Notebook: Year-end book lists, the way we read now

From Ann Kjellberg, editor

From where we sit …

There’s something about the bombardment of lists at year-end in the book world that gives us here at Book Post a sinking feeling. Of course anything that brings attention to books is good, and the volume of what’s published, and the general cacophony, leave us all needing our hands held a bit as we enter into the forest of contemporary written culture. Granted: the lists based on raw numbers are illuminating as a snapshot of our reading life (we don’t usually link to Amazon; consider this one for reconnoitering purposes only); and the “ten [or twenty, or fifty] best” from lofty roosts like the New York Times offer their own sort of national self-portrait. Some lists, like the one that came out of the publishing site Lit Hub, are pleasingly eclectic and personal. David Grotowski, who operates a blog under the nom de plume Largehearted Boy, does us a service by compiling all the year-end lists, great and small, in one handy place, letting them triangulate off each other.  National Public Radio offers an alternative in their Book Concierge, guiding readers by interest through hundreds of books tapped by their correspondents. But we know that our own year in reading is as individual as a fingerprint, and by necessity any effort to make a last call for the nation of what each of us needs in a book is pretty likely to miss the mark. The lists mostly deepen the book-world version of the divide between the commercially successful and everyone else. The best way to find a book for yourself or a friend of course is to walk into a bookstore and look at some of them and talk to the people who work there. If you can’t make it to a bookstore, the Indie Bound web site, mounted by a consortium of independent booksellers, offers a peek at what’s going on in them.

As we scrolled warily through the daily emerging lists and highlights looking for a bigger picture one thought did emerge. There seemed a concentration among the books in the spotlight of origin stories: books that take us into parts of the American experience that have felt, in these days of mass mutual incomprehension, under-observed, or at least under-represented in the printed-and-bound record. The phenomenal success of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, depicting a childhood from which books and ideas have been emphatically excluded by the author’s radically self-isolating rural parents, which shows up on nearly every list and has been on the New York Times bestseller list for forty-two weeks (currently at Number Two), seems a case in point. (Educated also gets plaudits for its sympathetically dramatized audiobook.) Another frequent guest of the lists is Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, which also brings us within sympathetic range of a world isolated from the national conversation by rural poverty and the exhaustion of work. J.D. Vance’s controversial Hillbilly Elegy, which On Homesickness author Jesse Donaldson considered in a recent Book Post, remains on the Times’s bestseller list after nearly two years. In Book Post we featured the work of Meghan O’Gieblyn, whose recent book of essays Interior States considers her migration away from the Evangelical Midwest of her origins.

From another angle, Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy, also appearing on a number of these lists, has struck readers with his candor, about himself and others, in facing the struggles that stood between a childhood of poverty and racial exclusion and his adulthood as a respected author and teacher. Casey Gerald’s There Will be No Miracles Here and Michele Obama’s new memoir also portray African American childhoods where their authors’ eventual staggering prominence seemed well out of reach: in Obama’s case, nurtured by carefully tending parents, and in Gerald’s emerging in spite of their flaws and failures. Two fictional variations on the genre are also showing up everywhere: Tommy Orange’s There There, which follows a group of contemporary Native Americans traversing the streets of Oakland rather than the epic plains, and Nico Walker’s Cherry, actually written from prison, in which a war-shattered veteran is propelled behind bars through addiction and trauma-numbing criminality. A number of these books have been hailed for arriving at truly original and bracing literary language to convey their book-virginal experience.

One thing many of these books have in common is that they emerge from places that are themselves bereft of books, often suspicious of them, places that get little attention from those who write books, so the author’s passage into the world of reading and becoming the maker of books themselves becomes part of the subject, resulting in the book we hold in our hand. Though some describe experiences that are very dark, there is something hopeful, especially now, about the very act of attention and illumination that these books’ arrival, and our witnessing them in the glow of our year-end moment, portends.  May they herald a year in which we learn to read each other better.


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