The Best of the Best Books Lists

We've come to the end of another year, and another round of year-end, best-of-the-books lists, favorites, awards and holiday shopping guides for the literarily inclined. (Has the volume been turned up this year, or is it just me?) Those of us involved with the creative work that inspired the list-makers anticipate and dread this time when we will either celebrate the happy news of being chosen, or reckon with the unfortunate sense of being left out. We cede our self-will to the judges, and as the lists appear, play he loves me, he loves me not -- the old daisy game, effeuiller le marguerite (It was originally a 19th century French game. Now it's possible to play with a digital daisy).

The list-makers, tastemakers and awards panels provide a service, of course -- they read first, let us know about things -- pro or con, thumbs up or down, cut a path through a thicket of print -- but they also parade around the notion of a meritocracy; a kind of literary noblesse oblige with the culture's best interest in mind, when of course they are (like all choosers and choosing processes) partisan, subjective, contentious and biased in all kinds of ways, including all of the ways in which they do not want to appear (for example) racist, classist, elitist or gender-skewed. Then, there are dissenters who go to the trouble of presenting alternative lists reflecting their own point of view on what has been excluded. But, most authors do not find a place on any "list" at all, and are left to figure out why, and once the mourning-dust settles, or the indignant ashes, how to move on from there. All the buzz of acclaim collides with the very real needs of creating and desiring one's creation to strike some chord -- find a resonance in the world and with readers. (Paradoxically, being chosen or awarded can feel like being dressed up in the Emperor's New Clothes, and be just as paralyzing, oddly enough.)

But, does any of it matter?

Every year, as an editor, reader and writer, I wish for a cool hand, or the hand of history, to lay alongside these best-ofs and favorites. Or perhaps, in the literary world, our own Magritte -- a gentle, whimsical reminder that what we see is not necessarily what is.

As a young reader at my local library -- ignorant, blissfully, of anything having to do with the literary world -- I remember bypassing the shiny, gold-sealed prize-winners on display in the glass cases, or on the "new" shelves. I much preferred to browse the battered titles in the stacks, the ones whose covers were worn to threads, and run my fingers over the old, soft pages and feel how the type had been pressed. My initial test of whether any book was likely to be "good" was the smell and feel of it, and how the first paragraphs arranged themselves in my mind -- whether or not they evoked a sense of anticipation, excitement, curiosity, promise. Discovery was all -- like a treasure hunt. My trips to the library were perhaps the only times in my young life when I was allowed freedom of choice. And I had quickly come to understand that what had been passed from hand to hand and time-traveled into my arms (a heavy pile to be further winnowed to the maximum number that could be checked out) were the ones most likely to provide satisfaction. The "other" books -- those with the seals that sat on their covers like puddles of grease -- were (in my not-so-humble opinion) what the adults wanted us to read. Adults, as anyone with any sense could figure out, always had their own agenda. They were the keepers of the status quo, undermining the channels to the imaginative worlds, locking doors, slamming shut the windows and plastering big KEEP OUT signs over the most interesting points of entry. In my mind, those singled-out and chosen titles were sly deceivers, impostors -- naked Emperors strutting about.

Looking back with some adult insight, I also see the young person who was so often not-chosen - not singled out or specially noted -- in fact (it seemed to me) looked upon with skepticism by those in authority, left to puzzle out the Gallic shrug of my early encounters with the world. My adaptive strategy, I think, was more or less to teach myself to find what I liked; if I was not to be chosen, to choose for myself. And what I did find, those many hours in the dusty stacks, falling in love with the quiet and the scent of old bindings, sneaking into the adult section before it was legal, unearthing gold nuggets and pieces of eight -- all of that buried treasure -- gave me a whole and resilient self, one capable of venturing into the larger world, chosen or not.

Of course, today, I cheer on my writer and publishing colleagues who win awards or a place on the best-of lists and do my best to console those who did not and wish they had. But, in my heart of hearts, I believe it's all about something very different. Tolle, Lege -- the simple Augustinian direction to "take up and read" -- has stood me in good stead as reader, editor, writer. The best of the best, what is most needed and desired, often comes to us by an unseen hand.