Jane Ciabattari, critic, novelist and President of the National Book Critics Circle, ranked the ten best books (just in fiction, we assume) of the now decade-old century. Her list:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Atonement by Ian McEwan
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Now normally these types of list don’t get our gears grinding, but this list caught our attention. We’ve read eight of them and it’s hard to argue against any of these, but it’s also pretty hard to argue for most of them either. Admittedly, we’d include Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Gilead on our own version of this list (and did in our utilitarian Swiss Army 10), but it seems like we should feel more strongly about the rest.
To be clear, these are definitely admirable books, but we want to feel something more than admiration for the best books, don’t we? Perhaps we need some other scale, or even some specificity about what the scale is measuring. For us, that special something is hard to articulate, but it is some combination of surprise, pleasure, depth, craft, innovation, and risk. And we think it’s that last element that seems to be the one that most even very good books sometimes lack. For example, Gilead, probably my favorite book of the last decade, isn’t risky. It’s beautiful, intelligent, and moving, but it not at hazard.
There is an element of danger to greatness; it threatens our settledness and even our sense of the world. There have been a few instances where I have felt my complacency threatened in the last decade (The Road, 2666), but, either because it’s a quality in short supply or because I’ve somehow avoided it, I have a hard time coming up with ten books I would call great. That's not to say, though, that there haven't been really good books or that I think we live in a fallow artistic era. But it is worth remembering that the great works of the past have been transgressive, challenging, and misunderstood--in their own time and in ours. So perhaps the Ape, in search of the extraordinary, needs to abandon the pleasant shallows of the very good.