Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The year’s best books

Practically everybody has a list of the year’s best books. Paper Cuts, the New York Times book blog, even compiled a list of the top ten top-ten lists. Anna Clark goes the Times one better, ticking off eleven of the year’s best. Mark Athitakis offers his favorites of 2008, which is relieved somewhat by a compelling case for Ha Jin’s Free Life (“published a year too early” in 2007). Miriam Burstein gives an eclectic list of the books she has enjoyed this year. Largehearted Boy has put together a comprehensive list of the best-book lists.

C. Max Magee has it right, though, when he says that “a list of the ‘Best Books of 2008’ feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library.” These lists suffer under the “tyranny of the new,” he insists. A nice phrase; but what else would you expect from lists of the best books published during a particular year? Since the fifty-two weeks stretching from January 1 through December 31 are an arbitrary period of time, the annual best-book lists groan with pointlessness. Why not the best books by authors whose names end in N? Or the best never to have been issued in paperback? As I wrote many years ago in a very different context, “When an irrelevant criterion becomes paramount, the inevitable result is the humiliation of quality.” And also, I might have added, the elevation of mediocrity.

Consider, for example, a master list of the year’s best books from 1998. If Cyril Connolly is right that ten years is literary immortality then many of the following novels from the U.S. and U.K. should be happily familiar to you, since they were good enough for someone to nominate:

• Scott Anderson, Triage (American Library Association Notable Book)
• A. Manette Ansay, River Angel (New York Times Notable Book)
• Patricia Anthony, Flanders (American Library Association Notable Book)
• Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter (Pulitzer Prize finalist; PEN/Faulkner Award finalist)
• Andrea Barrett, The Voyage of the Narwhal (American Library Association Notable Book)
• Suzanne Berne, A Crime in the Neighborhood (Orange Prize)
• Julia Blackburn, The Leper’s Companions (James Tait Black Memorial Prize finalist; Orange Prize finalist)
• Lawrence Block, Everybody Dies (New York Times Notable Book)
• Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (American Library Association Notable Book)
• Marilyn Bowering, Visible Worlds (Orange Prize finalist)
• Michael Byers, The Coast of Good Intentions (American Library Association Notable Book)
• Peter Carey, Jack Maggs (New York Times Notable Book)
• J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (Booker Prize)
• Jim Crace, Quarantine (New York Times Notable Book)
• Michael Cunningham, The Hours (Pulitzer Prize; PEN/Faulkner Award)
• David Dabydeen, A Harlot’s Progress (James Tait Black Memorial Prize finalist)
• Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones (American Library Association Notable Book)
• Dennis Danvers, Circuit of Heaven (New York Times Notable Book)
• Anita Desai, Fasting, Feasting (Booker Prize short list)
• Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife (New York Times Notable Book)
• Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary (New York Times Notable Book)
• Michael Frayn, Headlong (Booker Prize short list; James Tait Black Memorial Prize finalist)
• Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls (National Book Award finalist)
• Jane Hamilton, The Short History of a Prince (Orange Prize finalist)
• Christopher Hart, The Harvest (James Tait Black Memorial Prize finalist)
• Nick Hornby, About a Boy (American Library Association Notable Book)
• John Irving, A Widow for One Year (New York Times Notable Book)
• Gayl Jones, The Healing (National Book Award finalist)
• Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (Pulitzer Prize finalist; PEN/Faulkner Award finalist; Orange Prize finalist)
• Wally Lamb, I Know This Much Is True (New York Times Notable Book)
• Alice McDermott, Charming Billy (National Book Award; American Library Association Notable Book)
• Timothy Mo, Renegade or Halo 2 (James Tait Black Memorial Prize)
• Nicole Mones, Lost in Translation (New York Times Notable Book)
• Lorrie Moore, Birds of America (American Library Association Notable Book)
• Toni Morrison, Paradise (Orange Prize finalist)
• Brian Morton, Starting Out in the Evening (PEN/Faulkner Award finalist)
• Andrew O’Hagan, Our Fathers (Booker Prize short list)
• Philip Roth, I Married a Communist (American Library Association Notable Book)
• Richard Selzer, The Doctor Stories (PEN/Faulkner Award finalist)
• Jane Smiley, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (New York Times Notable Book)
• Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love (Booker Prize short list)
• Robert Stone, Damascus Gate (National Book Award finalist)
• Colm Toibin, The Blackwater Lightship (Booker Prize short list)
• Ardashir Vakil, Beach Boy (American Library Association Notable Book)
• Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full (National Book Award finalist)

Just to scan this list quiets any anxiety that I might have missed a not-to-be-missed recent book. My teacher John Dizikes once told me that he never read a novel until it was at least ten years old—a shrewd practice. How many of the books on this list, outside of Borges’s, do you feel the same eagerness or responsibility to read as you do, say, Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark or Francine Prose’s Goldengrove?

If I am going to be honest I shall have to admit that the best book I read this year was Lolita. But then it is usually the best book I read during the year, since I reread it every year. I have to chuckle whenever I pick up the Vintage paperback with its blurb from Vanity Fair: “The only convincing love story of our century.” Thank goodness the blurb is outdated, because the truth is that Nabokov’s novel is the only convincing story of atonement and redemption ever written.

Update: I really should, like Roger O. Thornhill at an art auction, “get into the spirit of the proceedings here.” Here, then, are five recent additions to the library of Judaism, which should matter to anyone who wants to keep his collection current:

Justin Cammy et al., eds., Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon: Essays on Literature and Culture in Honor of Ruth R. Wisse (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008). Includes essays by Cynthia Ozick, Hillel Halkin (“Writing Jewish”), Alan Mintz, Wisse’s brother David G. Roskies, and the young novelist Dara Horn (who is one of the editors). Also contains a bibliography of Wisse’s writing.

Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). A Jewish studies professor at Chicago, Fishbane accepts postmodernism’s challenge to theology, and sets out to reground the activity of philosophizing about God. Only then does he turn specifically to Jewish theology, concentrating upon interpretation (he is perhaps best known as the author of The Exegetical Imagination [1998], a study of how Judaism is shaped by the interpretation of sacred texts), halakhah and prayer, and less traditional stopping places.

Randi Rashkover and Martin Kavka, eds., Tradition in the Public Square: A David Novak Reader (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2008). A professor at the University of Toronto and a rabbi with Conservative semikhah, Novak is the author of weighty tomes—for once, the exact phrase—on Jewish/Christian dialogue, the concept of election, and covenantal politics. This Reader spoons out a generous but manageable sample.

Philip Rieff, The Jew of Culture: Freud, Moses, and Modernity, ed. Arnold M. Eisen and Gideon Lewis-Kraus (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008). This posthumous edition is the final volume of his trilogy Sacred Order/Social Order. The late Philip Rieff (d. 2006) was convinced that there exists a permanent state of war “between those who assert that there are no truths, only readings, that is, fictions (which assume the very ephemeral status of truth for negational purposes) and what is left of . . . elites in the priesthood, rabbinate, and other teaching/directive elites dedicated to the proposition that the truths have been revealed and require constant rereading and application in the light of the particular historical circumstance in which we live.” He fought on the latter side.

Eliezer Schweid, The Idea of Modern Jewish Culture (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2008). Schweid is the 1994 Israel Prize laureate; he teaches Jewish thought at the Hebrew University. Recently, expressing my unhappiness with Peter Cole’s anthology Hebrew Writers on Writing (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2008), which distorts the whole idea of Hebrew writing by narrowing it to prose fiction and verse, and asking a widely read young Israeli for the names of those who write Hebrew brilliantly in more traditional Jewish genres, I was told: “Eliezer Schweid.”