Sunday, November 30, 2008

The New York Times Notable Books of 2008

The New York Times released its famous Notable Books list this week, meaning that 100 paperback copies of novels can slap it on the top of their covers to boost sales. This is the first year that I have really been locked into the book review community to any real degree, so it wasn’t all that surprising to see most of these books listed. Of the books listed, I have read nine, am in the middle of a tenth, and have an eleventh that I probably will use in my thesis so it’ll be finished before the New Year.

I really like that the books aren’t listed in a hierarchy, but alphabetically, which probably eliminates some of the bickering. I also enjoy looking at the various publishers represented. I’ve always wondered why we as readers aren’t more brand-conscious when we read. Even though noted book jacket designer Chip Kidd claimed that you should be able to predict whether you will enjoy a book or not based on your enjoyment of previous titles by the same publisher, I haven’t found myself even really noticing. It would be interesting for someone to run a comparison between books and other entertainment industries where people are more conscious of the brands they buy, e.g. comic books or music.

The lack of a hierarchy brings something else to mind. Though I failed to note this when pondering’s Best of 2008 a couple of weeks ago, there has to be a bit of cynicism over someone who stands to profit off the sales of books directly to be ranking them. I’d never heard of #1 selection Philip Hensher before, much less his book The Northern Clemency, and from reports I read few others had either. What would be the point of Amazon selecting a bestseller for that coveted spot? If it’s already selling, it doesn’t need a boost. However, a good novel by a foreigner who no one has heard of could use a leg up, and the fact that Amazon offers it for sale only a click away makes it difficult to regard their list as credible.

The Times also released its Notable Children’s Books of 2008; the list is eight books long. I’m not suggesting that another hundred should be selected, but not even two more to make it a nice, round number? Dwight Garner is able to list well over ten gift books ‘worth buying a coffee table for,’ so it would lead one to believe that children’s literature is undervalued by the paper (which is also obvious in seeing how it is covered by the Review). Of the eight books, three are listed for children who are likely preliterate, while five more are novels targeted at the young adult audience. No delineation between the two are made, though at every bookstore I go to they are categorized and displayed in separate places.

As I continue to read more YA literature, one of my agendas is to see how and why certain books are categorized that way. As William Gibson said, novels are called novels because they are meant to provide a novel experience (ideally). But in genre, you are sort of buying a guarantee that you are going to have the same experience again and again. But the books listed here, as well as the YA books I’ve read recently, don’t fit this mold at all; they aren’t a genre. It’s all marketing, trying to catch that Harry Potter crowd. And I’m not even really looking at the sort of books that are aimed at preteen girls, which would further confound your expectations if using Gibson’s model.

It’s not that I have some ax to grind; I just want to understand why these books are being classified this way and how the books are treated once they have the classification. I don’t mind rules being broken for a good reason, but right now it doesn’t seem that there are any rules at all.

ETA: After some brief but sadly overlooked research, I found that Amazon named Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns its best book of 2007 and Joan Didion's fantastic The Year of Magical Thinking the best book of 2005. Both of these books sold incredibly well before being named, so perhaps it was a bit unfair for me to criticize Amazon's selection of Hensher's novel as a ploy to boost sales.

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