In December, literary critics get reflective. It’s their chance to breathe, look back on the past eleven months, and tell a story about the year in books. Many ruminate in bullet points, favoring the best-of model to organize their thoughts. Literary blog The Millions likes the celebratory spirit of these year-end lists, but finds them “woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers.”
In particular, Millions contributors find fault with the lists’ exclusive focus on new books. After all, they argue, we’re “as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago.” It’s a deceptively simple observation that informs their deceptively simple answer to typical top-ten fodder.
Each day for the past month, the blog invited a different author or editor to reflect on their year in reading and spotlight books that resonated with them in 2008. The posts resist “the tyranny of the new” in different ways: Dustin Long recommends books spanning two centuries, Joseph O’Neill trumpets the joys of re-reading old favorites, and Tim W. Brown finds contemporary insights in another era. The lists also gathers an impressive range of genres—from self-help tomes to horror novellas—and a fascinating spread of subjects—from 18th century Russian jokes to Wikipedia.
While The Millions presents their blurbs as an alternative to the best-of form, they might also be treated as a companion to more traditional lists. It strikes me that each examines a year’s literary climate through a different lens: best-ofs judge a year by its writing, while lists like The Millions’ explore a year through its reading. We gain, in the combination of these perspectives, a refreshingly multi-layered way to define the value and relevance of our books.