Monday, June 28, 2010

Top 10 Totally Decent Books of the Century

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.


  1. That hard thing about these sorts of lists, "The 10 greatest Books of all time" etc, is that so much comes down to personal taste. I know you can objectively consider a certain book from an academic perspective and talk about its merits etc, but in the end everyone is different and everyone will have a different view. What someone finds admirable, someone else might think shook them to the core. You know what I mean?

  2. For me, I know I've encountered an amazing book when it feels familiar to me from the first few chapters. Not like a genre book, in which there's a predictable ending, but in a sense of deja vu - that I had already heard this story, somewhere, and that my brain is only just catching up now. It's that certain feeling that characterises an amazing book. Not if a book made me feel sad, or elated, or whatever it is - just a certain familiarity. Maybe I have book soulmates?!

    Anyway, I agree with Becky, above - it's a lot to do with personal tastes.I guess we know where Ciabattari's tastes lie.

  3. Becky- I definitely agree with you. My point here is sort of a personal one, It's not that I disagree with her list; it's that I do agree with it, mostly. Her list sort of held up a mirror to my own reading and I realized how safe I've played it recently.

    Emerson says that in works of genius we see our own unarticulated thoughts articulated and I love that feeling as well.

  4. I have to admit that I can truly enjoy a book and completely forget about it only a week later. That happened to me with Oscar Wao--I really cannot remember a single scene, although I know that I felt all warm and fuzzy when I finished it. On the other hand, I know that a book is truly great (in my opinion, of course) when it sticks with me over time. A few books have done that this century--The Road, The Gathering, and even Life of Pi (though I hesitate to even mention it after Beatrice and Virgil). But, as you mentioned, it's very difficult to come up with ten.

  5. How about Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, or DeLillo's Underworld, or O'Neill's Netherland, or Chabon's Amazing Adventures? Cheers, Kevin

  6. Patrick-
    A book's future-resonance is a good barometer for me as well, though it usually correlates pretty strongly to my experience while reading it. I can't think, off the top of my head, of a book I felt strongly about only after finishing it.

    Underworld would definitely be a candidate, but it was published in 1997. And the rest I'm also a fan of (though less so for Cloud Atlas than others are) and have recommended them (with great success) to many people. But if I'm honest with myself, none of them had a strong impact on my reading self. Maybe my bar is too high, but this is what I'm thinking about at the moment.

  7. I have not read ANY of those books above so I can't really comment, I suppose. But when one makes a Best of List (or Worst Of), it is inherently open for discussion. In fact, I often feel that most lists of those types are posted solely TO create discussion.

    As for the best book I've read in the past 10 years... I don't know! It's so hard for me to choose like that. Hmm..

  8. Having just finished 2666, I must say to leave it off any list like this makes said list void and irrelevant. Though I do agree with omitting The Road, as I thought that was completely overrated. I can't speak on any other title on this list because I haven't read one of them.

  9. Aarti- Definitely. My point wasn't to quibble with the selections of the list, but to use it to think about how I select and judge my own reading.

    Kenneth- I would agree. 2666 probably isn't for anyone, but if it is your brand of vodka, you are going to drink deeply.