This morning I saw that The New York Times had posted their "Ten Best Books of 2011" online. I usually refuse to comment on this or any of the other million or so "best of" lists because: a) the lists are endlessly debatable and b) the very idea of anointing a handful of contemporary works "the best" (are they really?) is pure foolishness. Everywhere one turns this time of year, some savant or cabal of tastemakers is churning out a "best of" list, each one an exercise in hyperbole and vanity. Whether the subject is books, movies, music recordings, restaurants, wines, gadgets, apps, games, or whatever else can be grouped, compared, and judged, the end result is a dull sameness composed of tired (and unjustified) superlatives, with more than a dash of ignorance on display. Of course, most sentient beings concede that such list-making is a merely a game but that doesn't necessarily make the activity meaningful or even entertaining. Occasionally amusing? Perhaps.
The only reason that it's difficult to entirely dismiss such a list is its outsized effect on the marketplace. A title's appearance on a prestigious "best of" list sells copies. Which means that we in the book industry watch these lists like hawks, hoping against hope that one of our titles will make it. We dream of big reorders coming in overnight. We dream of going back to press. We dream of a champagne toast and a congratulatory note. Even though we know deep down in our gut that these lists -- like the over-consumption of books generally, and the wanton use of superlatives to describe merely competent work -- are bullshit. (I refer readers to Harry Frankfurt's sprightly little tract on the subject. Bullshit, that is.)
It would be far more honest and realistic to assemble a year-end list and call it "Some Good Books Published This Year" or "A Few of Our Favorite Titles of 2011." For that is exactly what this year's Times list is: ten decent books that appeal to a group of professional readers. I don't think that there are any outright clunkers on it but then I've only read three and a half of the books mentioned (Swamplandia!, The Tiger's Wife, Thinking Fast and Slow, and many of the essays in Arguably). They weren't among my favorite reads of the year, but they were all worthy efforts and I can certainly see how someone might have chosen them.
I feel the same about awards, everything from the Nobel Prize to the Watchamacallit. They really are silly. Yet, again, their effect on sales can be significant, which means they can't simply be dismissed. This is why publishing types -- including me -- are somewhat schizoid about awards and lists: we succumb to the bullshit -- we need it -- although we despise it.
That said, here are a few good books I read this year:
The Information by James Gleick. Not only a fascinating and exceedingly well-organized survey of the development of "information science," but a nicely designed book too. It felt as good in the hands and on the eyes as it did in my mind.
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. A true story well-told as well as a cautionary tale. In reclaiming Lucretius by way of Poggio, Greenblatt shows how tenuous the preservation and dissemination of knowledge can be and how reactionary forces (i.e., the Church) are always ready to stifle progress. An entertaining read, but one that should be taken with a grain of salt -- Greenblatt claims far too much for the text of De rerum natura. Hyperbole at work again.
Seven Years by Peter Stamm. A tightly constructed novel set in Zurich and Marseilles showing how tightly wound men and women behave in a cool, empty, efficient, de-spiritualized world. It also contains some nice asides on architecture and male impotence. Other Press published it, so maybe I'm biased, but a lot of good readers also seem to have enjoyed it, even though it is by no means conventionally enjoyable.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Despite an ambiguously rendered scene in the first half of the book, this novel works as a deep meditation on contemporary reproductive uncertainty and the vagaries of memory. The last twenty, thirty pages are stunning. Barnes is a blessedly clean prose stylist.
The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson. An extended essay on violence as depicted in the arts. Often confused and somewhat confusing, I liked it very much nonetheless because Nelson writes something interesting and/or provocative on every page and she is a fount of knowledge about today's arts scene. For example, without this book I would not have known about the fucked-up videos of Ryan Trecartin.
Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi. This longish, rather oceanic novel was given to me by its translator, Michael F. Moore. His was an arduous task. After a bang of an opening, the book meanders seductively, most of it inside the consciousness of the grief-stricken protagonist/narrator, gathering momentum as it heads towards a very satisfying ending. The title is perfectly apt.
The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos. It's not really a novel, it's more of a literary stunt but it works well and never bored me. Originally written in 1968, Perec took up a computer lab's challenge to write the way a computer would write, following the logic of a flow chart (nicely reproduced as the endpapers to this well-made Verso publication). Anyone who has dealt with corporate "human resource" departments will laugh out loud at this text, then cry. Bellos' translation is very good. (Bellos also wrote a book published this year called Is That a Fish in Your Ear? It's all about translation -- I'm halfway through it and enjoying it quite a bit, despite the mediocre cover.)
The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. Another whale of a book, densely packed and argued, about progress, the scientific method, Karl Popper, quantum physics, a little mathematics, and a host of related issues and ideas. It even includes a true Socratic dialogue. Parts of it I did not fully understand (I wish it had a few more diagrams and formulae in it) but I keep going back into the text, gleaning a little bit more each time. It is the most optimistic book I've read in ages, one that made me give three cheers for The Enlightenment.