Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Best Books of the Year - 2009

Now I have moved to a subject about which I know nothing, just what I have gleaned from other readers.  I read more contemporary books than I perhaps let on - this year about one in five were from the last ten years.  But a fair number of those are mysteries, none of which belong with the Best Books of 200X, and much of the rest is non-fiction.  Native American history, criticism of Yiddish literature, and popularized science, for example.

So I can't make a 2009 list (an actual 2009 list - see below), but that shouldn't stop other people.  Best of lists are an essential part of the transmission of books.  Imagine the poor book that finds itself on no lists at all!  Most books fall into that category, pretty quickly, listed only on the list of the unlisted, which is imaginary.  Bye bye, books.

I sometimes wonder how the really dedicated readers of the new go about their business.  I mean critics, professionals.  Here we see Tom Hull, a jazz critic I like a lot, discuss his method in obsessive detail.  He has heard 699 of the jazz records released in 2009, plus another 300 or so non-jazz albums.  This is considerable.  He is a music processor, continually evaluating, triaging, culling.  His Top 10 list has some weight behind it, although when Hull reviews the lists of other critics, he is always amazed by the number of albums he has never heard.  For practicing music critics, I think his statistics are typical.  A mere fan, I hear about 100 records a year, plus who knows how many stray songs.  My Top 10 list is filled with great records, absolutely, but the base is pretty limited.

So how do book reviewers do their work?  When they make their Best of the Year list, what is the denominator?  Eva at A Striped Armchair reads about 500400 books athis year.  Are the pros all like her?  I'll bet not.  They miss a lot, and I question how well they read a lot of what they read (I question how well I read, too).  A really great book is complex, right?  Ah, they're all doing what they can.  Le's have some lists:

Tales from the Reading Room's Best of 2009.  I have read one of these, the Georg Büchner.

The Little Professor.  Congratulations on cracking 7,000 books in the personal library!

The Incurable Logophile.  The only one I've read is Vanity Fair.  Pathetic.

A highly focused year-end from Dan Green.

A best of the decade, category: English language fiction, from D. G. Myers.

My list is coming tomorrow.  If I missed your list, please link in the comments.  One might notice that no one here, except possibly Prof. Myers, has any interest in coverage, like the professional critics.  These lists are personal, idiosyncratic, and no less valuable for that.  Emily of Evening All Afternoon, in a comment here, said that these are the lists she finds truly valuable.  I think the critics' lists are essential, too, a mechanism that keeps books alive.  But if I want to read a recent book, I'm looking at one of those lists I linked, or at your list.

Update: Jenny at Shelf Love. Lots of goodies. Her posts earlier in the year about The Story in the Stone are very much worth a look.

mel u at The Reading Life with a Best of, Part I. I've actually read 7 of the 10 novels. And the Japanese, etc. best of is still to come.


  1. I'm a fast reader, but 500 books in a year?? That's a book and a half a day. I suppose if I did nothing else but read, I could read about a book a day, but even then....

    I don't keep a record (I suppose I should), but I'd guess I read between 75 and 100 books a year. Family & work obligations require that I spend some time with my nose outside of a book.

  2. I'm about to hit 400 not 500! And this is an exceptional year; I was ill and couldn't work, so I had way more free time than usual. ;) Unless I was feeling too sick to read, I had a lot of time to devote to books.

    Now that that's out of the way (I actually feel rather embarrassed by how much I've read), I don't like how the same books appear on almost all the critics' 'best of' lists. I think 'best of' lists are really difficult; when I do them on my blog, I usually do several that are themed. But I don't know if I'll even do that this year...we'll see how I feel about it! And I never worry about what year the books were published in; for me it's a 'best books READ' vs. 'best books PUBLISHED' kind of thing.

  3. Ah, thanks Eva - I picked a couple of months on your list and extrapolated. I must have hit on the longer ones.

    Still, I know or have met (a few) other people who read as much as you do, so I have an inkling of how you do it. The Booker Prize or National Book Award committees should hire you.

    You just mentioned a key problem with the professional book lists. Do the same books appear on every list because they are genuinely better, or because of a herd mentality among critics? Some of both, I guess - I share your doubts.

    A best of, please - it would be interesting.

  4. Sorry Eva--I didn't mean to be snippy about your prodigious reading. I hope you'll be feeling so good in 2010 that you won't have time to read 400 books again.

    BTW, I totally agree about publication date. If I read a book within five years of publication, I consider it new.

  5. Here's mine. I had a good reading year (meaning quality, not quantity) and it was enjoyable to put it together.

  6. Your post has motivated me to work on a best reads for me in 2009 list-

    Reading Life best Reads of 2009-Part I

  7. I'm going to do a best books read in 2009 post but as the year isn't over yet, I don't want to do it yet. I might read that best book in the next two weeks!

    And lol anything published in the last 30 years (i.e., my life time) is considered "new" in my book.

  8. Yep-I've been reading more these past few months! (I'm feeling healthier now.) I keep a running count for every 'tenth' book, so that's how I know I'm between 390 and 400, lol.

    Maybe I'll do a best of, since you asked! Or at least, I'll start thinking about it. I'm like Rebecca...I don't like to do these lists until the very end.

    And Deb, don't worry about it; if I weren't me, I'd judge me! It's part of why I'm embarrassed to mention how much I read. And thanks so much for the good health wishes! :)

  9. You are reading a bunch of Roberts! And I saw you'll maybe tackle Robert Walser soon - I love Jakob von Gunten...weird, surreal, infinitely readable.

    Best of Lists are fun to browse, professional or otherwise. If anything, they put books on my radar so I will check them out later.

    Did you ever get to Marie Chauvet this year?

  10. It is just a tad early, ain't it? For me, the timing has as much to do with vacation schedules as anything else.

    verbivore - I had the Chauvet book in my hands at the library. It's a must, that was clear enough. But the timing has not been right. Next year.

  11. The list thing is intriguing, isn't it? I very rarely read hardbacks when they come out, so my list never features much that's truly contemporary, just the best books I've read over the course of the year. I admire people who read in a way to fill in all the gaps - I just can't make myself do it. There's a lot I will experiment with, but then there is also a line I won't cross. I read about 100 books a year - I think I'm an average reader speed-wise and I never skip. The delight is usually in the detail, for me.

    I'd love to see your list, even if it was all books from pre-1830. That would be great, actually, as I'd learn a lot and get some fantastic recommendations.

  12. Having been inspired by this post,'
    here is part II of my best read of 2009-

    Best Japanese Reading Life books for 2009