauderdale a few years ago. He was a deeply congenial man, focused and modest and fun to talk to. He told me he sleeps three hours a night, giving him the time to write and practice medicine. I liked him very much. And STILL, his book has no place on this list.

  2. alexis permalink
    November 18, 2009 1:45 pm

    I think that despite the fact that you just complained about the Brits making this type of list, you should make your own “Best 100 Books of the Decade” lists. You could make it more honest and call it something like, “The Best 100 Books of the Decade that Chauncey Mabe has read.” I think you are allowed to do things like that on a blog….

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 18, 2009 4:44 pm

      If I do produce a list like that, it would indeed follow the lead of your title: “The Best Books Chauncey Read and Liked,” something along those lines. Even though I was reviewing books professionally the entire decade, I don’t feel qualified to made a straight up best list. Indeed, I don’t think a qualified person exists on this planet. Too many books, too large a sample to be mastered, before you can say such a thing. And then — it’s still pointless!

      • alexis permalink
        November 19, 2009 11:03 am

        except your fans are calling for it.

  3. November 18, 2009 1:49 pm

    Anglophilia? Is that where you are afraid of angels? I could talk for hours about these lists. Especially the times. You can’t get there from here. So you want to hear a bloody accent. I can buy my way to the top 100. Any day. Same with a few others. As you said though it really is not worth much conversation. Let us talk about the Oscar awards. Who are those blokes any way? Are you being served?

  4. November 18, 2009 1:51 pm

    Excellent, Chauncey! Such elegant indignation, oof. You write with the eloquence and discernment of a Brit… of the past;)

    I agree with Alexis, give us your list!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 19, 2009 11:28 am

      Yahia, you flatter me to the point I may have to comply, as soon as I find time to go back over the reviews I’ve written since Jan. 2000. Thanks for the encouragement.

  5. November 18, 2009 2:24 pm

    I like that Idea. Chauncey’s list.

  6. rachel permalink
    November 18, 2009 2:27 pm

    You amuse me Chauncey Mabe!

    I agree with Connie.

    And Alexis.

    Some lists are at least fun to argue about and see what you’ve read. But this is just sad. It is like a movie they would play on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 18, 2009 4:46 pm

      I’m glad I can entertain someone. I also hope some annoyed British people will write to defend, you know, their entire culture.

  7. rachel permalink
    November 18, 2009 2:28 pm

    I do prefer their spelling of grey to ours. Gray. How dumb. Grey is much more grey than gray.

  8. evan james roskos permalink
    November 18, 2009 6:52 pm

    i don’t know why these lists aren’t simply called The Most Important books since it’s easier to argue importance than quality. (it’s still subjective, but you can at least point to particular pieces of data to suggest that something was important, eg sales data, critical response, public outrage, etc).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 19, 2009 11:31 am

      Yes, Evan, I agree completely. It’s the false qualitative stance that makes these things so odiou.

  9. November 19, 2009 12:25 am

    Yes, I think the Chauncey’s list guys have it.
    And it’s sad about The Road. Well written but #1 Bleaksville is more like it.
    I did love Kite Runner!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 19, 2009 11:33 am

      I am no McCarthy fan, to put it mildly. No Country for Old Men is, in my opinion, one of the very worst novels by a major American writer in this decade. Alas, though, I have not read The Road, and can neither attack nor praise it. The reviews, though, made me think, “Ah, he’s seen The Lord of the Rings movies!.”

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        November 19, 2009 11:47 am

        By the way, in another forum where this blog topic came under discussion, Deborah made the observation that the list contrasted different genres — which is an excellent point, further highlighted the list’s profoundly fraudulent nature. The criteria for judging, say, a historical literary novel by Hilary Manet with a young adult fantasy like the Harry Potter books are so different, it is, to coin a phrase, apples-and-oranges time. A very wise man (John Knowles) admonished me when I was a wee little reviewer, just starting out, for criticizing a mystery novel on literary terms. “You have to judge a book for what it is,” he said.) “Not for what it isn’t.”

  10. November 19, 2009 9:36 am

    Chauncey – great blog/essay. Perhaps it was meant to be titled “Bestselling Books of the Decade with a few Smart Books Thrown In.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 19, 2009 11:36 am

      Bonnie, you have perceptively on hit exactly, and in one elegant sentence. Maybe you should be a writer? Just kidding. For anyone who doesn’t know, Bonnie is the author of two fine novels, The Middle Sister and Going Down South. I can heartily recommend the second, but I’m pretty sure the first, which I haven’t read, is worth your time, too.

      • November 19, 2009 12:37 pm

        Chauncey, after 23 years of professional reviewing you’re well qualified to list your top 100 or 50 or whatever. I, for one, would be really interested in it. Lots of work, though. Lots of stirring the pot. I can just see this thing growing and growing and growing and … imagine all the comments!

      • alexis permalink
        November 19, 2009 12:45 pm

        I agree with Duff – Just think of all the comments!

  11. November 20, 2009 2:18 pm

    Can you dine on comments? The list has to have a worth or it will be just another list. I agree with Chauncey from above. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples and say what they book is on its own merits. Also I am not big for a 30 year old books to come out and be published again and then be called new. Many book awards do this. They should have a special category for great re-writes.

  12. Awang Goneng permalink
    November 7, 2014 4:06 pm

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