Lists are among those categories you either love or hate. One could say the same about books in this day and age, I suppose, but I refuse to believe that any but the most obdurate believe that they hate books — it’s like saying you hate stories, or adventure, that you hate wonder, or imagination.
This is the age of ubiquitous listicles and Facebook quizzes and Twitter polls, though, so I don’t blame you if you feel that a ‘Best of’ list may have a lost a bit of its charm. There’s just too much surround sound sometimes.
Reading shortlisted books
While I have to admit to a sneaky fascination for book lists, it’s not across-the-board admiration. Every year when the Booker Prize shortlist comes out, I dive for cover. That is the one that always makes me feel poorly read and in need of a longer attention span. I used to have the best of intentions to read the winning or shortlisted books, in the month or quarter of their announcement, or at least to read the winning title by the time the next year’s Booker shortlist was out.
Over the years that has dwindled to a feeble light of resistance and nowadays I am so far past paying lip service that I try to justify my lack of momentum. I just put these titles on my own imaginary shortlist of ‘Highly Rated and Likely-to-be-Wonderful’ books to read. I mean, if I were to name that list anything, that’s what I would call it.
It has meant that undoubtedly fine writers like Hilary Mantel are on my ‘To Read’ list (now renamed as aforementioned) and I have no option but to hang my head in shame. Missing out on the Nobel Prize for Literature awardee list over the years, I must add, does not make me feel as bad, because it seems as though more than half the reading public is on that same blank page as me.
The good news is there is a healthy list of good writers to get to, I daresay. The bad news is it might take a while to get to them. But there are always the fortuitous trips to bookstores where you redeem yourself. Based on the recommendation at Delhi’s Midland, I did read ‘To Rise Again at A Decent Hour’ by Joshua Ferris, around when it was shortlisted for the Booker.
Stumbling upon books I used to have a friend obsessed with the New York Times bestsellers’ list, whereas I would be loftier about the whole enterprise of “discovering books”, counting on word of mouth, bookshop owners’ recommendations, and general osmosis, not to mention the treasure trove I would be sent by publishers, as a books editor. Now, the thing is, if I had followed my friend’s lead, I would probably have discovered my beloved David Mitchell way before I did… and yet, I like the entire experience of stumbling upon wonderful books altogether too much to change my habits. It is not an algorithm, but it will do.
The other aspect is that it is actually nice to have a list of books to get to. The sheer joy of having one’s own shortlist of unread masterpieces (anything Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, for example) gives me major emotional security. I feel that really is a veritable security blanket, much like a financial investment that you are not going to touch. I have a stockpile that will see me through anything.
As far as choosing what to read goes, there is something fascinating about other people’s lists — people you know, people you admire from afar, people you interact with on Twitter — it’s such a nice reflection on so many things. Whether it’s a ‘Best of’ list for the year or for all time, it is actually hard to put an outer limit on these things. I was equally paralysed by the attempt to list out 5 favourite books as 15, all of which were doing the rounds on Facebook over the past few years.
A year and a lifetimeThe Guardian has a two-part Best Books of 2015, based on famous writers’ picks, that is quite compelling. But I’ve always found it painfully restrictive to limit books to the year of their publication — surely a ‘Best books of 2015’ can include best books read that year? The shelf life of a book is considerably longer than just the 12 months after its publication date, isn’t it?
Only one of the books that I have been delightedly evangelising this year was published in 2015.
Perhaps it’s best to get specific. Thanks to Twitter, I recently saw a list of the best Madeleine L’Engle books. I would love to see that extended to other authors — I’m thoroughly distracted now by chancing upon a ‘Best of Haruki Murakami’ list. Imagine a ‘Best of Amitav Ghosh’, perhaps? Though, you can be sure that diehard fans of any writer will never agree. I mean, there is a list of ‘10 Essential Neil Gaiman Works’ online, but I’m not sure how you would rank his work without a nod to how subjective the whole enterprise is.
Maybe it is best to create your own list, taking inspiration from what is out there. As a reader, it’s a fascinating journey and one that can’t but leave you entertained, even moved, if you follow your own ‘Best of’ lists. The potential is limitless.
(Amrita Tripathi is the author of ‘Broken News’ and ‘The Sibius Knot’ and resides at www.amritatripathi.com)