What We Can Learn: "Notable" Books
10 Dec 2014
'Tis the season for year-end lists. Splashy features on web and print joyously proclaim tidings of books notable and best-of. Listen carefully, though, and along with the carols of acclaim you'll hear the rattle of chains. The Ghost of Rankings Past appears, dragging his burdensome links, bemoaning his fate. For he (and yes, it most definitely is a "he") is eternally consigned to debtor's prison, impoverished by the idea that works of art can be picked like stocks.
These yearly lists bring with them a yearly fuss. This year's edition was catalyzed by the comments of Ayelet Waldman regarding the notability of her excellent book "Love and Treasure." Ms. Waldman expressed her unfiltered thoughts on the matter via, it should be noted, a medium engineered precisely for the expression of unfiltered thoughts.
At this point the conventions of the blog genre would have us dissect Ms. Waldman's comments as well as the comments on those comments, her response and responses to same, etcetera ad infinitum, all presented in some facsimile of a scholarly tone to cloak the fact that it is sports talk radio in drag: pick a team and root for it.
Let's not do that. Better idea: ask the question, what is to be learned here?
Quite a bit, actually, if you are inclined to spend the time. Yes, Ebenezer, we know you have work to do, but if you’re interested in the question of which books end up on notable lists, and why, and what does it even mean anyway, here are my suggestions:
1. Read Edward St. Aubyn's new book "Lost for Words," a comedic novel about the judging of a literary prize. Shortcut: Listen to Mr. St. Aubyn discuss the novel with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's excellent Bookworm show.
2. Read James F. English's 2005 book "The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value." Shortcuts: Read Amanda Foreman’s 2013 New York Times essay on literary prizes, or William Gass’s 1985 take on the same topic.
There. Something to be learned. And if we learn, then maybe the Ghost of Rankings Future -- because yes, Virginia, the rankings will come again next year -- maybe the Ghost of Rankings Future will be less vexsome for having been better understood.