It’s that time of year again, when the “Best Books of the Year” lists begin to flurry like snowflakes. There’s the august New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year, many of which also appear on the year-end round ups by Publisher’s Weekly, BuzzFeed Books, NPR, BookRiot, the user-generated lists on Goodreads…and the list of lists goes on and on. There is inevitably the backlash to the lists and surely we can look forward to the backlash to the backlash. But do you ever wonder why we have all these lists in the first place?
According to Donald L. Foster in his essay “100 Best Books,” “The game officially began in 1886 when Sir John Lubbock compiled a list of one hundred books which he considered ‘necessary for a liberal education.’ The list was reprinted several times in various forms, with such notables as William Gladstone, Thomas Carlyle, and the Prince of Wales providing comments and suggestions. Soon others began drawing up their own lists and the ‘100 Best Books’ became an international sport.” Such notables as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Upton Sinclair, and William Jennings Bryan provided their own “best of” lists at various times; the compilation of “best” books has evolved to include categories like “Books I Enjoyed the Most” and “Most Influential Books,” and in the internet age has become even more granular. Foster notes that publishers and readers alike seem to love these kinds of lists, despite their inevitable lawlessness: “Having evolved over the years with little or no regard for basic ground rules, the game has developed a great many inconsistencies.”
It probably has something to do with that deep urge to be reading the Right Books, born in us as we plow through our school syllabi and nursed as we peruse the Suggested Readings (if we are the “extra credit” type). There are so many books published every year, how can we know which ones are worthwhile? No wonder we crave some kind of informed updating of the canon.
As for us here at JSTOR Daily, we’d love to hear your favorite books of the year. Head over to our Facebook page and let us know!