In one of the first of the soon to be ubiquitous Best of 2008 lists, Amazon.com has selected Philip Hensher’s novel, The Northern Clemency, as the best book released this year. People are always quick to criticize these lists, often for good reasons, yet I kind of enjoy them. They expose me to works that I otherwise would never even be aware of, not so much due to my ignorance but more because of the dearth of book reviews being generated by newspapers and the like. I’ve never heard of Hensher or his novel, but it does sound interesting and I may look it up in the near future.
Of the 100 Best Books of 2008, I have thus far read nine. That’s actually a better average than I am used to; looking at the New York Times’ Notable Books for 2002 leaves me wondering how it is I have only read six, even with the extra time. Of those nine, I only really have a problem with the inclusion of Philip Roth’s Indignation. I read this book over the summer and was struck at the lack of freshness in theme and prose from one of America’s supposedly leading writers. Perhaps it isn’t that the novel was included that irks me, but there is no way that Roth’s 33rd novel is the 32nd best of the year. More obvious bias toward an established author.
By the way, the best book of 2008 that I have read: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. It’s got cricket and crime, not to mention stirring, emotional prose. It’s fifteen on Amazon’s list, and the highest among those I have read (which might mean I should pick up the first fourteen).
Amazon also included a Customer’s Best of 2008 list. But rather than being a list compiled by the opinions of the site’s millions of users, it is in fact merely a Top 100 Bestseller list. Why a company who pioneered the consumer-rating system would print such a list is beyond me. Bestselling in no way means best in quality. I am sure that all books on the Founding Fathers and WW2 sell well, but that is because no one knows what to get their father for Father’s Day. Millions of people watch American Idol, as they do movies with Keanu Reeves. Enough said?
Example: Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which apparently was the 23rd bestselling book of the year. An exploration of so-called behavioral economics, trying to latch on to the Freakanomics audience, Ariely’s book couldn’t be less interesting or insightful. He points out things that everyone already knows, for instance that I’ll likely help you move your couch for free but not for a dollar, and his prose style is soporific.
Why not have the best reviewed books by customers in 2008? Sure things would be thrown off a bit, with political books dragged down by partisan votes and popular books receiving many votes being at a disadvantage to those that receive but a few. But that would be interesting, and more in line with the way Amazon is trying to sell its Customer List. And it just might get some publicity for the site.
That said, the bestseller list isn’t without interest itself. The bestselling book was the last Twilight book by Stephanie Meyer that I understand involves teen romance and vampires. But this is something anyone who reads the NY Times Book Review would already know. What really is surprising is that the fourth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Core Rulebook Gift Set was only outsold by 24 other books this year. I had no idea so many 49-sided dice were being rolled out there.
For what it’s worth, the bestselling book on Amazon that I had read is Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which I finished last week. Expect thoughts on that before the weekend.