Being the librarian in charge of fiction at my library, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in “best of 2019” lists lately. I don’t want to miss any important titles that I might have passed over while I was reading their original reviews. But also being a good internet user, I never read the comments as I read critic after critic explain why this title or that is one of the best of the year. I couldn’t tell you why but I decided to look at the comments for The New York Times‘ “10 Best Books of 2019.” Perhaps it’s because I’d already seen their picks on other lists or because I wasn’t too impressed by the selection or maybe because I wanted to read something that would wake me up a bit.
There were a few readers among the commenters who liked one title or another, but the overall feeling was one of annoyance at the very serious, very important titles on The Times‘ list. This has been a hard year for Americans. I’m not surprised that so many readers want escapist reads. If I was brave enough to wade into a comments space and actually comment, I would’ve pointed these readers to Book Riot. The folks over at BR have a great balance of fun reads and important reads. The Times, however, doesn’t review many books that most of us mere bookish mortal read. This list is more about what people should read rather than what we might want to read. Sure I read a lot of literary fiction and nonfiction, but I have to leaven it with a lot of silly metafictional mystery or off the wall science fiction so that I don’t become completely miserable about the state of the world.
I wonder why the Venn diagram of very serious, very important books and great reads so seldom overlap. I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the fact that a lot of us are reading to escape into other worlds. Reading books about social ills, personal tragedies, or environmental atrocities is not very relaxing. When I do happen to find a book that fits into the sweet spot of important and great read, it feels transcendent. I feel transported, if not relaxed. When I finish a great, important read, I want to run out into the streets and push copies into people’s hands so that we can share the experience. The books that fit into both categories, for me, are beautifully written, take me into other people’s experiences, and—above all—do not preach at me. The instant I feel an author belaboring their point, any feeling of transportation I feel turns instantly into a return ticket to my ordinary life, where 99% of the news is bad.
What about you, my dear readers? What types of books do you want to see on best of the year lists?