Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whodathunkit!?: The 2010 Year In Bests: Books (And Other Smarty-Pants Things)

The end of the year is a time for reflection back on the year that's just gone by... although why is that? The "end of the year" isn't really that at all; it's an arbitrary day on which we've decided to restart the calendar -- and it hasn't always been (as everyone thinks they know) the 1st of January. As recently as 1752, which is pretty recent, I suppose, the British and Americans still celebrated New Year's Day on March 1.

I say everyone thinks they know because if you stop someone on the street today and ask them about New Year's Day, and they don't immediately pepper spray you and start running away, you're pretty lucky; after all, why are you going around just stopping random strangers? We don't live in that kind of society anymore. We live in the kind of society where everybody and everything is subject to a permanent suspicion of harboring dangerous motives, and also we live in a society where hopefully we won't have to hear the words "Tea Parties" anymore. A man can dream...

... but we also live in a society where people firmly believe that April 1 used to be New Year's Day and that the change from April 1 to January 1 led to the creation of "April's Fools," people who still celebrated the New Year on April 1 even though the rest of the world had decided the new year started on January 1 and even though, really, you could decided that the "new year" begins on any day and reflect back on the previous 364 days, if you'd like. But despite all that, people still believe that April 1 used to be New Year's Day, even though, as I pointed out in the first paragraph here, March 1 was New Year's Day in England and in what passed for America back then, all they way until 1752, when January 1 became The Day, and people still believe that stuff about April 1 being New Year's Day even though April Fool's Day was an established day in England before the calendar switch.

But that's all besides the point; the point is that we start the calendar over every twelve months, and for now we've agreed to do that on January 1 every year, and that makes the last week of December the time we all look back on the year with a bleary-eyed gaze that carries with it the message "It's the New Year, but I've still got two more months of supercold weather and shoveling snow."

And for the first time ever, I've decided to do a "Best Of" list -- a list that seems like it'd be a natural for The Best Of Everything, unless maybe it would be more natural to do a Best Of Best Of Lists, which I contemplated doing but decided that was too ironic; having once nearly brought about the end of the world by ignoring Paris Hilton, I didn't want to risk creating a wormhole in space with my first End Of Year Best Ever List.

This being TBOE, I'm not just going with a Best Of list, but giving you the usual twist on pop culture you've come to expect from me, as I present to you the multi-titled, single-semicoloned

WHODATHUNKIT!? 2010: The Year In Bests;
The First-Ever TBOE
What You Were Told, And What You Should've Been Told Instead
Best Of The Year List.

Which is, as it sounds like, a list of the things that others uniformly agreed were The Best, and a list of the things that actually were The Best, in each of this blog's categories.

I'll begin with Books (And Other Smarty-Pants Things).

What Everyone Else Said: Can I make a request of other sites? If you post a top-10 list, or top-20 list, or top-anything list, don't make each entry appear on a different page so that I have to keep clicking to see the next blurb-and-photo. It's annoying. I'm sure it's designed to raise your page-count or click-count or whatever it is you hope to increase so that someday you can quit your day job and focus on blogging instead of going into work every day and secretly posting stuff while your boss thinks you're working...

... not that I know anyone like that...

... but whatever your reasons, clicking and clicking and clicking a list to get to the end of that list and see what's number one is annoying and I won't do it, so I can't tell you what Stephen King thinks is the Best Book of 2010 because I got tired by number 6.

Going through a few other lists finds a surprise at the top: most people I bothered checking into picked A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan at the top or near the top of their year-end top-1o lists. (Some, like Publisher's Weekly, put it at the top of a list but then chickened out and didn't number the list, leaving people to guess whether their list was in order.)

Why I Assume They All Said That: As I said, it's kind of a surprise, because ordinarily when you ask people about what book they're reading or what book they loved, you get answers that appear coldly calculated (like politicians claiming to be reading important political works) and probably a lie; almost everyone will say "The Autobiography of Mark Twain" when asked what they're reading or want to read, while almost everyone will be reading "the back of a cereal box." Year-end best-of book lists tend to be populated with literary snobbery (witness the inclusion of Jonathan Franzen's mediocre Freedom on almost every list, because they're supposed to include it), so to see A Visit From The Goon Squad topping the list was somewhat surprising... but only because I at first confused Jennifer Egan with Jodi Picoult. Then I read a review of Goon Squad and realized why it was on critics' lists: it sounds like it's a post-modern mess. The review made me think -- fairly or unfairly -- of the pile of garbage that was David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a gimmicky morass of story marked by a gimmicky-sounding 78-page PowerPoint presentation that was described by Egan as follows:

I’m not an early adopter — I write by hand, for God’s sakes. But I became obsessed with PowerPoint when I realized that it had become a true narrative genre. It allowed me to represent gaps — pauses — in a tangible way that I couldn’t accomplish with a more traditional narrative. And "Goon Squad" is a story that happens in fits and starts, with a lot of the action transpiring offstage. You might say that discontinuity is the book’s organizing principle.

You might say that. I wouldn't, because I don't like books whose sole purpose for existing seems to be to demonstrate that the author was able to sell a book to the publisher against all odds: "I've written a book that features power-point slides and in which no actual action takes place. Also, it doesn't have vampires. Where do I collect my money?"

I do have to point out that Goon Squad exhibits, in that PowerPoint segment, one of the four necessary elements of a best-seller. If it'd been set in Ireland or the American South, it would have outsold Harry Potter.

What I Thought They'd All Say: I assumed that everyone would be picking all those Stieg Larsson books, because while ordinarily detective novels are sold by the millions but ignored by the critics, the fact that these were detective novels written by a guy from one of those Scandinavian countries, and were novels published in America after he died, and that there was a fight going on about the half-finished fourth novel all allowed critics to rave about them despite their abundantly boring mediocrity. Seriously; I read 60 pages of the first book, twice, and couldn't force myself to go on.

What They All Should Have Said: While everyone else was raving about the Goon Squad or The Help (set in the American South! As required by the laws of best-sellers) they should have been talking about The Actual Best Book I Read In 2010, that book being Room, by Emma Donoghue. I don't know anything about Donoghue, and I don't care to because knowing about the author doesn't help me enjoy a book any better. I just know that Room, told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who's spent his entire life in an 11x11 room where his mom gave birth to him while held captive by an abductor, and who believes the entire outside world to simply be other "planets" existing only on the TV he's allowed to watch a half-hour per day, is phenomenal. Not "phenomenal because it's hard to read and has gimmicky powerpoints" and not "phenomenal because the author is dead and/or from Sweden" but simply phenomenal.

More to come!

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